By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett
Founder & President, G.L.O.B.A.L Justice
2016 is certainly starting out to be a political Rubik’s cube. The US presidential campaigns are well underway. The field has narrowed for the Republicans. Key figures such as Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul have fallen away. Donald Trump remains a frontrunner, while Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio each vie for that status. The Democrats two person race has Bernie Sanders gaining momentum on Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile around the globe, ISIS continues its terror; the Syrian refugees remain in crisis; the Zika virus is spreading; Russia, North Korea, and China continually flex to demonstrate might; and this past weekend, Justice Antonin Scalia suddenly and unexpectedly passed away leaving a constitutional vacuum on our US Supreme Court. And its only February.
A year ago, no one would have predicted this political puzzle, but a year later, we are facing some big leadership questions for the US – Who should lead? How should they lead? And how will they lead? President’s Day seemed particularly appropriate to reflect on these issues. Afterall, this day commemorated two of our greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps addressing these big questions starts with considering the leadership of these huge leaders.
Washington’s leadership was natural and earned. His character and characteristics made it inevitable for him to step into leadership. But his outstanding achievements both within the War of Independence and Constitutional Convention coupled with his ability to win the respect and honor of his fellow citizens sealed his role as our first and revered president.
Lincoln’s leadership was also earned but was not as natural. His characteristics did not so easily fit the mold of the leader that many would expect. But his character and intellect gave him a sense of resolve that allowed him to broker a painful but necessary unification of a deeply divided country. His was perhaps the most challenging leadership context of any president.
Certainly our country is not presently in the precarious beginnings of the new republic that Washington led, or the throes of the broken republic that Lincoln tried to mend. However, today we are deeply divided by political perspective, socio-economics, gender & race, and a range of related crises. And each of these divides has made this Rubik’s cube of political issues that much more difficult to solve.
There was a time, and not that long ago, that Americans could support our presidents regardless of whether they agreed with their political party or perspective. However in the 21st century, that dynamic has changed considerably. Both under George W. Bush and now more so under Barack Obama, we have seen a deepening chasm between left and right, liberal and conservative, that may have resulted from their policies, but is more likely to be reflecting a societal shift that is beyond any particular president or presidency. Civics and statesmanship are no longer the priority in America. And our society has become much less knowledgeable or aware of politics and political leadership despite having more information and opportunities to learn. The information we have has not made us more informed, but rather we have become more opinionated. And our opinions don’t leave much room for other perspectives or reasoning.
Ultimately, so much of the focus of our political parties and our political conversation are about socio-economics. Generally, there is a divide between white collar and blue collar, but the issues are more than that. They are about where we live, how we are educated, where we work, who we associate with, what sources we use for our information. Socio-economics is not just about who has what amount of money and what amount of need, nor just about whether we own a business or work for one, it is now a much more complex matrix that intertwines these factors with demographics. And party politics plays to demographics more than it plays to the specific issues that need to be addressed. They target groups based on their income, educational status, race, gender, and location. That targeting also means that we don’t have a clear or general idea of what the issues are nor a singular, unifying message that bridges the socio-economic gaps.
Gender and Race
Issues of gender and race in the US are real. But they are not always what we perceive them to be. Its not always about how some one looks or their status in society. In presidential politics its more likely about where they fall on the political spectrum. Consider that Carly Fiorina, the only woman candidate among the Republican field, is among the most astute, accomplished, well versed, well educated, and experienced leaders of the candidates on either side. But she was quickly, and fairly decisively, held to the fringes of this presidential race and ultimately had to stop her campaign. The reason? Politics in America does not embrace her as a women candidate the way Hillary Clinton may have been embraced because Carly was not a Democrat or liberal. Of course, she didn’t need to be a liberal or Democrat just because she is a woman, but women’s issues and candidates have somehow been connected to that side of the spectrum. Positioning herself on the other side of the spectrum meant positioning herself outside of the status of “the woman” candidate but instead as “a woman” candidate among the Republicans. I would have liked to have seen Carly and Hillary debating over the issues – women’s issues and other issues– but alas we may never see that in this go around.
