An Irish writer named John Waters defines authority as “the capacity to endure unpopularity in the interests of the good.” He adds that a defining quality of fatherhood through the ages has been “a preparedness to be resented.” The two are very much related in the context of American political leadership: Some of the adults who run this country are willing to take heat for the greater good; they understand that authority (patriarchal or matriarchal) breeds resentment, but can also inspire respect if it’s believed to be moral. I think President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi share these qualities, and not because I generally agree with their politics. It’s because I believe they speak and act with genuine moral authority grounded in their values and in their long service to the nation. It’s not simply because they are elders — he’s 77, she’s 81 — but elders who actually understand the importance of leadership in a crisis, the need for mature wisdom in governance and for empathy in all things.
If you’ve never been fans of Biden or Pelosi, at least consider where they are on the spectrum of leadership in the country today. It’s such an easy contrast to make I almost feel guilty doing so. But on two fronts — Biden’s efforts to get the nation out of the pandemic, Pelosi in dealing with the Trumpian threat to democracy — these two elders, by any objective measure, tower over the Republican lilliputians in Congress and in red-state governments. Maybe that’s a low bar, but I write this to give my fellow Americans some perspective on leadership, wisdom and moral authority.
Of those who still prefer Trump and people like Trump lacky Kevin McCarthy, the anti-vax Sen. Rand Paul, anti-mask Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the obnoxious Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — I need to ask: Do they really want liars, clowns and adolescent brats running their states and our country? Even with our ideological differences, I can’t believe they do — not deep down, where instincts live. The Republicans I just mentioned are not leaders; they are entertainers, players in a cynical political-media show. They use their authority to divide rather than find common ground; they exploit fears and prejudices, and you never hear them speak of the greater good.
(Before I go on: Yes, I understand that millions voted for Trump and would do so again, essentially eschewing wisdom and moral authority as qualifications for the presidency, and construing bigoted populism for leadership. It’s a difficult concession to make, and I probably have already offended any Trump supporters who might read this. But I think most people can put aside their prejudices and, in the privacy of their online reading, consider an argument of good intention. The one I make declares moral authority and wise leadership a basic human need.)
I have said this before: I think we underestimate the problem of immaturity in American culture and politics. It contributes, more than we acknowledge, to the nation’s backsliding. And both are factors in the Trumpian threat to democracy.
Ours has been described as a “sibling society,” with too few real grownups and too many Americans in a state of protracted adolescence. That might sound like something older Americans always say about younger Americans, a common gripe at the generational divide. But, over the last 40 years or so, numerous social commentators, psychologists and other observers have tried to describe something beyond conventional differences.
Robert Bly, the sagacious poet, got into this with a book in the 1990s. In an adolescent culture, he said, empathy for children and respect for elders disappear. Political leaders take knives to the social safety net, and they strive not to be good or great, but to be famous. Voters become disillusioned. The young are told that nothing works, that our great institutions, the pillars of a free and just society, all have profound flaws. Politics becomes a toxic mix of partisan sniping, petty jealousies, destructive rivalries and crippling cynicism. Young people, who search instinctively for role models, cannot locate enough genuine grownups and they end up in extended adolescence — all to the detriment of American society.
How did this happen? There’s been a pileup of corrosive developments — the official lies of the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; the self-interest of the “greed is good” Reagan years; the coarsening of rhetoric and the impeachment of the adolescent-in-chief, Bill Clinton; the lie that supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the rise of the tea party and anti-government sentiment, super partisanship, the backlash to Obama and the ascent of Trump — that led to a critical mass of cynicism about American politics. Add the warp-speed changes in society brought about by technology and the advent of the Internet, decades of flat wages and income inequality, and you have more Americans who are isolated and less trusting, more disillusioned and feeling deprived of … something.
And that something could be a lot of things, but one is mature and moral leadership. Trump supporters — feeling disenfranchised, according to the national media — might have thought they were getting that with his election in 2016. But the adolescent, amoral and truth-challenged Trump was just the opposite of what the nation needed. He made things worse. Fortunately, in 2020, millions of Americans more recognized in Biden the possibility of experienced and informed leadership committed to the greater good. And that’s what we’re getting. The jobs picture has improved just as the pandemic outlook has taken a dive. But Biden remains steadfast in most of his commitments — not just to ending the pandemic and helping Americans get through it, but to dealing with climate change and rebuilding infrastructure. You can knock him for being too liberal or not being liberal enough, but he’s standing right there, in the middle of the country, a father figure like Eisenhower, but more progressive and more connected to average Americans.
Biden continues to implore Americans to get vaccinated against the mutating coronavirus and tells reckless governors in Florida and Texas to “get out of the way.” Republicans who mock him and deride mask mandates and Biden’s vaccination implorations are dangerous, but that stems from their lack of maturity, their adolescent instincts to play to the party’s base and not the greater good. It’s dreary self interest at the risk of public health.
Pelosi, meanwhile, has taken the threat to democracy seriously and has a congressional committee getting to the bottom of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and without the usual, adolescent antics of people like Rep. Jim Jordan. Pelosi stood up to Trump — the school principal chastising the playground bully and loudmouth — and, while conservative misogynists hate her, she remains steadfast in her commitments to having a Congress that responds to the needs of average Americans. She presided in the House when the Affordable Care Act passed without a single Republican vote in 2010, and she presides now as the Republican leadership continues to embrace Trump while ignoring the Capitol attack and denying the ongoing threat to democracy.
It’s easy to get lost in day-to-day politics, the endless chatter of talking heads about what’s happening in Washington. It’s important to pull out of that and reflect on where we were a year ago, and where we are now. Whether or not you agree with their politics and policies, Biden and Pelosi are the grownups-in-the-room most Americans have been looking for — indeed, were desperate for. Fortunately, there are still more of us who see it that way than those who apparently prefer liars, clowns and adolescent brats to lead their states and our country.