Looking for Leaders — And That’s the Problem

Thomas Friedman says we need a leader.

In “The Tea Kettle Movement” (New York Times, September 28th) Friedman laments that the Tea Party we hear about — which he dubs the Tea Kettle movement because it’s full of steam — “has no plan to restore America to greatness.” It focuses merely on symptoms of a country in decline. He contrasts this to the “important Tea Party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats.” Friedman’s important movement is looking for a leader to end decline and restore national power. This leader must have three characteristics:

“First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger — to make America successful, thriving and respected again. And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are — a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.”

Call it what you want, but reading this made me imagine petty dictators trading in their leather chest straps and military caps for more serious leader costumes. Friedman’s important movement is explicitly centrist, but whatever centrist means in American politics, it doesn’t seem to indicate a less extreme devotion to political power than that found on the fringes. Continued bombing overseas, entrenched corporate power, pervasive surveillance, and violent policing are all supported by the “moderate center.” Getting the parties in line is the soft-power method of unitary rule.

After describing his ideal leader, Friedman goes on to name specific ways leaders can shape America into its former glory. What’s important here is the backwards-looking perspective. Besides a reference to the twenty-first century, which itself isn’t even that new, Friedman’s emphasis is on restoration, looking to the national character, and how politicians can skillfully direct it.

Maybe what we need isn’t a leader. Maybe we don’t need a bold politician to “tap into” sentiment for the nation-state and make us follow him. Maybe we don’t need someone to beat the partisan bickering and unite us under him, but never even with him. After all, unity in a government context generally means compelling obedience by overcoming opposition.

The problem here is that people look to the power center for a leader to support, instead of looking around for equals to cooperate with.

We can keep fireworks on the Fourth and drop the military empire that inspires folks to burn US flags. We can have cars and computers without wrecking the environment. We can prosper without paying off those who hold others down. These choices are ours to make.

Prosperity doesn’t hinge on finding the right leader to rally behind. Although there will always be tasks that the most enthusiastic individuals will take the lead in completing, pervasive power structures are ultimately self-serving. Political leaders generally act from the belief that their personal power is what the nation needs.

Freedom and prosperity involve understanding the power in ourselves, the relations we build, and the affiliations we choose. No rulers needed.

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