Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Backpage Editorial - Folio Weekly

We are looking for a few good men and women to lead our nation. The problem is that we cannot handle the truth about politics or else we would not be beating ourselves up every four years over politicians who allegedly break their promises or commit the cardinal sin of flip flopping.

We like to think that we live in the real world while we consign our leaders to Mount Olympus where they should rule like gods. When we learn that they are men and women like the rest of us, we are quick in our condemnation and judgment of them. This attitude is already going to doom the person who will be taking the oath of office on January 20, 2013.

I remember watching the State of the Union address on television back in the days when it interrupted our regularly scheduled broadcasts on our three available broadcast networks. I remember marveling at the cavernous chamber in which the president gave his annual message to both houses of Congress and the co-equal branches of our republic.

I surely felt that I was dreaming when I visited the House of Representatives in person and looked down from the visitors’ gallery onto a space that could be no larger than the average junior high school gymnasium. The games that Congress plays, of course, have higher stakes than the typical match between school children, but I am tempted to believe that the adults who debate the issues of the day can be just as juvenile.

To say that I am shocked by the nature of today’s politics would be untrue. We elect leaders who we believe are going to change the world singlehandedly. This is a delusion that ignores the fact that our nation is a constitutional republic. Our system is designed to rebuke those who engage in overreach to achieve their aims. Notice how quickly our nation recoiled when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court with justices who would be friendlier to his agenda. Look even farther back to the effort by radical congressman to remove President Andrew Johnson over making decisions that were within his purview as chief executive.

We are lying to ourselves when we demand that our presidents move mountains. The kind of man or woman who can truly reshape our nation also has the power to become a dictator or a monarch – the kind that our Founding Fathers revolted against when King George III and his parliament attempted to exercise absolute power over the colonies. We are deluding ourselves when we believe that the men and women whom we elect are going to magically solve all of our problems so we can go back to our comfortable lives of sitting on the couch, updating our Facebook pages and watching reality television. The genuine reality of our politics is much more complicated.

If we are to judge our leaders on their broken promises, we must also afford them the benefit of the doubt regarding their effort. If President Woodrow Wilson were alive today, the same man who has numerous streets named for him in Europe and around the world, would be deemed a failure for his ‘broken’ promise of getting the United States into the League of Nations. Never mind that Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke while in office and his wife ran the nation by proxy, our results-oriented society would have condemned Wilson in ways that his contemporaries never would have imagined.

Yes, we expect candidates for public office to issue sweeping agendas for our future and we expect them to follow through, but we ignore the fact that our system is more than just the person who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Ronald Reagan raised taxes. Did he want to raise taxes? No. As the flag bearer for the modern conservative movement, he did what was necessary to keep our nation solvent. He did what was necessary out of necessity. This meant that he had to govern in ways that supposedly betrayed his political beliefs and he was rewarded with reelection. This would never happen today because our petty dogma prevents such leaders from making the difficult decisions to move us forward.

President John F. Kennedy cut taxes. Did he need to cut taxes? Yes. He defied the liberals in his own party to prime the pump for the world’s greatest postwar economy not out of expediency but in the best interests of those who put him into office. These moments of acting out of principle and not out of partisanship are what make us nostalgic for the leaders who actually did lead.

Leaders, however, cannot take charge without support from the people. Our prevailing attitude is that once the polls close, our job is done. We could never be more wrong. The New Deal coalition of old was composed of active citizens who worked together for the betterment of our nation. The common good was the motivation for people of all backgrounds to unite around the cause of good government. Instead, we retreat and expect our politicians to do all of the heavy lifting by themselves. It is most convenient for us to condemn our public officials for failing us when we indeed have failed ourselves.

I am not speaking of a new malaise when I roundly condemn our action, or inaction, in affecting the change that we crave. I am speaking of an ignorance that speaks more to our own personal failings that permit us to continue to be lied to by our leaders.

Remember when former Vice President Walter Mondale leveled with Americans in 1984 that he was going to raise taxes? He was rewarded with a historical drubbing at the polls. This kind of honesty did not go unpunished. This is not unique to our shores, either. In 1983, the British Labor Party wrote their own suicide letter with a manifesto (platform in our parlance) that told their electorate exactly what they wanted to do. They lost in a bloodbath that helped keep Margaret Thatcher in office for a generation. It should come as no surprise that our politicians are wearing flip flops. As Bill Maher wisely said it, these people are not waffling or flip flopping – they are adapting to what we want in our government. This is why a pro-choice candidate for president in 1980 turned into a pro-life candidate when he was chosen to be the vice presidential candidate by Ronald Reagan. This is why President Lyndon Baines Johnson went from opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as senate majority leader to being a president who championed civil rights. Changing our mind, in my opinion does not indicate weakness, it indicates the maturity to understand that consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of little minds – to borrow a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The words and actions of men and women indeed can be great, but we must never forget that these fellow human beings are as fallible as we are. We must always remember that when we point the finger of judgment in the direction of those who seek to lead, we are pointing fingers at ourselves. It is time that we grow up and wake up to the truth of our politics.

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