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The Courage to Lead

Since our recent weekend read from Roberto Unger regarding the upcoming presidential election is generating so much discussion, we thought we would re-run this “Quote” of the week from Roger Berkowitz that was originally posted in February.  “The Courage to Lead” seemed an apt follow up .

“Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life, and too great a love for life obstructed freedom, was a sure sign of slavishness. Courage therefore became the political virtue par excellence.”

-Hannah Arendt

Courage is the first virtue of politics; and cowardice is one reason politics is so lame today. Politicians hem and haw, searching for an answer that won’t offend. They serve up focus-group tested sound bites,  making them seem less like people then robots. It is as if leaders have gone on strike; unwilling—or unable—to make decisions anymore, except when forced to.

  • The President’s healthcare plan might have been courageous, if it had actually dealt with the rising cost of healthcare and the unchallenged assumption that everyone has a right to all the healthcare they want at all times.
  • Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden’s joint plan for entitlement reform might actually have been courageous, if it had called for shared sacrifice of the wealthy as well as the poor and shrinking middle classes.
  • President Obama’s current budget plan, calling for a 1% decrease in discretionary spending over 10 years, would be courageous, if it didn’t leave mandatory entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to grow by 96% over the same 10 years. By 2022, under the President’s budget, 77% of the Federal Government’s budget will be non-discretionary spending—an abdication of democracy and leadership that is increasingly taking the vast majority of political decisions out of the hands of those elected to govern the nation.
  • And in Europe, Angela Merkel and the German political elite have simply waited while first Greece and then Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain have flirted with disasters. Greece and Italy are now governed by technocratic governments specifically empowered to override democratic decisions. As chilling as that sounds, it is in many ways simply a foretaste of what is coming to the rest of us, as we hand increasing power over our fates to technocratic decision makers. Driven by an overriding concern for efficiency and growth, our politics is increasingly governed by economic decision-making.

To re-imagine leadership for today, we might begin with thinking about what Arendt meant by courage as the chief virtue of politics.

First, courage is the virtue of the person who leaves the security of private life and risks death and ridicule for an idea. Who needs the headache of running for politics or sleeping out in the cold in Zuccotti Park? It is risky and time-consuming, when one could be making money, dining out, or playing with the kids. To throw oneself into the political fray takes chutzpah—and not a little courage.

But simply entering politics does not make one courageous, especially when we are speaking about those who make their living by politics. Professional politicians, lobbyists, and aides don’t risk their lives and livelihood; on the contrary, politics is the means with which they secure their fortunes.

Beyond the business of politics, the courageous politician must exercise freedom—something more difficult and rare than usually imagined. Freedom, which Arendt calls the “raison d’etre of politics,” names the ability to “call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination and which, therefore, could not, strictly speaking, be known.”  Freedom thus demands the courage to act without a script in ways that make others pay attention. The free act surprises; it is noticed.

What elevates such a free act to political relevance is that it not only surprises, but it also inspires. The free act (freedom and acting are synonyms for Arendt) leads others to act as well. By way of responses, the free act is talked about and turned into stories. In this way the free act re-narrates and thus re-makes our common world. That is why the free act is political and how it can change the world.

In 1946, shortly after arriving in the U.S. as a Jewish refugee from Germany, Arendt wrote, “There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom.” Arendt loved America, and became a citizen eagerly. Still, she worried that the greatest threat to American freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The scope of this country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life. How could free acts be meaningful, and not be swallowed up by the nation’s voracious appetite for the new.

Arendt’s answer is that political action must be measured in terms of greatness. Not only must political action be courageous action, action in the public sphere that can either succeed or fail.  Political action must also aim at immortality. It must seek not merely to shock, but to build new stories, new institutions, and, thus, new worlds. Political leaders, Arendt argued, are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire the citizens to re-imagine their sense of belonging to a common people with a common purpose.

As politics becomes increasingly driven by the democratic and technocratic need to appeal to the wishes of the people, Arendt asks, how can we maintain the ideal of freedom and the possibility of leadership?  This is an especially timely question. Amidst the leaderless paralysis of our current politics, one wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from — leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely to develop under the current system.

If we are to foster the kinds of leaders who might call us to our better selves, we will need to welcome those who show courage. It is too easy to tear down and criticize those who enter politics. New ideas are immediately suspect, and just as quickly shown to be self-interested and partisan. All of this is true. But we need to make room for failure in politics if we are going to find the risk-taking leaders we need.

-RB

 

Posted on 25 June 2012 | 12:47 pm

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