Misleading about Leadership

by Russ Roberts on October 15, 2007

in Politics

Thomas Friedman makes the case for the virtues of Al Gore’s leadership relative to George Bush’s:

Mr. Gore lost the presidency, but in the dignity and grace with
which he gave up his legal fight, he united America.

Huh? You can debate whether Gore should have or shouldn’t have fought the legal battle in the first place. But to argue that he united America is surreal. In his losing battle to change the outcome, Gore convinced millions of partisans that the election was stolen and caused them to doubt the integrity of the Supreme Court. Had the outcome been reversed, had he won, the same thing would have happened on the other side of the political fence.  Richard Nixon when given  information of outright cheating in the 1960 presidential election in Texas and Illinois decided to leave it alone. Gore makes Nixon look like a uniting visionary.

Then, faced with
what to do with the rest of his life, he took up a personal crusade to
combat climate change, even though the odds were stacked against him,
his soapbox was small, his audiences were measured in hundreds, and his
critics were legion. Nevertheless, Mr. Gore stuck with it and over time
has played a central role in building a global consensus for action on
this issue.

Global consensus? Where? There isn’t a consensus even in America about what to do about global warming, partially because the loudest spokesperson for the cause is a divisive political partisan. I think Friedman must have meant "global consensus among readers of the New York Times." The article continues:

“No matter what happens, sooner or later character
in leadership is revealed,” said David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming
“Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making.”
“Gore lost the election and had to figure out what to do with the rest
of his life. He took the initiative to get the country and the world to
focus on a common threat — climate change. Bush won the election and
for the first year really didn’t know what to do with it. When, on
9/11, we and the world were suddenly faced with a common threat —
terrorism and Al Qaeda — the whole world was ready to line up behind
him, but time and again he just divided us at home and abroad.”

Indeed, Mr. Bush, rather than taking all that unity and using it to
rebuild America for the 21st century, took all that unity and used it
to push the narrow agenda of his “base.” He used all that unity to take
a far-right agenda on taxes and social issues that was going nowhere on
9/10 and drive it into a 9/12 world.

This is weird on so many levels. First, Bush’s "base," identified by Friedman as the far-right, hates him. He spends too much, is too pro-immigration and hasn’t done much on social issues.

The implication of Rothkopf’s quote and Friedman’s assessment is that if Bush had been a good leader, he could have convinced Russia and France and China and Syria and Iran and Egypt to support whatever the US wanted. This is fantasy. The essence of "leadership" is doing unpopular stuff, stuff that goes against the consensus and that later turns out to be right. In Friedman’s world, leadership is about convincing people who disagree with you to change their minds. But disagreement usually exists because there is conflict. What benefits one group harms another. "Leadership" can’t make that problem go away. Leadership is about deciding which groups will prosper and which groups will pay the price. That is why power (and putting power in the hands of leaders) is so dangerous. It is a delusion to think that the right leader can get everyone to agree.

The war in Iraq may turn out to be the disaster it appears to be right now. Or it may turn out much better than it looks. Fault Bush for being a foolish utopian or for being unrealistic about what would follow the US invasion or for hubris or bad management. But to fault him for failing to unite the world is to misunderstand what tension in the world is about. The source of that tension is that some people want to advance at other people’s expense. No amount of leadership makes that problem go away.


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