33 years too late
In a talk to some up and coming councillors on Sunday I decided to try a new method of presentation. Influenced by the latest evidence about physical fitness, it was a kind of intellectual interval training. Over an hour and a quarter I delivered five packages of dense and quite challenging material, each about seven minutes long, interspersed with five minutes for table conversation and a couple of questions. For the record the sessions covered:
- The idea of the social aspiration gap
- The nature of wicked problems and the levels of meaning-making required to address them
- Grid-group and cultural theory
- The challenge of clumsy solutions
- The kind of leadership needed to develop clumsy solutions to wicked problems.
Gratifyingly, by the time I came to unveil Keith Grint’s three dimensions of clumsy leadership (questions not answers, relationships not structures, reflection not reaction) each had already been in some way adumbrated in earlier conversation. Given the pressures and conventional expectations of political leadership, I suspect only very regular work-outs will enable even the best intentioned of politicians to stay fit for purpose, nevertheless it was a good session and I plan to use the method again (RSA rates for my time are very reasonable!).
The question of political leadership is, of course, very much to the fore as we continue in the baleful state of being in a bad way while fearing something worse (Doctor to patient, ‘I have some bad news and some very bad news’: Patient: ‘Oh no! What’s the bad news?’: Doctor; ‘you only have 24 hours to live’: Patient: ‘Oh my God, what’s the very bad news?’: Doctor; ‘I forgot to tell you yesterday’).
So I was interested in a piece from Gary Younge published in yesterday’s Guardian. Younge reminds us that in 1979 Jimmy Carter responded to opinion polls for the first time showing Americans did not believe the future would be better than the past by speaking directly about this crisis of confidence.
From its opening passages, in which the President describes talking to ordinary Americans about their country’s problems and quotes comments critical of his own administration, it is, in many ways, a remarkable speech:
“ Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world”.
Carter’s speech was delivered in the midst of the energy crisis and urged Americans to act together to reduce consumption. The President was also in political dire straits. Three days after the speech he received the resignations of many of his cabinet officers and a year later, against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, he failed to win re-election. Although the immediate reaction was mixed, given subsequent events Carter’s speech is generally taken as evidence against being candid and direct with the electorate, especially in the face of difficult realities.
But surely we are today in urgent need of the kind of courage, honesty and appeal to our better spirit which the American President bravely attempted thirty three years ago? Carter’s failure suggests an honest appraisal of challenges – and an admission of the limited power of Government without popular engagement and mobilisation – needs to be balanced with a message of reassurance. Without this, the inevitable media-driven search for ulterior motive would threaten to conflate candour about national peril with an admission of Governmental frailty. This is also why it may be easier for an opposition leader to take the risk of exposing doubt and vulnerability as the backdrop to an appeal to shared values and for collective action.
My session on Sunday convinced me that politicians feel trapped in a broken discourse between themselves, public officials, community groups and the public at large. They yearn for a different model of leadership, which is more powerful precisely because it is more thoughtful, subjunctive and modest. Some might say a crisis is the last moment for such an experiment; politicians should stick to the simple melodies of self-serving glibness that count today as oratory. But as our country becomes an ever more fearful and pessimistic and as the day to day life of more and more citizens becomes harder and harder, who can really doubt the need for a leadership in a different key?