Watching the debate on deficit reduction, abortion, gay marriage, what to do with regard to Iran and on a range of other policy issues, many Americans feel pummeled with dramatically different positions from politicians who would convince them that the wrong choice leaves the republic in jeopardy from without and within. If we modify it to reign in deficit spending, Social Security will "cease to exist as we know it." If we don't, the system will "go bankrupt." If the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is not overturned, it will be a "government takeover of the health care system." If it does not, health care spending will doom the nation. Welcome to the age of hyperbolic leadership.
To be sure, the framers of our Constitution did not count on reasoned and reasonable political discourse. As far back as the visceral polemics between Jefferson's Republicans and Adams's Federalists in the 1790s, hyperbolic leadership -- exaggerated and frightening claims about the impact of certain national policies or electing specific candidates -- has been common in public debate. But that does not mean it is healthy.
Hyperbolic leadership has three primary characteristics. First, a crisis must be created on an issue for which action is sought. Gay marriage will destroy the family if not stopped. Increasing taxes on the wealthy will save the economy (or destroy it). The leadership assumption is that, absent a crisis, Americans are just too busy or too blasé to want anything done. Second, the policy options presented are "either-or" choices. Gun registration will lead to preventing all senseless killing or it will lead to confiscation of all weapons by the government. Third, the political rhetoric aims at polarization -- the politics of exclusion. You're either for us or against us, a red state or a blue state, a liberal or a conservative, God-fearing or devoid of moral values.
Even where hyperbolic leadership "works" in the short run, to produce a political decision ("victory"), the long run price is steep. Trust in government is the first public value to suffer. This may be because most of the crises turn out, in time, not to be crises after all, such as the certainty of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Or it may be because the proffered "solutions," in the end, don't truly solve the problems they have been promised to address. Trust in each other is the second public value to suffer, being hard to sustain when we use so much vitriolic language to demonize our opponents.
Hyperbolic leadership renders well-reasoned proposals and reasonable conversation difficult, since the goal is to convince not converse. Facts are used out of context. Arguments are constructed by ignoring conflicting data. By the same dynamic, it makes political compromise -- the essence of democratic progress -- much harder to reach because it equates such compromise with losing, and Americans hate to lose.
Hyperbolic leadership almost ensures that looming issues, those best addressed sooner rather than later, will grow worse because they cannot be addressed. In a similar vein, hyperbolic leadership makes it nearly impossible to focus attention on important issues that may never be crises, such as the problems of the working poor.
Perhaps worst of all, hyperbolic leadership makes it difficult to feel a sense of efficacy in addressing things that matter. It encourages people to think in extremes and despair of actual solutions.
Yet there is a solution to the deficit problem just as surely as there is a solution on abortion, the problem of gun violence, and a host of other issues we face. But the solution is rarely in the extremes. Those who lead us hyperbolically will not be the ones to lead us to these solutions. When the rhetoric on these concerns recedes, we will find the kind of leadership we most need. It will bring our collective wisdom to bear on seemingly intractable problems. A solution will be closer. We may be pleased at the same time to find our social harmony much closer as well.