Winning the People by Leading the People

Winning the People by Leading the People

“Palimpset,” by Brooke Atherton.

Photo: International Sculpture Center.

For me, in one sentence, in early 2016, David Brooks' latest column for The New York Times succinctly captures the highly-charged U.S. presidential election and our search for a certain kind of national leadership:

There’s a deep passion embedded in the Trump and Sanders phenomena, arousing energy, magical thinking and some suspension of disbelief.
— David Brooks

Check out the full Op-ed here. (I will admit: I generally like David Brooks, with regard to both substance and style.)

Strangely, he sounds a tad naive when he says, "At some level those candidates' followers must know that there's something wildly impractical about the candidacy they are fervently supporting." This level of self-knowledge assumes, of course, that fervent political support is concerned with or even conscious of practicality. On the other hand, I love the incisiveness when Brooks puts the matter of practicality in bite-size form: "Trump has no actual policies and Sanders has little chance of getting his passed."

He goes on to remind Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or whatever candidate might be reading or listening: "The brute fact is you can't beat passion with pragmatism."

At least not on the political playing field. On other fields—like when the pragmatism of Italy's national soccer team beat the passion of Zinedine Zidane and the French in the 2006 World Cup Final; or consider the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots teams over the last 15 years—pragmatism can occasionally get it done, although it's not always pretty.

But this is the human field, the social field, the community field, and Brooks argues: "You can't beat angry passion with bloodless calculation." Instead, he says, a rival emotional tone must emerge from some candidate.

We need a stronger leadership vision that transcends blaming Wall Street (Sanders) or immigrants (Trump). We need an astute leadership vision that constructively engages "globalization, technological change, the dissolution of the family, racism," and, I would add, the rise of fundamentalism/extremism in its many forms.

Brooks then mentions the leadership styles of Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower in their time and place. They "set an emotional tone that brought people together and changed the nature of Americans' relationships with one another." Is there a candidate in the field of 2016 who is authentically able to lead like this? I wonder.

At least Brooks is expanding the imagination for what American presidential leadership could be. We don't need shouting and lecturing, for instance. We need a leader who responds to difficulty "with warmth, confidence and optimism." We don't need a leader who pontificates; we need someone who is genuinely willing to "converse, interact, chat and listen."

Toward the end of his column, Brooks was at his best: "Let them emphasize the cold relations of business (Trump) or of the state (Sanders). You [the candidate who wants to win the people by leading the people] emphasize the warm bonds of neighbor helping neighbor." We need a leader who embraces the reality that the task before America is "to repair the social fabric—the basic respect diverse Americans have for one another." We need a leader who deeply understands that "confidence is a better guide than anger or fear."

Perhaps, I thought, it might be better to say: humble confidence. God knows, Trump and Sanders are brimming with confidence. But a humble confidence—that certainly seems like a better leadership antidote than mirroring or parroting the people's anger and fear.

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