Leaders in America have long faced a built-in challenge – a tension woven into the fabric of their nation’s version of democracy.
Individual elections are winner-take-all, and competition in a two-party system can mean polarization and fierce struggles for influence. Yet the nation’s founders were fundamentally skeptical toward concentrated power. They sought to diffuse the necessary authority invested in individuals, institutions, or even more populous regions of the country.
The Madisonian principle of checks and balances – designed to thwart a leader who seeks undue power – implicitly calls for leaders who can put the needs of democracy ahead of their own ambitions.
In the 2020 election and its aftermath, both this ideal and the constitutional checks on executive power were sorely tested, as President Donald Trump sought to overturn the outcome of the vote. In the aftermath, a sitting president was impeached a historic second time and his trial begins in the Senate next week.
Now, as politicians – and Republicans, in particular – are calibrating how to move forward, these principles from the nation’s founding remain vital. On one hand, they show the power of the politics of self-interest in a time of polarization. But they also highlight how dearly democracies depend on the opposite qualities to survive: humility and an unselfish spirit of service.
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“Instead of it just being, you know, about me, me, me, or being a sole independent operator” in places like the Senate, “or instead of trying to be the great savior of the country, how do you see yourself in the context of other people?” says former Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican who served three terms through the mid-1990s. “Do you have sufficient humility so that you’re not somebody who’s just trying to roll over people? Are you able to love your enemy? But we shouldn’t even think in terms of enemies – do you love your opponent?”
While it may sound quaint in this hard-edged political era, this vision isn’t merely wishful, scholars say. Politicians aren’t expected to give up partisanship, but to engage in the tug-and-pull of the American system.
“We expect our political leaders, our elected officials, to listen to the popular will of the majority, but we also must expect them to make decisions on behalf of broader interests – and those may not always be congruent with our individual, particular, or partisan interests,” says Meena Bose, a political scientist at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
“So leadership in the American political system must be built on the premise that the people’s representatives should balance intra-competing interests,” she adds. “Our system of separation of powers and checks and balances means that negotiations, compromises, and alliance-building are key building blocks of our political system – and part of that process is recognizing that, you know, that there are successes and disappointments.”
Trump and a polarized era
Mr. Trump proclaimed his populist message with unshakable confidence and a deep sense of self-reliance. “I alone can fix it,” he famously said of the problems confronting the nation.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he added: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be.” (Though later, he also proclaimed, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the crisis.)
Vigorous opinions and sharp partisanship are necessary parts of the democratic process. But there are also personality traits and skills that promote cooperation and consensus.
“Lincoln had a ‘public servant’s heart,’ but he also understood how to combine it with a partisan head,” says Matthew Pinsker, a Civil War historian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “Nobody should expect Republicans to stand down in their battles with Democrats, but they have to relearn some of the lessons of past GOP heroes like Lincoln or Reagan, who knew when to put country above party.”
That can be difficult in such a polarized environment. Republican leaders and rank-and-file GOP voters in states such as Arizona, Michigan, and Georgia have lashed out against Republicans who spoke out forcefully against Mr. Trump’s false allegations of election fraud or voted to impeach him. Republicans as a whole remain steadfast in their support for the former president, even as he faces a trial in the Senate.
But the cost for such thinking might already be apparent, some say.
“While I don’t think I would rely on politicians changing their instincts of self-preservation, I do believe that Republicans should begin to think, well, we’re not going to preserve ourselves if we continue to be a party that’s wildly popular with maybe a third of the population,” says Senator Danforth, an ordained Episcopal minister who presided at the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan.
“We teach our kids”
In 2018, when former two-term Republican Congresswoman Mimi Walters lost her seat in a California district Democrats had never won before, she, too, expressed concerns that Democrats might try to steal the tightly-contested election, even as she watched her initial lead evaporate as mail-in votes were counted for days after the election.
“We teach our kids to win gracefully and to lose gracefully,” says Ms. Walters, who eventually accepted the process and conceded to her Democratic opponent. “But that’s not what we’re witnessing with our leaders on both sides of the aisle, and we haven’t witnessed that in the last four years.”
She calls for leadership by example – with implications that go beyond politics. “You know, a younger generation is looking at the way our leaders conduct themselves as they forge their lives and come into adulthood, and if they witness our leaders being disrespectful to one another and treating one another the way that they have been, then they will think that that behavior is OK. And it’s not OK.”
In fact, humility is anything but weakness, says Ken Ruscio. As a distinguished lecturer at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia, he is studying how humility has impacted presidential leadership.
He sees the power of humility “in the admission of error and the capacity to learn from one’s mistakes; in the reverence for institutions and the reluctance to assert power beyond what the duties and the responsibilities of the office require; in the intellectual modesty that makes one aware of the need to seek truth through reason and analysis rather than assuming you are the repository of received wisdom.”
These result in “a recognition that power is to be deployed in service of goals larger than the self, and certainly never in service only to the self,” he says.
Such virtues are necessary for the challenges of democratic leadership, adds former Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut who served 11 terms.
“Leaders, good leaders, speak in a way to bring out their better nature, and then speak to the public to bring out the public’s better nature, so that it magnifies and grows and then becomes dominant,” he says.
“And that means that truth matters, it means that courage matters, and it means that leaders should be willing to lose support because you’re saying things that your supporters may not want to hear, but need to hear,” he adds. “In the end, you’ll be in a much better place personally, and so will your country.”
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