Wednesday, February 11, 2004

I just read Our Culture of Pandering by the late, great, bow-tied and bespectacled former Senator from Illinois, Paul Simon, who endorsed Howard Dean by phone the week before he died following heart surgery. It's a thin political book written at a relatively simple level; it's not some high-minded theoretical discussion but a very quick read. Smion's main point is that leaders no longer lead but, instead, pander to a) the masses and b) the people with money.

Simon notes that most of the great progressive strides were done against the tide of public opinion and goes on to list many steps he participated in, while noting how most leaders pander in "politics," "the media," "religion," and "education."

Simon cites foreign policy as the one place where political leaders definitely need to lead rather than pander. Another is Social Security, where Simon claims that both Republicans and Democrats have pandered by taking increased taxes and reduced benefits off the table.

The media is also a segment of leadership that panders in search of market share and money, focusing on titillating and rumor-mongering "trivia." Increasing already-high profit margins becomes more important than substantive reporting. An Editorial page which should be a bully pulpit become a center for the avoidance of controversy. In campaign coverage, media organizations that have coincidentally ivested heavily in creating polls rely on easily-gathered poll numbers and sound bites. Violence, especially war, is depicted too often in a glorious rather than realistic manner. This unwise wielding of influence hurts the nation and ultimately hearts the media business by removing any soul in abandoning the notion of public service.

Simon also has thoughts on religion, which he finds a potential source of both good and evil, citing wars of religion and anti-slavery activists. Here, the fault is with religious communities that find it easier to raise money for a new house of worship than for a social cause. As Simon puts it, the question is whether religions are "social clubs" or "agents of change." Many pastors, he notes, are unwilling to cause discomfort in those who regularly attend services. Simon identifies as a major problem the inability to work together across different faiths. Some ignorant leaders use incendiary language. Others promote interfaith dialogue, but practice it in a way that is "pleasant but superficial." Politicians who make use of religion tend to exploit it rather than use it as a unifying force. For example, see George W. Bush's use of the word "crusade" after Sepetmber 11. Simon punctuates this need for leadership by citing the Founding Fathers as an exceedingly tolerant group on the issue of religion.

Finally, Simon singles out the field of education as an area of pandering. For Simon, the fundamental weakness of American education is the relative shortness of the school calendar, compared to other nations, though he cautions that more school days need to work in conjunction with a strong home and high-quality teachers. The failure in instituting what is such an obviously easy improvement (according to Simon's statistics) stems from a lack of will in confronting parents, teachers, and taxpayers who might object. Prekindergarten education, adult literacy, and foreign language instruction are other areas that Simon finds a need for more active education.

Interwoven are mini-profiles in courage. Arthur Vandenberg led a Republican-controlled Congress to join with a Democratic president in supporting an unpopular Marshall Plan. Senator Henry Bellmon, a Republican from Oklahoma, voted for the Panama Canal Treaty and paid the price; he was called a traitor despite his World War II service and announced he would not seek re-election. Brian Lamb at C-SPAN, Jim Lehrer and Charlie Rose on PBS, Sixty Minutes are among the oases on a vast TV news wasteland. Carol Marin quit a Chicago TV station which was going to include a commentary by Jerry Springer in its newscasts. Bread for the World tackles world hunger from a Christian perspective. A minority of schools across the country have shifted to a year-round calendar. Over various opposition, the G.I. Bill was passed to include educational benefits rather than a cash bonus.

These are contrasted with profiles in dis-courage. The Superme Court caving to FDR and the public in the Korematsu case. Congressmen voting for harsh prison sentencing because they fear being labeled "soft on crime." The media frenzy over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The media creating the inaccurate Voter News Service on the cheap. A newspaper making an endorsement because the editor wanted a good working relationship with the likely winner. Hitler rising to power because Lutheran and Catholic leaders chose to "stay out of politics." In higher education, the "publish or perish" phenomenon leads to an explosion of academic jargon.

How should leaders lead? Simon has several ideas. He admits that politicians are not wholly independent of public opinion or of campaign contributions. At the same time, he notes that those sources are not necessarily the most informed. Simon says that he generally went with the public on matters of "limited importance," while relying on the knowledge of fellow legislators in more obscure, technical matters. But on meaningful matters, the public is too ill-informed to be the source of decision-making. Simon also wants increased public financing of campaigns. In his own life, he claims not to be directly influenced by contributors, but admits that those people have easier access to him and every other legislator. In the media, we should promote increased access to a variety of news and opinions. This includes the media itself concentrating a quality product and the government resisting the trend toward conglomeration which ultimately leads to a few panderers dominating the industry. Religious leaders need to challenge the members of their congregations to live better lives. Religion needs to be part of public life, but not in a self-righteous manner. Education funding needs to be viewed as a long-term investment that will pay dividends.

In the end, Simon's goal is not for the public to no longer clamor to be pandered to but for leaders in all walks of life to show some self-restraint. For the Senator, all problems have the same basic solution: "Leadership with courage."

Simon's book falls in with the elite theory of leadership. Leaders lead. A society without leaders who lead is a flawed society. Simon accepts that the masses are not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to handle direct democracy, but he refuses to disrespect the public and he refuses to give in to misanthropy fueled by the stupidity of man. This, I think is a key point in modern liberalism; with good leadership, society can be pushed in the right direction. This is as opposed to communism, which in theory favors the masses over the elites, opposed to conservatism which seeks to control the masses to prevent harm, opposed to libertarianism which throws its hands up in the air at everyone else and seeks to carve out an inviolate kingdom of the individual.
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