Followers and Leaders

Author: Gary Hart

follow_the_leader_smAs in many things, American citizens cannot decide whether they want to vote for followers or leaders.  While decrying the lack of leadership in America, they punish elected officials who take unpopular, but forward looking stands, by turning them out of office.  Though claiming to want leaders, most Americans vote for followers.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a politician to be both leader and follower.  Let’s consider three examples: climate; defense; and health care.  Suppose a member of Congress is absolutely convinced we are near a tipping point where further increases in carbon emissions could have disastrous consequences for generations to come.  She is also convinced that the most effective way to avoid this catastrophe is a carbon tax or even, for that matter, a system of caps and trades.  The people of her State or district resist any change that would affect the status quo.  She follows the popular will, votes against dramatic change, and is reelected.

Where defense is concerned, a majority of voters believe the Pentagon budget is too large.  But the Senator from any given State knows that pieces of almost every weapon system are made in every State.  In addition, any vote for reforms in troop structures, weapons systems, or foreign deployments will be subject to the campaign charge that the Senator is “weak on defense.”  Better to follow the popular will than to lead.

Except for the very wealthy, almost all Americans know “something” must be done about our health care system.  They just don’t want any changes that might affect them, even changes that don’t have negative consequences.  How far out in front does a candidate or office-holder get in solving a problem that has refused solution for almost seven decades?

Inability to resolve contradictory wants is a sign of adolescence.  We can’t have leadership if we persist in voting for followers.  It is tempting to conclude that, if Americans truly want leadership, as they claim, that they reward it and not punish it—in effect, that they grow up.

There are ways out of this dilemma.  One is for leaders to become better at educating constituents.  In office my experience was that I could convince skeptical voters of the need for change if I took the time and trouble to explain why they couldn’t have it both ways, why we had to choose between the status quo and the future.  Another was to offer new approaches that the political system hadn’t already produced.  In a surprising number of cases, people would be attracted to an idea or new approach that was neither of the traditional left or right.  A third is to remind people that the big issues of the day do not affect just our generation but have profound consequences for their children as well, that there is a moral component that trumps immediate self-interest.

We are too far along in our history for Americans to continue to believe that they can persist in voting for followers and expect true leadership.


13 Responses to “Followers and Leaders”

  1. David Dreyer Says:

    I think this is right in general — the political system is paralyzed and is rarely capable of producing transformational change — but I am not sure it’s right in specific. This may be so far in the weeds that I miss the point, but I think the details might matter here.

    Generally, leaders and followers get reelected; the Congress has, after all, a 92% reelection rate.

    In the elections that have taken place during my political memory, it is only rare when real leaders are defeated,but it does happen during campaigns when there were massive swings affected by voters who wanted changes that the political system was not delivering. Some notable Senate icons lost their seats in 1980; Speaker Foley and several committee chairs lost theirs in 1994. Bu in these elections, the public officials who got wiped out in greater numbers are the followers; normally because they are weak, or corrupt, or caught in a wave. I think the turnover is at the bottom, if you will, not the top.

    Other problems — campaign finance, excess partisanship, lack of clarity about what people actually believe, what they actually want, what can actually be done, the mechanics of who runs effective campaigns, etc. — all seem to play a role.

    I may be too in the weeds or too fixated by the leaders/follower distinction, but this additional context ought to be more visible, I think.

  2. Gary Hart Says:

    My point is that there are few leaders among that 92%, unless they are among the “safe” seats. Much of the paralysis is produced by the conscious division of the nation into safe red and blue states and districts. The “real leaders”, such as Ted Kennedy, had the advantage of representing Massachusetts. We wont see that kind of leadership from a conservative Western or Southern state. My appeal is ultimately for more “profiles in courage”, voting against career and self-interest.

  3. Gary Hart: Followers and Leaders | News from: The Huffington Post - Breaking News and Opinion Says:

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  4. Brian C. McCarthy Says:

    “I could convince skeptical voters of the need for change if I took the time and trouble to explain why they couldn’t have it both ways, why we had to choose between the status quo and the future.”

    Unfortunately, the problem is that it takes a lot of time to set forth a detailed elucidation of a policy rationale, while it only takes seconds to wave a tea bag in the air and scream “death panels” or some such demagogic phrase. I think you once wrote that it is easy to ask “where’s the beef?” but that to answer the question the beef truck must be unloaded (paraphrasing). More Americans should develop the patience to listen to thoughtful analysis rather than just the angry rants.

