‘Transformational Leadership’ Is What America Needs in 2008

Every generation or so, America experiences a presidency that offers “transformational leadership” — “a leader who takes a visionary position and inspires people to follow” (click to read more on transformational leadership). This leader is not simply a follower of polls, a politician trying to survive and maintain his position, an incrementalist, a triangulator, a panderer, a practitioner of mediocre transactional politics, like George H.W. Bush (41) or Bill Clinton (42) — he doesn’t tinker around the edges of ideological policy change. He actually changes the political environment, the governing ideology of the country, and changes the terms of the public debate. He wins an election or two in a landslide, receives a clear mandate, and brings along on his coattails a Congress that can actually enact his program.

Think Theodore Roosevelt and his “bully pulpit,” leading the early progressive and environmental movements to protect the public and create a social safety net in the early part of the 20th century. Think Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, greatly expanding social safety nets a quarter of a century after TR. Think of John F. Kennedy’s galvanizing speeches 1960-63, and Lyndon Johnson 1964-66, leading the civil rights revolution, enacting “Great Society” legislation after JFK’s martyrdom, winning a landslide in 1964 and a huge Democratic majority in Congress. Think Ronald Reagan in 1980, the “great communicator,” winning a landslide, reacting strongly against the excesses of the welfare state and an expansionist federal government, and ushering in a conservative era based on three simple propositions — to “get tough” on the Soviet Union and leave communism “on the scrapheap of history”; a determination to slash taxes, promote private enterprise and entrepreneurship; and to reduce the size of “big government.”

A quarter of a century later, 2008 may be an opportunity of a generation to once again embrace “transformational leadership.” I don’t mean to say we need to find someone of the stature of TR, FDR, JFK, LBJ, or Reagan to run for president. None of the current prospects look larger than life, at least from today’s short-sighted perspective. I no longer believe in the great man theory of history — it’s extremely difficult if not impossible in this era of cynical and microscopic media examination of leaders to sustain belief in GREAT leaders or “heroes.” Transformational leadership in our era is more likely to come from the convergence of economic, societal, environmental, and technological forces, embodied in leaders who can, at least for a few years, articulate a vision and harness or be the focal point for societal energies that lead the country strongly in a specific direction.

In my view there are at least three issues that require transformational leadership, to help America make big changes, because incremental proposals without visionary leadership won’t adequately address the problems:

  • 47 million+ Americans without health insurance, while premiums are rising dramatically for those who have insurance.
  • environment (global warming/the need for alternative energy sources, conservation, and independence from oil),
  • the working poor and middle class losing ground while wealth is increasingly concentrated among the top one percent of extremely privileged families.

These thoughts were inspired by reading a post on Mydd.com (no longer available), an online community for Democratic activists, by Democratic consultant Matt Stoller, which led to some really thoughtful responses from very experienced progressive activists and Democratic consultants including former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi as they try to figure out who to support in the next campaign. Stoller starts his essay arguing for a transformational presidential candidate this way:

“We haven’t seen an opening this big for a genuinely progressive Presidency since 1932.  There’s a non-Southern Democratic Congress to work with, a strong populist economic strain, a thorough repudiation of a failed conservative movement, a disgraced corporate elite, new tools for organizing and governance, a strongly liberal mainstream culture, and a real liberal, energized, and confident base.”

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