Republican politicians use the word "leadership" as though they expect it to have an aphrodisiac effect. For the arousal they perceive it to generate they part from their ethic of barking in monosyllables. And in the same stroke they reveal their ideal view of society: uncharitable souls might think of the GOP as a reptilian tribe of misanthropes, but their love of their own "leadership" shows that they can be quite fond of a humanity kept firmly under their heels.
Tim Pawlenty offered a case study in these qualities during the Republican candidates' debate, where he opened with what must have been thrilling repetitiveness for the party base: "I've got the experience and the leadership and the results to lead [America] to a better place." Mitt Romney was anxious not to be outdone, thrice stroking this button in two short sentences: "Why isn't the president leading? He isn't leading on balancing the budget and he's not leading on jobs." But the prize for insubstantial blather peppered with the magic word went to Michele Bachmann, who was duly praised in conservative circles for her performance. Bachmann on raising the debt ceiling: "President Obama has failed in leadership." Bachmann on Libya: "President Obama's own people said he was leading from behind. The United States doesn't lead from behind. As commander in chief, I would not lead from behind... The president was not leading when it came to Libya."
In the same debate Herman Cain praised Paul Ryan's plan to demolish Medicare, because "he has been very courageous in taking the lead on this." At least one person would agree emphatically with that statement: Paul Ryan. Responding on Meet the Press to widespread reviling of his plan as foisting rising healthcare costs on the most vulnerable segments of the population, Ryan sought heavily to perfume himself with his party's official pheromone: "Leaders are elected to lead. I don't consult polls to tell me what my principles are or what our policies should be. Leaders change the polls. And we are leading in the House... So yes, we are going to lead, and we are going to try to move these polls because that's what the country wants."
If Paul Ryan has any positive quality at all, it is his ability fully to disclose the aspirations under the surface of GOP rhetoric. Here he shows us the authoritarian streak of this party that clamors so loudly about freedom. Authoritarianism is by definition that form of political power unresponsive to the popular will. It either pretends, as Ryan does, to know the secret desires of the people (forget the polls, I know what the country really wants); or it pretends, as Ryan also does, to impose upon those governed the desires that they should have (leaders don't respond to public opinion, they create it).
This party of family values is openly promiscuous in applying its pet term beyond the domestic realm. Concerned that some Republicans are having second thoughts about initiating wars of choice, John McCain appeared on ABC's This Week to warn his party against flaccid isolationism with this triple dose of Republican Viagra: "We are the lead nation in the world, and America matters and it must lead, and sometimes that leadership entails sacrifice." (Take that, Michele Bachmann!) If Ryan uses the term "leadership" as cover for ramming unpopular and destructive policy down the public throat, McCain uses it as cover for sustained militarism. The leadership here implied is that of maintaining America's status as the world's sole superpower, no matter what the expense in blood and treasure, and with the perpetual warfare that status entails.
Democracy gives the lie to Paul Ryan's views. It is that political system where political "leaders" are in fact public servants implementing the policy that the people themselves author through their uncoerced consensus. And global justice gives the lie to John McCain's views. It is premised on the advancement of human dignity by building institutions that protect basic rights, and subjects military intervention to the scrutiny of international law. We can expect to hear a good deal more of this kind of Republican cant between now and November 2012. But the more Republicans work themselves into a lather with their pet term, the more they show just how little regard they have for ideals of democracy and justice.
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