Many environmentalists have criticized President Obama for not leading on climate change. I have defended him on this (see http://mysticscholar.org/climate/), arguing that environmentalists need to produce a movement that is politically effective. This is a question of what political leadership is: 1) having the courage to take positions that your constituents do not support in order to produce legislation that will have long-term positive affects; or 2) having the courage to wait until your constituents are close to supporting a position after you have guided them and persuaded them over time–then you can help them to get over the last impediments to produce the same legislation. It’s my view that #1 can produce short-term results, but cannot produce lasting political change, which only happens with #2.
Of course , there are times of crisis when #1 may be the way to go, in an emergency or a time of horror when waiting is morally and practically indefensible. However, helping people over the last hill that they need to get over is generally what political leadership in a democratic society is. I can’t think of many examples where political leaders in the U.S. have successfully advocated for a policy well beyond where people are ready to go. I include Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt in this. Each one of them took positions as they made sense both from both a moral and political point of view.
For example, it took Lincoln a long time to push for emancipation of slaves; he did not do so until he thought he could so successfully. Now you can criticize him for not doing this sooner given the horror and evil of slavery, but he successfully pulled it off where many others might not have. In the case of Roosevelt, many have criticized him for not intervening sooner in the Holocaust (e.g. not entering the war sooner or not bombing Auschwitz), but the U.S. eventually won the war and defeated Hitler, ending his reign of evil. That was not always a given–it wasn’t even a given that the U.S. would enter the war. It’s easy to criticize Roosevelt in hindsight, but the result was the end of the Nazis. Arm-chair theorists can hypothesize all they want, but political leadership involves difficult decisions that may seem cowardly, yet are in fact acts of courage given the time and situation.
Now, at the same time, it’s the job of activist leaders like Bill McKibben to persuade people to support their positions so that political leaders can act. That what abolitionist leaders in the nineteenth century did. It was true for civil rights leaders such as MLK. It’s the same for women’s rights advocates in the early 1900′s and more recently and for gay rights activists now.
Leadership is different when applied in different contexts. A political leader does not have the same role as an activist leader. Of course, some politicians can AFFORD to act, because their constituents will support them anyway. That was true of abolitionists, and it’s true today of many northeastern and west-coast politicians on the environment. But it’s different for politicians the bulk of whose constituents oppose a particular position and will continue to oppose that politician no matter how artfully or powerfully they craft their oratory.
Of course, many politicians misjudge events either by not acting whey could do so effectively or by acting before people are ready. For example, FDR might have been able to push for healthcare reform, while Bill Clinton did not have the political climate to win on healthcare. Of course, I could be wrong about that too (Clinton’s failure may have set the stage for Obama’s success): in the end, these leadership calculations are an art, not a science.
If you want to push for change before people agree with you, you should be an activist leader (or a writer or scholar or artist), not a political one. That’s one reason why I personally was never interested in professional life in politics. I do not have the patience to operate in such an environment, but thank God there are people who do. Politics is all about patience and the waiting game. It’s only in retrospect that political movements look as if they come from nowhere. They almost never do.
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