With approval ratings at historic lows for Congress and below 50 percent for both presidential candidates, many Americans are rightly frustrated with national leaders bogged down in trivial political fights. They’re looking for leaders who will envision for us great causes that will enhance the United States — and the world. Expecting them only to make our life easier is hollow patriotism.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently published an article entitled, “The Follower Problem.” He cited the nagging cultural attitude that defines our most recently constructed national monuments in Washington, D.C., as “memorials that expose a modern inability to describe and proclaim an authority that is just.” He asserts that the Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower monuments fail to depict these strong leaders as people of authority. His more recent column laments the state of today’s presidential campaign, calling it the “Dullest Campaign Ever,” citing its critical importance absent any critical exaltation.
A 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll found 74 percent of Americans declaring themselves “extremely” or “very patriotic.” More than 4 million people annually visit our national monuments in Washington, D.C., the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. When millions of Americans visit our national monuments each year, paying tribute to historical national leaders, and 74 percent consider themselves patriotic, it’s clear there’s a yearning for inspiration from our political class. The maddening lack of substance that characterizes this year’s presidential campaign is a colossal civic disappointment.
Regardless, Americans should possess high expectations of our current national leaders. Low poll numbers are usually symptomatic of weak leaders and reflect modern culture. When national leaders are bogged down in process and focused more on re-election than rededication to problem-solving, the public loses faith. We’ve seen shaken faith in our leaders every two years since 2006. A public unhappy with its leaders and yearning for change every election signals trouble for representative government. It should also signal to elected officials and those seeking office that voters want leaders, especially presidential candidates who will exercise the authority of their office to address and serve great causes needing attention.
With billions of petrodollars leaving the U.S. each day, leaders could focus on the great cause of domestic energy production. With European nations faltering economically, leaders could focus on making the U.S. an example of financial stability for the world by adopting policies that combine economic growth with fiscal austerity. With only 35 percent of Americans able to name the three federal branches of government and students failing history, one would think leaders would make civic learning a national cause. With our staggering federal debt, many Americans would support a surtax for all taxpayers dedicated specifically to debt reduction rather than taxing the wealthy to feed excessive and wasteful government spending.
Patriotism grows when citizens believe in their country and its leaders — and when leaders revere the nation’s best interests, not first their own self-interests. Eisenhower, Roosevelt and King all had a sense of mission for our country and its culture. They emerged when moments in history called them — Eisenhower leading America through a world war to victory, Roosevelt leading us through a great economic depression and King eloquently setting an example of nonviolence to change social attitudes.
Americans will follow leaders who exhibit sensible self-sacrifice for the common good, who avoid being driven merely by personal advancement or party politics and who give voters reason for allegiance to the authority they wield and respect for policy ideas worthy of the office and public trust they hold. They should at least tell voters where they want to take the country. Any Member of Congress who doesn’t stand for some great cause shouldn’t have the job.
Let us expect inspiring visions from our national leaders — that they will lead America in an authoritative and just way through the problems that dog our modern, complicated and changing society. Elections remind us that America has supported courageous leaders for more than two centuries to the benefit of our free society. We should encourage today’s leaders to recall our nation’s roots and rise to the stature of what Americans have historically expected of them — to be resources for achieving great causes.
Their rightful legacy will be a lasting American nation. ⁞