When Leadership Fails (Newsletter 064)
Greetings fellow travelers!
Perhaps you've heard the common refrain when people in the West talk about global bad actors. I'm thinking of countries that have histories of aggression and human rights abuses, like Iran, North Korea, or Russia. But also countries that have partly joined the global mainstream while still behaving inappropriately from time to time, like China.
The common refrain is that we tend to blame the leaders of these countries while giving their citizens a free pass. That is, you will hear people say variations of the following:
- "The people of Russia are wonderful." or "The Chinese (or Koreans, or Iranians) are such lovely people."
- "If you get to know them and understand them, they have the same wants, desires, and dreams as the rest of us."
- "It is the autocratic leaders of these countries who are the problem. If it were up to the people themselves, their countries would not behave so badly."
These arguments are compelling, because there are many reasons to believe that people are the same everywhere with similar hopes and dreams. We just want to be left alone to live our lives in peace. This belief is reinforced by anyone who travels to countries with repressed citizens and has the chance to speak privately with them.
Also, we are quick to point out that the individual citizens in many rogue countries have little or no say in who their leaders are. Leaders come to power and cling to power with nothing like the representative processes we have in many Western countries. If the leaders are corrupt and do not faithfully execute the interests of their citizens, surely it is not fair to impute the blame to the disenfranchised, propagandized, and terrorized citizens.
And yet. I wonder if we are being too quick to withhold judgment, for two reasons. First, is it possible there are other explanations for why nations behave badly that extend beyond their leadership? Second, and more importantly, as a thought experiment what would happen if we held citizens to account for what their countries did? Let's explore both points.
People everywhere are formed by the environments they spend time in and the cultures they are surrounded by. This includes our schooling, news, and entertainment; religion or the absence of religion; climate, geography, and natural resources; the economy, domestic industry, and trade patterns; and languages, national history, and geopolitics. These factors differ wildly from country to country, and sometimes from region to region within countries.
Even people who grow up within a few miles of one another, but are separated by a border, experience sometimes greatly different environments. When a person is raised with a different religion, speaks another language, and attends other schools, the wonder is not that people are different everywhere we go, but that we can find any commonalities at all. Why shouldn't individual citizens of two countries think differently, have different values, and thus hold different expectations from life?
To pick just a single topic, think how many conflict zones in the world today appear to be the result of clashing religions. In one area, members of one religious strain predominate, and nearby members of another. Intolerance and misunderstandings spill over into bloodshed. Although leaders may not try to quell sectarian violence, and sometimes will spur it on for selfish purposes, it seems appropriate to hold individuals waging religious war responsible for their own actions.
All of this is to at least raise the possibility that when countries behave differently, and in ways that sometimes seem to us to be inexplicable, one possible explanation is that the leaders do accurately reflect citizens' wishes. In such case, it's not that leaders are perverse, but that cultures and individuals within cultures themselves differ, sometimes widely.
Does this seem like blaming the victim to you? Does it seem unfair to the individuals in countries that appear plagued with terrible leaders? Only if we are willing to accept that individuals have no responsibility for what their leaders do, which brings us to the second point.
What would happen if we behaved as if individual citizens were responsible for what their countries did? We can conduct this thought experiment whether we believe citizens are directly responsible, or whether we feel they rather are unwitting victims of terrible leaders. If you like, let's use for this experiment a Western country where citizens elect their representatives in government.
Here's something you will hear many people around the world say: "Americans are such wonderful, lovely people. It is their terrible leadership that, for example, gets American involved in so many foreign wars, and meddling where they are not wanted. On a one-to-one basis, American citizens want the same thing we do, which is to be left alone to live our lives in peace."
I appreciate that people in other countries are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. But really? When we have national elections every two years, and virtually anyone can run for office, would it not be more appropriate to say Americans elect the leaders we want?
For every law you disagree with, that's on us citizens. For every Presidential Executive Order that stretches Constitutional authority beyond any sensible limit, that's on us citizens. For every court opinion that defies common sense, that's on us citizens. For every engagement the U.S. military commences, that's on us citizens. Otherwise, what's the alternative?
Now I understand that every person reading this is saying, "Yes, but I didn't vote for X politician, Y judge, or Z president. I don't agree with their law, decision, or order. And I'm certainly not taking responsibility for it." Sorry, but this is childlike behavior. Somebody voted for each of these people. Thus, at least indirectly, a majority supported every law, decision, and policy. We don't get to cherry-pick the things we like and ignore our responsibility for the ones we don't.
Let's hold ourselves accountable for everything our politicians do. Let's act as if we have the politicians we deserve, if not the ones we want. No hiding. If American politicians behave badly, if the leaders of our institutions blatantly fail us, let's not hide behind a lame excuse that we only supported them for the good decisions.
What would thinking this way do for us? It might knock some citizens out of complacency. It might motivate more decent people to run for office, and decent citizens to support their campaigns and vote for them. Over time, it might mean more of our leaders demonstrating leadership again.
Consider this: even a relatively small group of elected representatives, say just 5%, could act as a buffer against the unreasonable demagogues who temporarily commandeer a slim majority and ram through some giant legislation we don't really want. Let's call this group the "Common Sense minority." If all they did was stop lazy politicians from passing ill-advised laws, the country would be massively improved for it.
No matter how small you think your individual influence is, the collective will of a country's citizens is decisive. We lose power when we think we have no power, when the individual cannot make a difference. In plain talk: Putin did not invade Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of individual Russian citizens did that. One or ten or hundreds of individuals could not have stopped the invasion. But there is a discrete number of Russians that could have stopped it cold, and that number is probably smaller than you think.
The only way to know our strength is to push back when people who represent us do things we do not want or ask us to do things we do not agree with. Will you join me in the Common Sense minority?
If this is a tough suggestion, you may prefer this week's other article, Nothing Bad that Happens is your Fault. The inspiration for that article is what we see reported in the mainstream media. It is also reflective of what a number of people apparently think.
While this way of thinking is no doubt appealing, I wonder where it will lead? I suspect the future of many countries, America included, depends on which way their citizens trend over time. Will we take ownership of what we do, and what our leaders do, or not?
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