Pick the phrase that most fits your vision of the American presidency:
1. Americans vote for presidents to lead them through the good, the bad and the ugly.
2. Americans vote for presidents to implement the specific wishes of the electorate as those feelings change over time.
With mass media in a digital world, we are constantly polled about every conceivable issue almost all of the time. A national politician has her/his choice of “results” to review and react to. When the leader’s views separate from those of her/his constituency, poll results will show an instant fall in popularity. The natural reaction of most politicians is to reverse course and maintain popularity. After all, leaders and parties in a democracy must eventually face the vagaries of a popular vote. So our leaders have increasingly been nothing more than followers of a generally under-informed electorate that is infamous for short-term, knee jerk reactions.
The overwhelming cost of managing all that mass media, a virtual necessity for anyone seeking public office, results in a huge invoice for media and marketing across their constituency, a vast multiple (corrected for inflation) of presidential campaigns in the mid-twentieth century. Clearly, with SuperPacs and big donors being the source of the majority of presidential funding, generally they aren’t making such payments because they want to promulgate a pure vision of what’s best for most Americans; they want a world that is best for themselves.
Add to this mix the fact that campaigns for this highest office begin 18 to 24 months or more before the election (as opposed to the 9 to 12 months a few decades ago), and that since secondary candidates need more money to raise their visibility into primary candidates, these wannabees need early contributors. And since the only place where extremists (left and right) can make a difference before the big boys buy the final stages of the campaign is during these early and desperate hours. By the time a candidate is elected, think of how many special interests have a hold on the new president’s policies going forward. “Democracy” is increasingly going to the highest bidders.
I’m not finished yet. Because of the way campaigns are managed, particularly with the super-sniping, swift-boating and rumor-spreading capacity of mass media and the viral Web, candidates are constantly demonized and trashed in the media. The public is barraged with such demonization. The general result is two-fold: even those who favored the candidate are often left with lingering doubts, and those who opposed his or her election never think of the victor in anything other than the demonized vision. The overall impact on the electorate is disdain for politicians and a rising lack of trust both for those elected and the system itself.
Thomas Cronin, a former White House Fellow and president emeritus of Whitman College and co-author of many books (including the recent Leadership Matters) had some particularly wise words on the subject in an August 23rd interview in the Washington Post: “Well, people have always been skeptical if not cynical about political leaders. Trust may have declined in recent years because new technologies and investigative reporting techniques make it harder and harder for officials to hide when they dissemble. Modern technologies also amplify the demonizing of one’s rival in contemporary electioneering… We can’t legislate trust any more than we can regulate or instill authenticity in candidates… We can’t love representative democracy and hate politicians. For to completely scorn politics and politicians comes very close to scorning constitutional democracy and, possibly, ourselves.”
If leadership and bold new ideas are what are needed in these stormy years, we seem to have a system the defies being led, slammed further by a polarization as evidenced by the stalemated “do-nothing” Congress that dithers even as our national credit rating drops as a result. One more note on one aspect of finding bold new ideas: flip-flopping. Changing your mind because conditions change, to solve problems and meeting new challenges, is precisely the mindset required of any solid leader. Yet, signing a pledge never to raise taxes no matter what, and you have outsourced your vote to someone else at a place in time when that pledge may have seemed acceptable; times change. “Changing your mind” because you want to say what your constituency wants to hear without a true change of heart… that’s just the disingenuous politics we all despise. But exactly how does a politician effectively change course mid-stream when all those around him or her are looking for weakness and negativity?
“This year’s candidates have done their fair share of this, and the media love these ‘gotcha’ stories. But, looking back in time, we liked that Lincoln changed his mind about how to deal with slavery and deploying blacks to fight for the Union. We liked it when FDR went back on his promise to balance the budget and when Nixon changed his mind about the best way to deal with China.” Cronin in the Post. Simply, our system of electing leaders and the strings we tie them with render our leaders over the last decade or two decreasingly effective as time has passed.
No matter who is elected president in November, the victor will be less able to lead – absent a powerful and rebellious streak that seems to have been genetically removed from our leadership – than any president in U.S. history. Among donors who expect their rewards, constituents who scream through polls, a press that is designed to demonize and a Congress that votes to block more than it votes to solve problems, exactly how is the next president going to put these variables aside and just lead? Yet we have issues that can be solved only with bold leadership that might not “go with the popular flow” for very long periods of time. The cost: we are unlikely to provide the kind of long-term solutions we need to maximize who and what we are. The system seems incapable of delivering that kind of leadership anymore.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we have done this to ourselves under a misguided notion that it will all just work out in the end… sometimes a system just implodes.