Patrick Garry
Transcending politics: the need for leadership
By Patrick Garry
March 19, 2011

Even in this often bitterly divisive partisan atmosphere, there is one value that transcends all partisan division. Notwithstanding all the ideological conflicts within politics, there is one matter on which all persons and ideologies should agree — the need for strong and visionary leadership. A society cannot go anywhere — right or left — without leadership. And the more urgent the crises facing society, the greater the need for bold and courageous leadership.

America today is certainly in need of leadership. Caught in the suffocating hold of government entitlement programs instituted during the New Deal, America is being strangled with debt. It is a debt beyond easy remedy, and it is a debt that is threatening the health and even survival of our nation. But as any family who has had to climb out of the dark pit of debt knows, the process takes commitment, sacrifice...and of course, leadership.

Every level of government in the United States is mired in debt. On the state level, there are courageous governors like Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich who are making those tough and controversial decisions needed to combat the addiction of debt. Yet surprisingly, even though Democrats during the 2004 election vociferously criticized President Bush's budget deficits, they have not only been silent in the face of the current deficits, which have now reached crisis levels, but they have ridiculed all Republican efforts to address the deficits, arguing that any cutback in spending "threatens our national values."

President Obama in particular has been noticeably silent as congressional leaders seek to negotiate a budget. It is the president who should provide the leadership, yet Obama is keeping to the sidelines, refusing to inject himself into this debate or offer any blueprint for dealing with the massive deficits. True...there are difficult decisions to be made, but they are the kind of decisions needed from a leader.

Obama makes speeches about the high-tech promises of electric cars and light-rail systems, trying to distract people from the urgent needs of today by focusing on some utopian visions of the future. He is like a doctor who has a patient with cancer, and yet talks about plastic surgery to fix an imperfect nose. President Obama holds a White House conference on bullying in local schools, and yet takes no stand on the federal government's unsustainable debt. He wants to tell grade school teachers and principals how to run their schools, yet he does nothing to address the bankruptcy of the government over which he presides. There is no leadership coming from President Obama or the Democrats. They are still trapped in their post-New Deal mindset — they still want to keep promising government benefits to everyone. They want to be the uncle who visits once a year and brings presents; they refuse to be the responsible parent who must make tough choices for the sake of the future.

Given the magnitude of the budget crisis facing America, Obama's recent White House conference on school bullies seemed like a silly exercise in self-delusion, as if Obama is searching for anything on which to focus that might somehow make all the other emergencies disappear. President Obama makes a highly publicized announcement about ceasing to defend or enforce the Defense Against Marriage Act, but he says nothing about how to avert a government shutdown, or what the U.S. should do to help the freedom fighters in Libya, or what the energy policy of the U.S. should be in light of the escalating Mideast tensions, the rising oil prices and the nuclear radiation crisis in Japan.

Perhaps all the partisan bickering of late has distracted us from the nonpartisan issue of leadership. Perhaps all the decades of looking at politics as a process of satisfying interest group demands has blinded us to the essential needs of leadership — because the real test of leadership is not the articulation of those things we desire, but the confronting of those tough challenges we must face. The interest-group approach to politics has been an exercise of indulging the desires and complaints of an array of interest groups. But this is not leadership. This is political bribery.

True leadership requires not only the vision of society's highest and noblest aspirations, but the recognition of the reality of limitations. In this respect, conservatism provides an ideology of leadership. A recognition of the human reality of limitations pervades the conservative ideology. Conservatism advocates limited government. It sees the necessity of limits on power; it articulates the limits of grandiose promises of change. But even more fundamentally, it recognizes the limits inherent in human nature.

Contrary to liberalism, which holds a rather naïve belief that individuals will reach perfection if just freed from any and all outside constraints, conservatives take a more realistic view of individuals — a view much inspired by religious beliefs and values. The human realm is not perfectible; only the divine realm is. This is why human beings need law, to check their destructive impulses. Human progress and enlightenment comes not from self-indulgence, but from tempering and directing human urges.

The entire conservative creed revolves around a recognition of the limits of human nature and the need to construct social institutions and values that will guide individuals to a more virtuous life through the discouragement of behavior destructive to such a life. Freedom is vital to a truly human life, but freedom itself is not the ultimate end. The real goal is to use that freedom in a way that elevates the human condition. A sole focus on individual freedom, on the other hand, breeds a self-centered, ego-centric culture. And such a culture, by giving license to all the negative, destructive human impulses, often ends of trapping individuals in a degrading social life.

Whereas the liberal outlook sees individual freedom and the widest possible diversity of choices as the ultimate good, the conservative outlook sees the need for some standards or values to direct and channel that otherwise limitless freedom. Whereas liberalism envisions unaided individual reason to be the ultimate source of wisdom, conservatism acknowledges the individual susceptibility to error — an acknowledgement underlying the conservative respect for and trust in the wisdom of time-tested cultural traditions and moral values. Whereas the liberal outlook sees the unlimited and unrestrained individual to be the highest state of human experience, the conservative outlook envisions things that transcend the limited realm of the individual.

Conservatism, recognizing the dark side of human nature, advocates the need for restraint, both on an individual and governmental level. Whereas liberals often preach self satisfaction, conservatives urge self-control as the standard by which life should be led. Of course, this standard was the first target of the 1960s cultural revolution, which preached the freedom from all outside constraints and the perfectibility of human beings through unrestrained freedom — and look where that message got us.

Because conservatism recognizes and compensates for the inherent limits of human nature, it is an ideology equipped to exert leadership. And such leadership is particularly needed now, when society must deal with the inevitable limits imposed by decades of self delusion and political indulgence.

© Patrick Garry


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Patrick Garry

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research... (more)


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