DANIEL VAUGHAN: The leadership crisis of America

My last column was about how America was both in a leadership crisis and risked losing what made it great because of that crisis. One of the major pushbacks I received essentially said that America did have leaders. They were doing hard work, and any assertion to the contrary meant you’re looking in the wrong places.

I can see that point; if you look hard enough, you can find leaders in any organization, small to large. That kind of argument is similar to the one that Fred Rogers made when he said, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

And if you’re talking about any leader in any situation, sure, it’s easy to find a leader. But of course, this is an intellectually dishonest position to hold.

The point I’m making isn’t one that’s debatable like that. We are in a leadership crisis because our society’s offices, where we choose and select people from our midst to lead us, have had a severe shortage of actual leaders. And the issue has been there for well over a decade.

It’s not a debatable point. Americans are increasingly so dissatisfied with what either major political party puts forward that they’re willing to consider more extreme and outlandish candidates.

Donald Trump was a complete and total outsider to the political party system before running in 2016. The reality TV show host and real estate mogul channeled a deep-seated form of populism in the country that was profoundly angry about how Washington, D.C. was out of touch. And part of the reason Trump didn’t win in 2020 is that he failed to provide a cohesive form of leadership to answer the problems his candidacy tapped into.

The Democratic Party has spent two consecutive cycles trying to fend off an insurgence from the democratic-socialist left in the likes of Bernie Sanders. The far-left of the Democratic Party is engaged in some kind of Frankenstein exercise, melding together an amalgamation of socialism, Marxism, and modern notions of identity politics to replace class as the animating factor in socialism. The Democratic Party has essentially worked to rig the primary process against Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden’s far left.

But we can go beyond the political choices of the parties. Pew Research has shown that partisan views on any topic are now totally divorced from reality. If a Democrat is in office, Republicans think the economy is in the tank, and Democrats think the opposite. If a Republican is in office, Democrats believe the economy is in the tank while Republicans are happy. These are opinions that are divorced from reality and what actual economic conditions are in a given moment.

Dig down even further into Pew’s data. You’ll find that concerning majorities in both parties believe that sizable changes are needed in the U.S. federal government. If people think that broad, drastic changes are required across the board, and their elected officials aren’t providing that, the tide will naturally start shifting toward those politicians who promise more dramatic things.

You may be able to find an actual honest-to-goodness leader in your local community. But you won’t find them on the federal level. There are great people at the national level. But there are no leaders.

If we had leaders, the decades of protest movements we’ve seen since the Great Recession wouldn’t be needed. Instead, we’ve had the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tea Party, the Trumpian MAGA surge, the rise of democratic-socialists, and almost yearly protests in cities that end with things burned and destroyed over allegations of police misconduct toward Black Americans. And the first week of 2021, we had a lawless mob ransack the U.S. Capitol building.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who observed that a riot is the language of the unheard:

I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?

For his generation, there were clear examples of societal wrongs going unheard. Now, both sides of the political spectrum are growing more and more violent and restless. A real leader would recognize these calls and attempt to quell the problem by dealing with the issues.

Instead, we only have a political divide that seeks to weaponize any wrongdoing by either side to their political advantage. This kind of stupidity only deepens the divide.

These riots should be outright and fully condemned for what they are: lawlessness allowed to run free. From there, we need to make the government more responsive to people’s demands and needs. The political branches were designed to provide a creative outlet for political unhappiness through elections and the petitioning of political leaders.

If we had actual leaders, people would believe these outlets still work. But it’s clear from the behavior on both sides of the political aisle that no one believes this point. And as a result, we’re increasingly entertaining more extreme politicians, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, because no leadership exists.

That is our leadership crisis.