July 7, 2008

A Philosophical Queston

This editorial got me thinking about what a bunch of spineless p***ies we have in Sacramento. They won't stand up to any kind of special interest but instead shovel out the state dollars at them. And the Governator won't stand up to any of them, either; it's quite obvious that significant budget cuts need to be made in the state budget and he won't propose them or implement them. Someone's got to feel the pinch because we have too much government and no ability to pay for it all. Where are the leaders? Not in California, that's for sure.

In a democracy, we want our leaders to be representatives, to faithfully state and implement the popular will. A leader who does not do this faces the very real possibility of being voted out of office.

But the leaders of democratic nations that we admire most -- Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson* -- we admire precisely because they were willing to, and did, set aside political considerations for significant and ambitious policy goals that were often quite unpopular at the time.

Of course, the leader's policies have to be vindicated -- Jimmy Carter's policies of expanding the monetary supply to combat inflation and diplomacy to secure the return of the Iranian hostages both proved completely ineffectual in practice, so their unpopularity combined with their impotence to sweep Carter out of office.

But if a leader implements the popular will, and it succeeds, does that mean the leader has "led" at all? Does it mean the leader is "great"? Teddy Roosevelt led the nation into busting trusts, establishing national parks, and making the Panama Canal. Popular policies all, and they had both audacity and long-term beneficial effect for the country. But while we think of TR as a good President, he seems to be on the margin of what we'd call "great."

If national parks had been resisted and TR had faced the real possibility of losing re-election for pushing so hard for them, then we'd call him "great" for getting that law put in place. But people quickly grew to like the idea of national parks and TR put them as a feather in his cap in 1904. He also really followed, rather than led, when he asked Congress to create the Food and Drug Administration -- the public had already been scandalized by reading The Jungle. None of this is to criticize Roosevelt -- he was a very good President, bringing to bear his personal charisma, audacious policies, administrative competence, keen political skills, and strong moral rectitude.

What he didn't do was stand up to the voters and say, "This is the right thing to do, regardless of the political consequences." Perhaps he was never called upon to exercise that kind of political bravery, perhaps he never faced any crisis significant enough to require that of him. A century later, we still look upon him kindly, and we're better off for his having been President. But was he a great man? Something seems lacking.

Maybe what's lacking was a big problem for Roosevelt to solve. He had no Great Depression, Cold War, or Nazis to fight. We can point to acts of political courage on the part of the five (six) leaders I've identified, but we can also find significant crises that they faced and see the victories they achieved despite the stresses of the situation. And none of them took the easy way out of the crises, so "courage" seems to be an element of that, too. William McKinley took the country through the Spanish-American war, but we don't think of him as a "great" President.

Does a great leader in a democratic nation have to defy the popular will in order to achieve greatness?

Or does greatness come from having a very significant crisis, and getting the country through it successfully?

And can we please find someone in California who can figure out some priorities and take a scissors to the budget accordingly?

* I include Ronald Reagan on the list, for his audacious taking on of the Soviet Union, setting in motion a chain of events that led to the destruction of what he rightly called the "Evil Empire." Make no mistake, it was evil, the world is a much better place for its passing, and Reagan deserves primacy in the credit for making it happen by an aggressive military buildup, refusal to acknowledge moral equivalency between the west and the USSR, and the orchestration of an international coalition to pressure the adversary into relenting its very existence. Gorbachev, for recognizing that there was nothing he could do to stop it, also gets huge credit for making the endgame (mostly) peaceful. Not everyone would call Reagan "great" because a lot of people think he was a simply awful President; this seems mainly to be leftover opposition to his social policies, the bulk of which were not terribly effectual.

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