The Leadership Test Politicians Keep Failing

We lose faith when those in power lose touch with reality

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of my favorite newsletters is The Interpreter, written by New York Times correspondents Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who contextualize world events. And in last week’s newsletter, The Interpreter opened with a photo of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s now-infamous Supreme Court nomination ceremony. Coney Barrett is sitting for White House photographers with her family.

Borrowing a question first posed by Georgetown University political scientist Don Moynihan, The Interpreter asked readers: “What do you think when you see this picture?”

Here are the responses:

We cancelled our wedding.”

I had to have a Zoom memorial for my son.”

I had to tell my Mother goodbye over the phone.”

I think about my autistic cousin who died alone in his apartment of covid a few days before Passover.”

My ten-year-old niece broke down crying this summer, asking whether she could please hug my mom, her grandmom, if they both wore trash bags over their heads.”

The reactions are undeniably raw. Even more than their emotional outpouring, the responses speak to the unfairness of the situation: We sacrifice so much and they sacrifice nothing.

That brings us The Interpreter’s larger point: Politicians lose support not because the people lose faith in their policies but because politicians lose touch with reality. They act as if the rules don’t apply to them. The unfairness of such actions explains, in part, why President Trump’s polling numbers have suddenly fallen among his core supporters. People have grown tired of him flouting rules by which everyone else abides.

Political scientists who track government corruption throughout the world argue that public backlash to corruption is at its strongest when the unfairness of a situation is at its starkest. This happens in country after country: Lebanon, Iraq, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria. “In Brazil,” The Interpreter writes, “long-simmering anger at inequality and economic malaise finally boiled over in mass protests when it was revealed that top officials had been taking bribes for years. To many Brazilians, the incident stung not because they were especially worried about, say, Brazilian construction firms securing ill-gotten government contracts, but because of the impunity.”

That sense for societal fairness guides not only the modern world but the ancient one. I’m reminded of a passage from the great historian and philosopher Will Durant, and the first volume of his “Story of Civilization” series:

Very often the chief, to maintain internal harmony, used his power or influence to have a revengeful family content itself with gold or goods instead of blood. Soon a regular tariff arose, determining how much must be paid for an eye, a tooth, an arm, or a life; the Hammurabi legislated extensively in such terms. The Abyssinians were so meticulous in this regard that when a boy fell from a tree upon his companion and killed him, the judges decided that the bereaved mother should send another of her sons into the tree to fall upon the culprit’s neck.

Fairness evolved with societies, but that evolution was uneven and sometimes, especially when nations abutted each other, unjust. Two hundred years ago a huge issue in America was native tribes kidnapping white settlers. Then once the settlers were located and brought home they often refused to integrate back into white society. They’d learned to appreciate and value the native cultures’ fairness toward all citizens. Sebastian Junger and I talked about this phenomenon last year on my podcast, here’s a snippet of our conversation:

“There was a colonial woman [kidnapped by Native Americans] who was later quoted by the Secretary of the French Legation, on why she didn’t return to white society: ‘I have no master here…I do what I please without anyone saying anything about it. I work only for myself. I shall marry if I wish or be unmarried if I wish. Is there a single woman as independent as I in your cities?’”

In a time when this woman could not vote, when she was seen as little more than her white husband’s property, she found a just and advanced society among a so-called primitive people.

We may say we want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Above all we want in 2020 what we have always wanted: a fair nation.

Best-selling author of The Saboteur. Learn the 7 rules Pulitzer winners and top-selling authors follow to make more money:

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