Is God Dead in American Politics?

Two quotes have always made a lot of sense to me. They both are about leadership and were stumbled upon in school while working to find “catchy” ways to begin essays.

“Great leaders don’t set out to be leaders…They set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role — always about the goal.” -author (I’m not sure.)
“A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” -Arnold H. Glasow

I can appreciate a good tempo and rhythm in a phrase. Even more importantly — and I think the reason why these two have stuck with me — they hold a certain level of relevance. No one would doubt that we are at a pivotal moment in American history. Depending on how you prioritize things, economics is changing, with jobs and class structures reorganizing following the rise of computers and other technologies. Economics is changing politics, with the repeal of 70 years of campaign finance. And in this presidential election, only 158 families provided nearly half of the early money efforts to candidates looking to capture the White House. Division is growing, war is looming and the average temperature this past December was 53 degrees here in New Jersey.

But more important than complaining about problems, we need fixes. In towns like Plainfield, where money is tight and both taxes and prayers are heavy, leaders are often tasked with great responsibility. Their decisions will affect more than just the people they lead today, the programs they fund may or may not last for years to come; the buildings they erect will stand long into the future; and the young they shepherd will inhabit the earth long after they are gone. So, in an important of a time as ever, we must look not only at what our leaders decisions are but also at why they make the decisions they do. Do they live by the principals like those expressed by my two favorite quotes? Or do their motivations to lead stem from some other doctrines?

Cited as the most read book on political leadership, a little blueprint on how to rule Renaissance Italy was written in 1532. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince to win the favor of Lorenzo de Medici. Machiavelli explained with clarity exactly what a prince should do to keep his power, his city and his people safe. But he warned that in keeping those essentials, the prince could not keep his soul safe. He prescribes that leaders become half man half beast, and of the beast half, success requires another delineation. A leader must be a lion, able to fend off wolves, and a fox, able to recognize traps. The mind of the fox allows him to appear virtuous, pious and trustworthy — he will be loved for this even though Machiavelli doesn’t actually consider these traits desirable. The reality is, the prince must be willing to defend not only his state but his power at all cost. This is where the lion comes in. Any wind of insurrection should be quieted. In order to keep power, a leader must do one thing and say another, and Machiavelli admits the leader must go to hell. That is the cost of leading.

Now, whether or not a person has read The Prince, his philosophy aligns with a school of thought they can reach on their own. What is known as, realism, is a way of looking at the world essentially devoid of empathy. Unfortunately, this view causes leaders to put the actual holding of power before the well-being of those they serve. The reasoning often is that they must take “necessary” actions (as the lion does) for the betterment of the people — because without them at the helm everything would be worse. They are all suffering from the “lesser of two evils” pandemic.

Two centuries after Machiavelli, a noble known by the Prussians as “Old Fritz” wrote a book almost no leader has read. The title, Anti-Machiavel and the author, you may know him as Frederick the Great. The Prussian king led his state under principals of the enlightenment that had swept over Europe. As you may have guessed his book criticized Machiavelli’s every word. It is important to know that Frederick was responsible for progressive reforms such as increasing social mobility so that judgeships and senior bureaucratic positions could be held by those outside the nobility. He reformed the judicial system, won the Seven Years War and opened Prussian borders to those of all religions. Not that he was perfect, but for his time, Frederick was revolutionary. He led with ideas. He held strong principles. And he ruled his state under a code of — dare I say it — morals. And his critique of Machiavelli and realism, like many of the enlightenment, was a moral one. But, alas, every president has read The Prince while none have glanced at Anti-Machiavel. Many local, state, and federal officials seem to favor Machiavelli’s realism over Fredericks idealism.

Now, what do an old Italian advisor and a Germanic king from the 1700’s have to say about American politics today? We see the same ideological battle in politics every day. Some candidates spend more time positioning themselves and campaigning than they do working for their constituents. It could be said that our system forces politicians to work in this way — constantly needing money to secure votes. But a run at city council isn’t more than $5,000 a pop, so I’m inclined to think money isn’t to blame at every level.

Earlier this year, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the phrase “God is dead.” He was writing about what has happened since Neiztche wrote that sentence and god died, meaning that our society has left the moral confines of the church’s doctrine. He said without god there are no morals and that Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, knew the importance of god as the giver of moral guidance in the market, hence “the invisible hand”. Now, my friend was talking about capitalism and god’s place in it, but I think, despite our separation of church and state, there is something to be said about morals in politics. I wonder if our public officials were given a truth serum and asked what their motivations are, how many would have a moral basis and how many would show the fox and lion? There are sure to be leaders with principles; but for every one, there are three who are more concerned with control. Again, I refer back to the two quotes. A leader’s motivation doesn’t have to be religious or eccentric or complicated. But he/she should have something other than a need to win driving them. We are at a pivotal point for the future of our country, and this is the time for more Frederick the Greats and less Machiavellis. This is the time for citizens to stay vigilant. You can tell what kind of president, board member or legislator someone is by their actions. We could see an era of transparency and honesty — andera of enlightenment — or we can watch politics continue on as usual.

Specifically, Plainfield, New Jersey suffers from a lack of funds. We simply don’t have the burgeoning tax base other cities do. But that is not our greatest issue. Our most pressing issue is in leadership. Imagine if we had a school board that worked with the administration and vice versa. Imagine if we had completely transparent legislative bodies that were autonomous but cooperative. Imagine the opinions of residents were not only heard but regarded. Imagine innovation wasn’t feared and brewed in secrecy but shared. This could be a reality, but it will take citizens being engaged and actually supporting those leaders who are not fixated on positions but are beholden to something bigger than themselves. And this may be that election. It could never be clearer. We have a corporate Mogel, two political powerhouses and an underdog from Vermont on the national stage. But forgo that excitement to pay closer attention to what’s going on in your own backyard. That is where the biggest changes happen.

Local leaders must be held to certain standards. You wouldn’t want a plumber who is more fixated on keeping your business than remedying your problem, or a dentist or doctor who is more interested in seeing you in his chair than seeing you healthy. Now, I’m not calling for everyone to go out and vote for your favorite pastor in this town or any other. But when you get the sense that you are supporting “the lesser of two evils” don’t. I don’t think god is dead in American politics. The people never lost their morals. We just need to get out, get active and remind our leaders that there is a difference between right and wrong. It’s that simple.

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