As 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.