Today’s political imagination is awash in a sea of cynicism. We have a hard time even imagining a modern-day version of America’s best leaders. Any Lincolns or Eisenhowers or Roosevelts out there?
Are we at a pre-clinical stage of arsenic exposure? Or, is this just an amped-up trip along a disruptive path?
Former President Trump spends much of his time berating anybody that does not genuflect. President Biden cannot decide which narrative line serves him best. One day so-called MAGA Republicans are called Semi-Nazis and the next day we hear his unity message. The music from the titular heads of our dominant Parties is absent harmonic chords.
Stories often shape our opinions as they take us deeper into the fabric of life. Recent weeks have served up narratives of real depth and, potentially, inspiration.
We have once again honored the victims of 9/11 and reflected on the horrors and derangement of passenger planes being used to bomb office buildings. And for those of us around on that cool crisp September morn we can recall uniting. My wife and I held hands in a mid-town Manhattan church with Christians, Jews and Muslims and we all sang God Bless America.
This last week a new King ascended in the United Kingdom, but the narrative was about his mother’s life (or, in our celebrity obsessed culture, about quarreling siblings). We, in the United States, for at least a few weeks have responded as if we are in the British Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth wore her leadership role well. She counseled discreetly, shared her wisdom privately and publicly and her timing seemed impeccable. I am not a monarchist, but at this moment I wish we had a Queen—a maternal presence—who could temper vanity.
Finally, we have seen courage and perseverance pay off in Ukraine. Regardless of how the war continues to evolve, the story of Ukraine has a depth that seven months ago seemed unimaginable. We have re-learned an enduring lesson: tyrants always go too far. Volodymyr Zelensky imagined an independent Ukraine freed from Russian occupation and Ukrainian’s responded with a powerful message—sacrificial courage. Is it possible in America for the peace we enjoy to be used “to make a more perfect union”?
How is the United States doing in this world of disruption, destruction and sacrifice? Not so good. And talk about future leadership in our ceremonial House is as unimaginative as the latest version of Star Wars.
Various commentators lament a shallow bench of prospective political leaders in both Parties.
The dominant political Parties are like Coke and Pepsi. The brand leaders dominate the cola market and one reason they dominate is that capitalists won’t invest in an alternative cola regardless of how well it did in a taste test. Coke and Pepsi have market power; they are a duopoly (a situation in which two suppliers dominate the market for a commodity or service). Innovators not welcome.
We are also governed by a duopoly, but in this case the dominate suppliers are not very popular. Rightly. We too often are left to choose between uninspiring candidates or worse. Both Parties, and the institutions of government for which their rotating leaders are responsible, are in the polling dumpster (unlike Coke and Pepsi). Do we expect the duopoly to produce a gifted leader? Is that even possible?
Common sense and experience tell us that duopoly Parties weigh against leadership. They make demands. Their special interest groups have litmus tests. Can you imagine a Republican candidate having inventive policy positions on climate change? Or, a Democrat favoring school choice in the face of the monopolistic teacher’s union? Political Parties cancel leadership.
As an Independent, the field is wide open. An Independent candidate would face, in particular, two hurdles—the lack of Party apparatus and the public’s predisposition to choose from the familiar. Offsetting these obstacles is the fact polls show self-declared Independents to be more numerous than the voters of either political party. And today’s ubiquitous networks make organization immensely easier.
The path to the White House is a long game at best. But if the game is long, why not have some fun along the way. Steve Jobs fought long odds in his desire to better IBM and Microsoft. Jobs said: “At Apple, people are putting in 18-hour days. We attract a different type of person — a person who doesn’t want to wait five or 10 years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a dent in the universe.”
America needs persons who see leadership beyond the pettiness and oppressiveness of our political duopoly. Unity needs a leader who is stronger than the forces of disunity—whose trustful stories will prevail. We need new Founders with the capacity to put “a dent in the universe.” Cynics need not apply.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.