The New York Times website chose to post a clip from my Bloggingheads.tv “diavlog” with Daniel Schultz about moral leadership. The clip has me defending the claim that Barack Obama is a great moral leader, in particular in teaching his own supporters the virtues of patience and compromise. Without rehearsing the details of the argument, I’d like to generalize a bit.
If a moral leader is someone who calls on people to change their minds about right and wrong or to act in ways they would prefer not to act on behalf of the values they already profess, then it is true almost by definition that moral leaders aren’t popular with the people over whom they’re exercising moral leadership: it’s very rare for people to actually like being asked to do the things they don’t want to do. As Robert Townsend said about corporate management, any idea that’s immediately popular is certainly trivial and almost certainly wrong.
We often celebrate moral leadership in retrospect, or when it’s being exercised over other people. Martin Luther King was a great moral leader, but the consensus on that point emerged only after his death. While he lived, many Northern whites greatly admired the leadership he exercised over Southern whites in confronting them with the inconsistency of Jim Crow with American values, and the moral leadership he exercised over blacks in keeping the Second Reconstruction mostly non-violent from the black side. But Southern whites didn’t tihnk of him as a hero, and neither did the younger generation of black leaders who took over SNCC. (And neither did lots of Northern whites, when it came their turn to have his prophetic eye turned on their racial attitudes and practices.)
So when R. Jeshua bar Miriam said that “a prophet is not without honor, but* in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,” he was making a profound sociological observation, to which I would only add “and in his own time.”
The other thing to consider, in responding to Daniel’s point that the people progressives think of as moral leaders aren’t the people running the party, is that the prophetic office and the kingly office are necessarily distinct. Machiavelli’s “armed prophet” is necessarily an ex-prophet; moral leadership does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. Political leaders use coercion, and they trade in material interests – the “who gets what, when, and how” of politics – as well as in moral reasoning and rhetoric. Sometimes a great moral leader is catapulted to political power and insists on maintaining his prophetic stance and his clean hands. Vaclav Havel tried it, which is why (1) there’s no longer a country called Czechoslovakia; and (2) the politics of the Czech Republic have been dominated by the odious Vaclav Klaus.
The best you can hope for from a politician in office is an ear open to the prophetic voice. The pure gold of moral truth is too soft to make a sceptre out of; you need some base-metal alloy, or the thing won’t hold up in use.
Now I wish that Barack Obama had chosen to try to exercise more moral leadership on the question of torture. But notice that wouldn’t have been moral leadership over his core followers: we’re already sold. He would have been trying to lead the people who mostly didn’t vote for him. And he might well have failed. Certainly, that would have been morally more admirable than not trying.
* But = except