These days we often speak of elections as the time for choosing our leaders. The theme of leadership is common in the media, and in the ads and speeches candidates deploy to tell us about themselves. Candidates will stress that they are proven leaders. Pundits will wonder whether this or that candidate has the background or experience to provide leadership. The emphasis on leadership is one of the reasons our elections so often degenerate into bouts of sophisticated narcissism: no holds bar and may the best boaster win.
This emphasis on leadership is one of the symptoms of the declining success of the American experiment in government of, by and for the people. It invites us to think that elections are about finding "leaders" who will use the instrument of government to solve all our problems for us. It invites candidates for office to present themselves as problem solvers, who will provide the leadership needed for government to do what's necessary to make America great again. In effect, this means that we no longer base our politics on the assumption that we are a people endowed by our Creator with the right stuff to govern ourselves. We are lacking, and elections are about finding those who have the will, skill and material resources to make up for what we lack. Government of, by and for the people has become government of the people by the leaders for whatever interests and purposes seem most likely to secure the leaders' hold on power.
When the U.S. Constitution was being framed and ratified, leaders were mainly discussed as part of the problem republican government sought to solve. Leaders were seen as necessary to provide the constructive energy needed to govern effectively. But they were also seen as the focal points for the destructive passions most likely to make society ungovernable, except by means of force and fear, denying rightful liberty.
Advertisement - story continues below
This perspective assumes that leaders are as or more likely to do harm than good. Given the unruly propensities of human passion, particularly material greed and the ambition for power, strong leaders not subject to effective constraints end up leading society into a morass of wasteful conflicts, selfishly unleashed. Like fires out of control, they consume society's goods, including the lives of its people. In the aftermath, they leave little or nothing intact, but what serves to memorialize their vanity or their crimes.
When people like Barack Obama criticize the Founders' emphasis on constraining the power of government, this wary attitude toward strong leaders is what they have in mind. Yet in the course of the 20th century, wars that spread devastation throughout the earth were unleashed by regimes of government based on the "leader principle." It was the principle of "Il Duce," the fascist tyrant of Italy; of "Der Fuehrer," Germany's Nazi dictator. It dominated such communist "personality cult" regimes as those that worshiped Stalin in Russia, Mao in China and Tito in Yugoslavia.
Where it did not center on a single figurehead, it involved a leadership group, which imposed its will in the name of loyalty to a class, caste or party. Such regimes were driven by ideological conformity or, gangster style, by some code of mutual greed and ambition sternly enforced by a kaleidoscope of ruthless leaders. In the 20th century, most of these regimes portrayed themselves as staunch opponents of oligarchic oppression of the sort that mostly dominated human societies before the modern era, but in every case these "leader principle" regimes resulted in a deeply polarized society. A privileged few enjoyed the material comforts of wealth and power, while the great multitude of the people languished in conditions of material and spiritual servitude, oppressed by fear and slavishly manipulated by the giving or withholding of marginal benefits and favors. The main difference between these serfs and slaves of the 20th century and those of the past lay in the fact that, in most of the "leader principle" regimes, the leading individual or group brooked no competition. So they contrived to withdraw the hope of vindication by Divine or supernatural justice from the inner life of individuals, leaving them no choice but to surrender to their government masters, or else live quietly with despair.
Thus, in the course of the 20th century, "leader principle" regimes produced exactly the destructive consequences America's Founders predicted and anticipated when they identified faction, implemented by way of "demagoguery," as the efficient cause of failure in the pure "democracies" of the past. Experience thus seems to suggest that they were right to be preoccupied with making sure that constitutional constraints precluded the establishment of such a regime in the United States. As I noted in last week's column, they based the U.S. Constitution on the principle of representation, implemented by way of elections in which the sovereign body of the people would be the focal point of authority, not some individual or partisan group.
Advertisement - story continues below
But for more than 20 years the elitist faction has successfully pursued an agenda that has moved America away from elections based on the principle of representations. The preoccupation with competing leadership claims, personality traits and personal or partisan loyalties denotes the shift to a regime based on the "leader principle." Is it simply a coincidence that, over the same period, both our liberty and its attendant blessing have drastically declined? I suggested last week that the key to understanding the success of what Madison called the "scheme of representation" was the realization that it required, first of all, that the people themselves be in the lead. But how can a multitude of individuals take the lead if they themselves have no rallying point, no standard for leadership around which they can gather and organize themselves as a political body?
This is the dilemma of representation. It cannot work unless people themselves take the lead. But how can people themselves take the lead without someone who upholds the standard around which people can rally as citizens and which informs the political body they require for action? It would seem that a leader is needed before a representative can be chosen. But before that choice is made, what body of people is there to represent? Put starkly in those terms it seems to us like a classic chicken-and-egg situation. But unlike us, the Founders had the solution right before their eyes. So do we; but fear induced by purposeful mis-education keeps us from admitting what we see. Therefore, our first task must be, with courage, to remedy that blindness. As we shall see, it is not a task for those of little faith.
Media wishing to interview Alan Keyes, please contact [email protected].