What political leader do you most admire and why?
Initially, I wasn’t intending to answer this question because I am generally opposed in modern politics to placing political leaders on pedestals. Over the past several decades, I think we have had some moments of leadership from many of our political leaders, but I also feel that there are acts of leadership by common citizens every minute of every day. Likewise, I also feel that today our society is too complex to view leadership to be housed in the individual. My view is that today’s challenges will require leadership teams over the individual.
However, I do actually believe one political figure towers well above the rest. And before I share just one of his quotes with you, I want to reflect on a few points about our current view of leadership. Many politicians today will claim they are going on a “listening tour”, and this trend is part of a larger trend, which in the last few decades has brought the science of statistics into our modern politics. Unfortunately, because of this trend, our political system has slowly transformed to the point of conferring the title of leadership upon those who are best able to run polls and reflect polls in their narratives in order to win elections. Compounding this is campaign finance, which is currently at levels never before seen, and is largely used to generate shallow propaganda to reinforce poll results. Furthermore, sometimes media follows this trend and either participates in shallow reporting or believes reporting about the race is synonymous with reporting about policy. All of these trends have shifted our definition of leadership.
Okay, now on to the quote. I will take you back to 1858, in a race for United States Senate of Illinois, where the state legislature made the ultimate decision of who would serve in the U.S. Senate. The seven debates that would occur throughout the state would have the following format: 60 minutes for candidate one, 90 minutes for candidate two, and a 30-minute rebuttal for candidate one. It should also be noted that the press at the time published entire transcripts of these debates. Ahhh, the attention span of 1858, a thing to be admired. The Great Debates of 1858, Stephen Douglas versus Abraham Lincoln.
First a little of Douglas:
I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? …. If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro. For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this Government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.
Side note, substitute “Mexican” for “negro” add a “wall” and we are in 2016.
What troubles Lincoln at the time, is that slavery would expand as a result of it becoming accepted public sentiment. But even in his fear of this expansion, his argumentation maintains rationality, reason and reflects core principals of liberty and leadership. On August 21, 1858, in one of the Great Debates in Ottawa, Illinois he states the following:
Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
So, I focus on this quote for a couple of reasons. First, I often say at campaign events, “I do not want your vote, I want your engagement. If I have your engagement, then I trust you will reflect on the issues and you will make the right decision.” What I am trying to echo is what Lincoln knew. A true leader is powerless without public sentiment. But in today’s world of politics, our public sentiment is weak. For those of us who go to the polls, we largely go there as actors who have been influenced by 30 second wedge ads and have a “set it and forget it” mentality. But understand that if public sentiment is weak, so too is our democracy. Lincoln knew an underlying principle of democracy was public sentiment, which is how you truly moved policy in a democracy. What was a given at that time, was public engagement; maybe not so today. Ok, let’s move on to the third sentence, “Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” Now we have a definition of leadership in a democracy. Notice he did not say, “Consequently, those who craft narratives that are most aligned with polls, goes…” The power relationship for leadership is known. Leaders move public sentiment; modern day politicians are largely moved by public sentiment in the form of polls.
Lincoln lost that election (although he won the popular vote), but we know he persisted in his role as a “leader”. Douglas took advantage of sentiment at the time. Lincoln molded sentiment for the ages.