Over the last couple of weeks, many on the right have complained about President Obama’s lack of “leadership” vis-à-vis the current world scene. Just the other night, while I was on the phone with him, a good friend of mine reiterated this position, what has now become a refrain among Republicans. My response came as quite a surprise to him: “I don’t want a ‘leader,’” I declared.
At any rate, I am steadfastly opposed to the notion that holders of the offices of government are supposed to function as leaders. Furthermore, to a man and woman, all who cherish the liberties that our forefathers bequeathed to us should be no less opposed to this view.
First of all, if our politicians are our leaders, then the electorate consists of followers. But those who consider their individuality a blessing are the followers of no government. It is antagonism toward individuality, the belief that it is a burden to be lifted, that impels its enemies to seek out leaders. And what better leaders are there than those who have at their disposal a monopoly on power?
Second, if politicians are leaders and citizens followers, then the country itself is a movement. A movement exists, not for its own sake, but for the sake of realizing goals that are believed to be independent of it: Liberty, Equality, Social Justice, and the like. It is the goals or ideals of a movement that distinguish it as the movement that it is. This is the first characteristic of any movement to be noted.
There is something else, though, that mustn’t be overlooked.
As Eric Hoffer wrote, the adherents of a movement are nothing less than “true believers.” That is, they pursue the realization of the movement’s goals with a singularity of vision: their resources in time, energy, and, if need be, money—whether partially or entirely—are deployed in the service of the movement’s mission. Those engagements that detract from the purpose of the movement are disallowed.
Now, when a nation-state is conceived as a movement, liberty and individuality inescapably suffer. The citizens of a state are citizens by law; membership in such an association is, then, compulsory. What this in turn means is that citizens have no choice but to part with their resources in pursuit of the objectives that their leaders choose for them. It also implies that only those actions that contribute to the movement are permitted, while those that do not are criminalized.
It is during times of crisis that a nation-state assumes most obviously this character of a movement. And since war is the emblem of all crises, it is during war more so than at any other time that politicians assume the persona of a leader and citizens that of follower.
When Rahm Emmanuel said that politicians and ideologues should never allow a good crisis to go to waste, he knew full that of which he spoke. That pet causes are not infrequently framed in terms of war—the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the Cultural Wars, the War on Racism, the War on Terror, and even the War on Christmas—is a function of this desire to conscript the agency of citizens in the service of the purpose favored by their “leaders,” whether self-appointed or elected. When politicians call on citizens to “sacrifice” more for “the common good,” they manipulate language in order to conceal and justify what amounts to nothing more than a proposal for the further concentration of government power.
Even talk of “the American” or “national community” is dangerous, for not only is it thoroughly misleading—given the staggering diversity of modern states, none can be said to be a community—it suggests that there is a common end for the sake of which citizens may be legitimately coerced to forgo their own self-chosen goals. Members of a national community or, what amounts to the same thing, a movement, are not individuals; they are comrades or “joint-enterprisers,” as the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott characterized them.
Those who love liberty and who relish in their individuality elect, not leaders spearheading a movement promising to usher in a new promised land, but governors who will strive to make ever more exact those conditions—laws—under which citizens will be ever freer to pursue the ends of their own choosing. For the lover of liberty, the individual, government exists to secure peaceful co-existence between citizens engaged in a plethora of self-chosen enterprises.
The liberty that he enjoys, however, is not some abstraction. In fact, it is not inaccurate to say that, paradoxically, for the true lover of liberty there is no liberty: there are only innumerable liberties that, collectively, constitute a concrete, culturally-specific form of life. These liberties in turn consist in a broad diffusion of power, a diffusion that can be found only within a government that, in a sense, is divided against itself.
This is the government that is delineated in the United States Constitution.
And it has no place for leaders and followers.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.