Similarly, consider Ben Carson, a highly accomplished man but more precisely a highly accomplished Black man who overcame socioeconomic adversity to achieve. But he has not been fully embraced by those who would otherwise promote him based on race or socioeconomic status. The reason? Politics in America seems to assume that if you are a person of color, you must also be a Democrat or liberal, or if you are no longer in a lower socioeconomic status than you can no longer connect with those in that status. Whether Carson’s campaign moves ahead will be because of his own efforts or lack of efforts, but his efforts have been impeded by an uphill battle against media and other attacks whenever he showed prospects of momentum. By contrast when Barack Obama ran for president, the idea of electing an educated, accomplished Black man made many joyous for the prospect of electing the first African American president. But for Carson, even with a strong campaign, the idea of harnessing that type of response is more unlikely across sectors given his political perspectives.
So where does that leave us in answering the big questions on presidential leadership? At the moment it appears to leave us with two aging white males as the presidential frontrunners – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Historically the US presidency has been dominated by aging, white males, and many did a great job. So, I am not bothered by that prospect in and of itself. What does bother me, however, is that despite having highly qualified candidates representing groups such as women, African Americans, Latinos, urban centers, and rural areas, our country seems to be leaning toward two men that don’t have much connect with any of these communities. And neither their character nor characteristics in any way mirror those of Washington or Lincoln, or even Bush or Obama.
I’ve written previously about my perspectives on both Sanders and Trump campaigns – so to summarize those comments: at their best, Sanders and Trump are representing a “different” kind of leadership that is drawing from segments on both ends of the political spectrum that are wanting something different – particularly young (passionate but uninformed) adults (Sanders) and middle (mostly disenchanted) class (Trump). At their worst, Sanders and Trump represent completely the opposite of American ideals.
Given the global challenges we face and the difficulty of selecting leadership to address these challenges, I am reminded of this tough, but significant passage from Isaiah 3:1-12:
3 For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is going to remove from Jerusalem and Judah…
2 The mighty man and the warrior,
The judge and the prophet,
The diviner and the elder,
3 The captain of fifty and the honorable man,
The counselor and the expert artisan,
And the skillful enchanter.
4 And I will make mere lads their princes,
And capricious children will rule over them,
5 And the people will be oppressed,
Each one by another, and each one by his neighbor;
The youth will storm against the elder
And the inferior against the honorable.
6 When a man lays hold of his brother in his father’s house,saying,
“You have a cloak, you shall be our ruler,
And these ruins will be under your charge,”
7 He will protest on that day, saying,
“I will not be your healer,
For in my house there is neither bread nor cloak;
You should not appoint me ruler of the people.”
8 For Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen,
Because their speech and their actions are against the LORD,
To rebel against His glorious presence.
9 The expression of their faces bears witness against them,
And they display their sin like Sodom;
They do not even conceal it.
For they have brought evil on themselves.
10 Say to the righteous that it will go well with them,
For they will eat the fruit of their actions.
11 Woe to the wicked! It will go badly with him,
For what he deserves will be done to him.
12 O My people! Their oppressors are children,
And women rule over them.
O My people! Those who guide you lead you astray
And confuse the direction of your paths.
Certainly this is not a “feel good” message – but it is insightful nonetheless. Through the ages, and in the case of this passage, even several hundreds of years B.C., people of have gone through eras where they have fallen short in leadership and leadership priorities. But following each of these eras, the people have righted themselves by setting on a better course and making better decisions. As such, leadership challenges are a reflection of societal decisions. Can we not solve this puzzle of our day by shifting our focus to making better decisions and choosing better leaders? Can we not respond maturely and wisely so that we can have a Washington or Lincoln for our own generations? I do believe it’s possible, but only when we first recognize the real issues, determine real solutions, and know how we have gone astray.