08/26/2010 01:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Make Me Do It

Recently a friend who is old but claims not to be especially wise -- just a guy, he says -- had a chance to confer with a real elder. My friend prepared his questions carefully, and also his technology. When they met, he used his smartphone to capture the audio. This is how it went down:

Guy: How do we find transformational leaders?
Elder (in a kindly tone): Wrong question, lad.
Guy: You don't think the U.S. political situation is desperately in need of change?
Elder: Totally desperate, but your initial query is blinded by an assumption.
Guy (evasively): My friends and I just want to find a transformational leader we can believe in.
Elder: That's the problem. You're easily flattered. Are you the people you've been waiting for? A candidate emerges from the meritocracy and talks pretty but he meanwhile accepts hefty funds from the financial elite.
Guy: Well, we tried.
Elder: And he turned out, on some big issues, to accept policies that were not sharply different from his predecessor.
Guy: I thought he and his allies might give us -- well I hoped he would fight for single-payer health insurance (such as the rest of the developed world has). I hoped he would effectively regulate Wall St. and would get out of Iraq (rather than rebranding the troops there as "trainers")...
Elder: Whoa, young fella, you got two problems: your leader may not be who you hoped that he was, but even if he were, do you expect anyone to transform the system by himself?
Guy: He's not alone. I keep fairly well informed. And I can't tell you how many internet petitions I've signed.
Elder: The author of Soul of a Citizen calls this the "seduction of clicking." Do you think the system is afraid of internet warriors?
Guy (explaining it's somebody else's fault): Everything seems to get lost in the swamp of Congress.
Elder: Pity your poor legislators who have to spend most spare moments "dialing for dollars." Can you be astonished that they feel gratitude to executives, lobbyists, front groups, and even now to corporations that are allowed to give big chunks of money? This practice is perfectly legal, it's not prosecutable as bribery. The money is to support a campaign, not to buy a specific vote.
Guy (who sees where the elder is going): Well, let me say I haven't supported campaigns financed solely by public funds: why should we citizens pay for those crooks to lie to us?
Elder: I understand, but is this frugality or false economy? Don't you end up paying many times as much when big money interests get laws and regulations they want?
Guy: So you regard the whole system as corrupt?
Elder: Not the whole system: your political system has many revolutionary and admirable components. But as long as you allow big money to distort your elections and the legislative process, Congress will block any change that would challenge big money. It's really quite simple.
Guy (hopefully): We're about to elect a new House and a third of the Senate.
Elder: I know, but how many legislators of either party will stand up for ordinary citizens? They say they will, but "he who pays the piper calls the tune."
Guy: But ultimately doesn't the majority rule?
Elder: According to surveys, big groups of voters have wanted single-payer health insurance, strict regulation of big banks, an end to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you see any of this happening, except in the form of spin?
Guy: Okay, so what do you want?
Elder: I want nonviolent but widespread, persistent, simple demands for programs that benefit the whole community, not just the richest 1% or 5% or 10%.
Guy: Isn't this exactly what we hoped that a transformational leader would do?
Elder: During The Great Depression FDR said to a movement leader -- with whom he agreed -- he said, "Make me do it." As long as you sit back and depend on a leader, you're going to be disappointed even when the leader could be transformational.
Guy: I thought it was pretty good that so many of us got to the polls.
Elder: Yes, it was a good start, but leaders respond to pressure, to an aroused public. The first serious environmental laws were passed in Nixon's time; voting rights laws, in the presidency of a Southerner, of LBJ. In each case the leaders were pushed by a movement.
Guy: So what do we put on the bumper sticker?
Elder: As they used to say in the citizen diplomacy movement, back during the Cold War: "When the people lead, the leaders will follow."