  5. Michael Says:

    Much of the problem has to do with a mainstream media establishment where “news” is important for little more than its entertainment value, and where “reporters” are in effect stenographers passing on talking points with little interest in real investigative reporting. Most of what passes for in-depth TV coverage of important national issues are a couple of radio talk show hosts arguing, with no resolution in the end as to who is actually right. Add to that a media environment so fragmented that people can tune into voices they agree with, without ever hearing opposing points of view, and you have a world in which it is nearly impossible for a politician to get a rational, well thought-out message across. When one thinks back to last summer’s town halls on health care, I’m not even sure the kind of retail politics Senator Hart talks about is even possible these days. If it were, we might not have been so easily led into Iraq with the support of a lot of good people who certainly knew better.

    As for the famous “Where’s the Beef” moment, I remember thinking at the time that the senator should have just pulled a copy of A New Democracy out of his pocket. I suppose the moral of that story is that a candidate should never go anywhere without a copy of his/her book.

  6. Brian C. McCarthy Says:

    I should have raised this question in my earlier response but just thought of it now: speaking of followers and leaders, why do you think there are so few progressive Republicans these days? The average Republican voter from Northeastern states does not seem to have changed that much, yet there used to be an abundance of progressive Republicans in national office (e.g. John Chafee, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Jeffords, Lowell Weicker, William Weld, Jacob Javits). Today Olympia Snowe passes for a “moderate” Republican but she is clearly far to the right of most of those mentioned heretofore. I understand the national Republican Party has moved to the right but, as a native Northeasterner, it doesn’t seem to me that the average Republican voter in the Northeast states has. Why have the Northeastern liberal Republicans become extinct, in your estimation? Is it part of the “follower” mentality that you discussed in your post?

  7. Tony Griffin Says:

    I must agree. I also believe that Michael is correct regarding the lack of depth and civility in the media. This ratchets up the educational task profoundly. The true leader must educate the constituency while listening, and calling on constituents to listen. I must admit this seems like the impossible possibility. Our current president has attempted to communicate the complexity of various issues we face as a nation, and sought to communicate the need for vigorous yet civil debate to arrive at consensus. This requires well-articulated thoughts, civility, and patience from all sides. I sometimes drift to despair wondering whether today’s sound-bite culture is up to this task as leaders and followers.

  8. James Dodd Says:

    I submit that your analysis is overly simplistic because it fails to take into account the impact of the power elite and corporate politics – that is to say money. As an example, a vast majority of human Americans support health reform with a robust public option for everyone. The power elite and corporate elite oppose this concept and prefer the status quo. They will win this debate and turn health reform into another corporate welfare program.

    Second, we are a deeply polarized country. A politician cannot take a leadership position on any issue without facing backlash. This could cost an election if not handled properly. Leadership involves risk. Most politicians are risk adverse. After all, they like their jobs and the perks they bring.

  9. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to Brian I would simply say that a lot more people are willing to listen to reasoned argument than most politicians and journalists realize. They simply do not yell and shout and thus get media attention. The retail discussion Michael mentions can still be done by elected officials in their home districts and States if they have the patience and time to offer thoughtful explanations. Of course those arguments rarely make their way into print, let alone electronic, outlets.

  10. John Denham Says:

    I have no problem with politicians that vote on principle, but it appears that far to many vote based on contributions from large corporate donors. The Senate Health Bill is a case in point. We have watched as the Healthcare Industry has written the Healthcare bill in the Finance committee. Why did so many Senators fight against a Public option and not even allow hearings on a Single payer plan? That reason appears to be that their corporate masters would not allow it. I can not name a piece of major legislation in the last 30 years that has benefited the common man (voters), but almost every piece has benefited the Corporation. There are a few politicians with integrity, that vote on principle, but far to many will vote based on their campaign contributions from special interest rather than principle.
    The last election I voted for Democrats, but I find that many are no better than the Republicans we voted out of office. Our current system is broken and the people really have no voice in government any more.

  11. Gary Hart Says:

    I thank Mr. Dodd for his response but also point him to the “Welcome” which anticipates the “overly simplistic” charge. By nature, blogs are short and thus not comprehensive. There are lots of reasons for supposed leaders turning into followers, and surely campaign finance, as well as a not totally responsible media, are among them. Even so, the central point remains: voters cannot have it both ways, claiming to want leadership while rewarding the followers.

  12. Jeff Simpson Says:

    I have often wondered whether or not the voice of reason can ever produce a viable political candidate. Any nuanced answer becomes indecisiveness and flip-flopping, and the full context never makes it into the evening news. This reduction is an intentional polarization tactic — demogoguery — that needs to be resisted. The people that employ these tactics need to be chastized, gently at first, but with unrelenting persistence, for their misdeeds (hopefully I am not bordering on vituperation).

    The reality is that we live in a complex world with few simple answers. Anybody that tells us things are simple is engaging in pandering, and should be civilly but appropriately rebuked for this counterproductive tactic.

  13. Matthew C. Kriner Says:

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