Without followers, leaders are impotent

There’s not much we all agree on these days, but just about everyone seems to think there is a leadership problem in Washington.

Bear with me and look at the issue another way.

I believe the United States today is also challenged by a lack of followership.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is generally regarded as a great leader. But it was Roosevelt who said, when asked to implement a new policy, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

He knew effective leadership depends on a motivated followership.

We live in a democracy. The officials we elect at every level of government are supposed to listen to the opinions of those they represent. They are often criticized when they do this because “they just want to get re-elected.”

Well, sure.

But reflecting the opinions of the majority of the people who elected you is also the way our form of government was designed to work. It wasn’t called the House of Representatives by accident.

I have never seen the body politic as divided as it is today.

We disagree, often vehemently, not just on the solutions to our problems but on what those problems are.

A recent Pew poll showed that about half the country thinks the country’s major priority should be “spending on recovery.” The other half thinks that priority should be “reducing the deficit.”

There is no way to have it both ways.

And yet people wonder why “those people in Washington” can’t agree on what to do next.

I know of no time since World War II when Americans were nearly 100 percent agreed on priorities and solutions. Perhaps we came closest after 9/11. It wasn’t leadership from the president and Congress that brought the country together then. Our leaders simply reflected what their constituents overwhelmingly wanted — protection from future terrorist attacks and punishment for those who were responsible.

With that kind of followership, it was easy for leadership in Washington to move forward.
Americans are seriously divided on more than political issues.

In “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart,” Bill Bishop points out that in 1976, approximately 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties,” those that voted Republican or Democratic by a margin of 20 percent or more.

In 2008, that was true of 48 percent of our counties.

Lots of people have observed that it is hard to find a Cracker Barrel Restaurant and a Whole Foods Store in the same neighborhood.

More and more, voters are surrounded by folks whom they agree with on a wide range of political, social and cultural issues. Most of all, they agree that those people they never spend time with are dead wrong.

This past summer, there were approximately 500 congressional town hall meetings held around the country, down from 659 in the summer of 2010.

In 2010, the yelling and screaming came mainly from conservative groups going after Democratic House members.

In 2011, many of the outbursts came from liberals attacking Republicans.

House members are avoiding these meetings because, more often than not, the people who show up aren’t there to have a thoughtful discussion of the issues. They arrive fired up by divisive radio talk-show hosts, not to listen and perhaps learn, but to attack and vent.

So now we have 12 members of the congressional deficit-reduction panel meeting to craft a proposal on how to reduce the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion.

It will be almost impossible to reach an agreement.

Not because of the partisan game playing, although there will certainly be partisan game playing, but because when they look at their districts, and the districts of the members of Congress they must persuade, panel members will find too few followers who are ready to accept any compromise.

Read the Federalist Papers. Read any history about how our Constitution was created. No document in world history was more a product of compromise.

Fortunately, our Founders had followers who were willing to accept less than some ideological ideal. Somehow we must return to that kind of American pragmatism.

In a country as diverse as ours, the only way we are going to move forward is to decide as a people, as followers, that we can and will compromise with our fellow citizens.

Originally published 25 Sep 2011 on delawareonline.com