At the end of the Clinton administration, Lewis Black said something on one of his specials that stuck with me. He said, “If the last eight years proves anything, it’s that we function pretty well without a leader.”
Several years later, political satirist Barry Crimmins would put a finer point on that sentiment. I interviewed him toward the beginning of the primary season, when the sheer breadth of lunacy was hard to imagine. “This thing is always called a search for leaders – ‘America wants a new leader,’” he said. “I don’t want any leader, I don’t need a leader. Dopes need leaders. I need a public servant.”
That’s a novel idea, that a leader is in some way beholden to the people he leads. After eight years of signing statements and “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” it’s an extremely useful idea. When a public servant is doing their job, they are engaged with a populace that is actively talking back.
The pretense of election day is that we are choosing a leader. There has been a lot of talk of three a.m. phone calls and foreign policy experience, who has been tested in a crisis, who will be tested in a crisis (thanks, Joe). It makes us feel comfortable, absolves from paying attention. If we elect someone we can trust, we can all go back to sleep.
Leadership is a big industry in America. It’s a value we don’t question. We read books on business leadership, in the Boy Scouts they teach us to be leaders. The people we admire are captains of industry or fashion leaders. It’s a romantic ideal, that among us there are people who can take us bravely into places we have not been before.
But inevitably, our leaders disappoint us. And the only feeling better than picking a leader is condemning an unworthy former leader caught at the height of their inadequacy. The more someone claims they want to lead us, the more they have to compromise to get to their goal.
You can compare John McCain ’08 to John McCain 2000 and find all the little pockets of compromise, the things that he found would have made a difference in that previous run if he had been more willing to budge. What could have been, if he were more willing to cave to the religious right in 2000, instead of calling them “agents of intolerance?” He likes to talk about how “the surge is working” in Iraq, but in 2004, he was wholeheartedly stumping for the Bush crew, the architects of the shortsighted policies he now claims he railed bravely against. Ask him if he’s had a chuckle with the former Bush advisors who rescued his candidacy from the dead over the “McCain has a black baby” strategy from the 2000 Bush campaign they worked on.
Obama has had these problems, as well, albeit to a lesser degree. He has included offshore drilling in his plans, something both he and McCain had said wouldn’t help. He buckled on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to appear more moderate. His list is a bit shorter, but still worthy of note.
None of these actions seem terribly leader-like. And maybe that’s because leadership is an arbitrary ideal. It’s a big shiny symbol we can all gather around and warm ourselves from the more terrifying prospects – some manufactured, some real, mixed until we can’t tell the difference – of the world around us.
I spoke with former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter on the subject, and told him Crimmins statement, “Dopes need leaders. I need a public servant.”
“I don’t disagree,” said Ritter. “Again, when we say ‘we need leaders,’ basically we’re saying, ‘we need messiahs, we need Stalins, Lenins, Maos.’ We don’t need that. We need people who are committed to a system of beliefs and values. That’s why I’m a Constitutionalist, I believe in the Constitution. And we need people to believe in that. Now, within that, you need leaders. But we don’t need people to come in and say, ‘Follow me, I am the solution.’ We need people to say, ‘Hey, let me remind you, we’ve got this thing called the Constitution and we need to start adhering to this. We need to make sure that that which it espouses is being followed through. We need people to commit and invest.’”
Ritter has some experience in an environment where leadership is an important issue. He has served in the U.S. Army and as an intelligence officer in the Marines, in which capacity he was an advisor in the first Gulf War. For the past decade, Ritter has been an outspoken activist concerning U.S. and U.N. policy in Iraq, even producing a sort of instructional manual in last year’s Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement.” The book advocates informed citizen involvement and an adherence to the Constitution, which makes for a non-standard definition for leadership.
“A leader, I can come in and become a leader and get lemmings to march off a cliff. Is that leadership? The other thing about leadership is, the screamer, the yeller, get in the face, the intimidator – that’s not leadership, that’s an intimidator. A leader is somebody who gets a group of like-minded people together and works with that team, as part of the team. A leader is a member of a team. I mention in the book, you can’t be a good leader unless you’re a good follower, first. You have to understand the importance of give and take. A leader isn’t making decisions, a leader is simply facilitating the will of the collective. And that’s what we need – we need a collective that agrees upon what it stands for, and then we need facilitators. If you want to call them leaders then so be it.”
Fear, of course, negates the equation of which Ritter speaks. And fear can take just about any form these days. Fear of the gas pump. Fear of terrorism. Fear of radical ideas. Fear of losing your house, your stocks, your job, or whatever meager savings people have been able to put away. Leadership implies direction, which requires rational thought on the part of both the leader and the followers.
That’s where dissent comes in. Any healthy system provides for dissent, and no true leader is threatened by it. If you believe in anything only because you’re afraid of the alternative, you are no longer participating in a democratic process. And there is no leadership.
Author Steve Almond has been a sharp critic of the Bush administration and of what he calls the “cult of personality” of right wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. He believes the faux patriotic rhetoric plays to an insecure population for whom confidence is more important than content.
“They need Big Poppa,” he says. “They need a big person who’s going to at least play the part of ‘invulnerable leader.’ That’s not moral leadership, it’s emotional leadership. But it’s a kind of twisted, bad parenting emotional leadership. And it says, ‘The world is simple, you just punch the other guy before he punches you.’ Kind of this brawling mentality.”
The election season is especially maddening for Almond, particularly watching the media coverage. “It’s too bad that the political system caters to the big macho, posturing, who’s going to have the best sound bite, who’s going to really knock who out in the debates, and you’re like, shut the fuck up you crazy, psychotic media idiots,” he says. “It’s not about that. It’s really about trying to solve the common problems of the state and its citizens, especially its disenfranchised citizens. It’s very sad to see that degraded day after day.”
What might also help is if people knew that there aren’t just two candidates running for president. Bob Barr is on the ticket for the Libertarians, Ralph Nader is running as an independent, Chuck Baldwin with the Constitution Party, Cynthia McKinney with the Green Party, Brian Moore from the Socialist Party, and numerous others. The fact that you didn’t see any of them in the nationally televised debates means that some significant voices and ideas were left out of the spotlight, partly because the main two choices didn’t want to share.
Of those two – Obama and McCain – one will get the job they want today. Both of them want to be your leader. Hopefully, neither of them will be, at least the way the term has been defined lately. Hopefully, one of them will be a public servant, and you know what direction you want to go.
“I don’t need a leader to tell me I need health care,” says Barry Crimmins. “I’ve got a pain in my side that tells me that.”