At the peak of her influence, Margaret Thatcher called out to a group of politicians: "Don't follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you." One wonders how that would go over in an age of citizen activism. Clearly, political fortunes around the world have changed.
Repeatedly over this past year, prompted by the American election, one hears the question: "Where are our great leaders?" And then everyone gets down to dissecting politicians, exposing their every weakness, and bemoaning their increasing lack of capability. That is surely accurate, but there's another explanation to add to this rationale: we don't have real leaders anymore because we don't have followers.
It's a simple deduction. It's what you get when those who supposedly lead us seem clearly unable to solve our greatest collective problems. This creates rot in the democratic system -- not from the bottom-up, but the top-down. Either way, the degeneration eventually renders politics dysfunctional.
If no one is a follower, then who is there left to lead?
The more the political elites fail to deliver an equitable world, the harder it gets to persuade a formally genial public of anything. The result? New hirings of armies of consultants and PR people whose sole job it is to somehow find a way of convincing skeptical voters that this time will be different. The more this trend continues, the more difficult it is for each new generation of voters to faithfully listen. When the New York Times recently concluded that we are living in an age of distrust, no one wrote in to counter the argument. It just is, and since that is so, we are in the winter of our discontent.
The longer all this goes on, the more belligerent and agitated citizens become. The rapid response on social media has now turned everyone into an expert, making respectful dialogue an increasingly rare exercise. And the more opinions someone possesses, the less they fact-check or quietly work with others of varying points of view. What begins as a refusal to follow because our leaders don't deserve our loyalty can quickly become an arrogance that says that we know better than they do.
But the difficulty of policy work is that it is complex, multi-layered, and ultimately the product of compromise through political trade-offs. Simple opinions might be energizing but are hardly the stuff of complicated solutions to our greatest challenges. Granted, people feel they are cast hither and yon by a political system that no longer grounds them in the guarantee of progress and prosperity, but to lose trust in the system altogether, as Donald Trump would have it, is to cast our ability to come together to the wind. If no one is a follower, then who is there left to lead?
It's for sure that politicians must recommit themselves to earning our faith in them, but for that to occur we must be willing to trust again. In our present political climate that isn't an easy thing, following years, decades even, of disappointment. True, politicians must win back the respect of the voters, but for democracy to work, citizens must evidence a willingness to respectfully engage again -- no easy thing in a time of diminishing returns.
The likes of Donald Trump would seek to destroy our trust, to create within citizens a suspicion of anything having to do with government. But when trust is gone, our ability to build again is gone with it. We must look for leaders who call us to something higher, to observe the better angels of our nature -- individual and collective -- as we seek to reconstruct our life together. We need to be inspired again, but inspiration without trust is not only futile but impossible.
The time has come for great leaders and great followers to unite again to provide a future for democracy itself.
The genius of democracy has never been in its leadership, but in its capacity to engage followers to become interested in the larger issues. Leaders are the purveyors of true hope, not the fabricated kind of optimism that offers promises at election time only to fall prey to failure once more. But if followers are no longer capable of hope or belief in our democracy, then what else is left for us but to live with our collective confusion and the demise of democracy itself.
Winston Churchill understood that he lived in an age where political leadership had not only failed miserably but had introduced the realities of war and death to a generation. Standing in the House of Commons on October 31, 1944 -- a year before World War Two was to end -- he reminded all those MPs and ministers present of a cogent truth:
"At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper -- no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly palliate the overwhelming importance of that point."
This is the crucible of democracy -- citizens deciding to make their mark on the larger good. But they need help, something or someone to vote for. Should they not find it, then will not only refuse to follow, they will decide against voting altogether. The time has come for great leaders and great followers to unite again to provide a future for democracy itself.
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