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Do We Really Want "Mainstream" Leaders?

07/09/2010 02:04 pm 14:04:48 | Updated May 25, 2011

In the recent Elena Kagan hearings, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama accused Ms. Kagan of espousing views that fell far "outside of the mainstream." In a particularly sneering drawl, the senator made this accusation as though being outside the mainstream of anything reflected a diabolical perversion of all that is right and good in America. (Which is odd, because the Supreme Court as an institution was explicitly insulated by the Founders from mainstream politics, ostensibly to free justices from tailoring their views to the conventional wisdom, rather than to the Constitution, but I digress.)

But, aside from the term "mainstream" being inherently problematic in its use and meaning, what do we mean when we describe our leaders thusly, or not? And is "mainstream-ness" (for lack of a better term) really a good measurement of leadership quality? I don't think so.

Sure, Americans show preference for politicians with whom they can "share a beer." We like "everyday people", and "average Joes", preferably if they come from the "Heartland". But I would argue Americans hold equal, if not greater, reverence for those leaders who personify American exceptionalism, rugged idealism, Yankee ingenuity, and pioneer spirits. People whose natures and characters allow them to, as Bobby Kennedy put it, "see things as they should be and ask, why not?"

Americans take a special pride in the idiosyncrasies and sometimes misanthropic outlooks of our most beloved heroes. We thrill at the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau, the defiance of Frederick Douglass, the tenacity of Susan B. Anthony, and the searing social commentary of Mark Twain. These, too, comprise a core of values Americans hold dear. And these fiery dissents and anti-establishment views have been the catalysts of progress.

The Founders themselves were hardly mainstreamers. They envisioned a functioning democracy in a world where no such thing existed, and took on an empire to realize their goal. They created a Constitution so beautifully structured that it has lasted longer than any other on earth, but also so sophisticated that its meaning and implications are subject to ongoing interpretation (yes, even the Originalists interpret the Constitution in writing their opinions; it is not done by computer) and provide the basis for many of today's hottest political debates.

Yes, our politicians must be accountable to their constituents, and should cast votes in accordance with the beliefs and values of those constituents. And I'm not advocating outright radicalism or anarchism as a means of political expression, for these are not legitimate substitutes for governing philosophies and innovative solutions.

What I am suggesting, as we near the 2010 midterm elections, is that Americans consider the challenges facing this country and ask themselves, What kind of men and women are best equipped to meet those challenges, to overcome them, even to anticipate them? Because if the last two years have taught us anything, it is that change comes whether we would have it so or not, and those who promise to halt change, or to turn back time to some other, better, safer era, are peddling in false promises, and threatening to leave our great nation to stagnation or even decline.

This is the time, I think, when we need visionaries more than ever. When we should call upon our innovators, our dreamers, our risk takers and our unconventional thinkers. We need some leaders outside of the mainstream to save us from drowning in it.