Elected leaders in the time of the virus
In the middle of the pandemic, we are experiencing many things. We are having panic attacks, maniacal purchasing, emotional outbursts, prayer sessions and occasional moments of quiet reflection. During these moments, we try to mix into our thinking thoughts of our loved ones, objective information and the pronouncements of officials.
Officials, especially the elected variety, have a special role in our lives during a time of crisis. They are the individuals who can exercise authority, give directions and alternately serve as a source of inspiration and as a target for castigation. In praise and in criticism, they loom larger than life. Their misstatements attract our derision. Their capacity for empathy evokes our sympathetic response. Their command of the facts attracts our respect. When our politics coincides with theirs, we give them more leeway. When our politics is not of the same variety, we don’t give them the credit they may deserve.
In frustration, we sometimes tell ourselves that we don’t really need to pay attention to the elected officials. But of course, we must. We have no choice. Whether they are ignorant, foolish, intelligent, wise or disconnected to reality really does matter. They have the power to make decisions which affect our mobility, our safety and ultimately, our lives.
We have to wonder whether quick action saved lives or just complicated them. We now know that inadequate action literally led to unnecessary deaths in other countries and the United States. Some leaders acted while others blinked. At first, they denied potential impact, then mitigated the consequences and then finally accepted the realities. The pandemic went from being equivalent to the flu to potentially killing 200,000 Americans. All along, they tried to direct responsibility for the virus and its consequences elsewhere. I am sure all of you know which leaders I am referring to.
But if your politics won’t allow this characterization to affix itself to certain individuals, you have to ask yourself what keeps you from making this criticism. Why would you hesitate to criticize a given elected official in spite of all the actions or inaction? Why would you excuse an elected official who regularly misinforms and distracts? What are the underpinnings of our thinking when we refuse to make this judgement about an elected official?
We like to believe that honesty, integrity, scientific fact and the better nature of our angels motivate our public policy. We claim that we want leaders who exemplify these character traits and approach to the formation of our public life. Yet, we allow individuals who we know are dishonest, who celebrate scientific ignorance and who resist the “better nature” as naïve to hold important offices. We know it going in and we know it when we see it.
But many of us simply do not care. We continue to make excuses for these leaders. Why are we willing to throw out virtues we claim to hold in favor of individuals who clearly do not have them? When it comes to public policy, it isn’t virtue that matters. It is obviously political affiliation. The source of this political affiliation has to be more than just ideology. Even the most rabid Democrat or Republican has virtuous statements to make when it comes to making public policy.
But something happens when the behavior of leaders does not match the virtuous statements and coherent ideology. We excuse them anyway. If it isn’t virtue or ideology that we use to assess effective leadership, what is it that drives us to support and follow officials who are corrupt, dishonest or just clueless?
It must be the attraction to power. Being in power is more important than being right. Like the sports fanatic who does not root for the team with the most talent or most virtue, we continue to support our political team. We do so not on the basis of political ideology. We do so because it is our team. We are empowered by power not by virtue.
But this has many more consequences than sporting events. In fact, the current pandemic has put all sports out of focus as we concentrate on our current situation. We no longer spend hours watching highly paid athletes who represent “our” city. The virus has made that kind of loyalty seem pointless in a time when thousands of people face their own demise because leaders couldn’t get the right professionals in place or deliver the appropriate equipment in a timely manner.
But the blind loyalty continues in a potentially more devastating form. We watch the pronouncements by elected officials and read their notices. Then, we assess our own prospects. We are comforted or discomforted. We shop and pray some more. We recognize the misinformation and know the incompetence when we see it. But then we remember what political team we are on. We make excuses and we continue to support accordingly.
Historically, Hitler was the most popular person in Germany when he came to power. He ruled by force when he needed to, but most of the time he didn’t need to. Today, Stalin (who rivaled Hitler in his capacity for evil), has a 70 percent approval rating in Russia. We can dismiss these historical figures as coming from countries which have different dynamics which are not applicable to the United States. Hopefully, this is true. But even today, there are many millions of people who continue to praise Hitler and Stalin in spite of what we know. Some are in the U.S.
Thousands will die today because of the misjudgments and inaction off some or our elected leaders. Perhaps some of those who die will excuse those very same leaders because they are on the same political team. Coronavirus doesn’t care which political team you are on.
Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.