47 Percent and Beyond

US President Barack Obama (R) speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L), who greets the
US President Barack Obama (R) speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L), who greets the audience at the conclusion in Denver, Colorado, on October 3, 2012. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (R)/SAUL LOEB (L) (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/GettyImages)

The majority of polls and pundits give the win in the first presidential debate to Romney because of his performance. Well, what does that say about what we value in a leader?

To me, Romney came across as antsy, aggressive, amped up, and entitled in his general disregard for the moderator's limitations. Obama on the other hand seemed tired and not fully present and not going into the ring with his fists up, Traditionally we identify being aggressive and pushy as strong leadership because it is a way of winning the game of domination. That style of leadership is so not about real change; that's about maintaining the status quo. I'll take a good listener and a calm presence in my leader any day.

What was most striking was not just what was said at the debate but what was missing. Romney's infamous "47 percent remark" was practically missing in action. (Obama mentioned it only in passing.) Without Obama bringing it up forcefully and effectively as he did on the campaign trail, will we forget how Romney got caught red-handed saying what he really thinks to an audience who think the same way, that he doesn't care about 47 percent of people who don't pay taxes and described them as lazy victims and leeches? This of course is said by someone who conveniently has offshore accounts to limit paying his taxes, and being said to people who do the same. So exactly who are the people leeching off the system here?

Voters have two different world views to choose from. Curiously, and I suppose fortunately, both candidates agreed on what had to be done; how they would go about doing it was where the paths departed: Romney's would reduce the (already modest) financial burden on the wealthy while increasing it on the middle class, while Obama's plan is the obverse. But what drives these different world views? Economics has a lot to do with it.

Romney is a white man of privilege born into wealth, who doesn't even see his own privilege. Wealth can give you an illusion of independence and autonomy, that you don't need any one and that you do it alone, all values that don't necessarily lend themselves to being compassionate to the less fortunate. It's not that Romney hasn't worked hard as well, but he had more help than most in achieving his success, despite the tuna casseroles his wife spoke of at the GOP convention. Romney's lack of empathy, at times a mean-spiritedness towards those not doing as well as he, reflects an attitude not uncommon among the far right: "I had to do it on my own, what's wrong with you!" attitude. Their struggle doesn't seem to generate compassion but rather revenge. Whatever happened to the compassionate conservative!?!

Obama on the other hand is the realization of the American dream. A mullato child raised by a single mother, with the help of grandparents, manages to go to Harvard and then become the President of the United States! There was no entitlement or safety nets for him growing up that would give him the illusion that he was doing it all on his own. He saw how he needed others. Nor would he find security in a wall of affluence to the degree Romney does which in a way explains each of their choices about tax cuts for the wealthy.

I was at a fundraiser for a Himalayan school just recently in New Hampshire, where teenagers from a local private school spoke about their experience while visiting the school in India. These kids, living a life of privilege to some degree, were struck by the kindness, the level of attunement to their needs, and generosity the Indian students consistently demonstrated towards their visitors. They were blown away by how much they were cared for. These Indian students, who had all their worldly possessions in a small box under their thin cots, had such a spirit of generosity. Students who had so little, yet gave so much.

Why is that? The Indian students were connected to their vulnerability. Because they had so little, they were aware of their need of others, and that need connected them to the interdependent nature of web of their existence. Being kind to others is a survival tactic. In an interdependent world, we don't stand alone or fall alone.

I often talk about our interdependent, interconnected world to audiences, but I often wonder how many people are really connected to their sense of interdependence. One of the obstacles to connecting to that reality is often, but not necessarily, wealth and materialism. When you are enormously wealthy, like Romney, you don't really see your need for others. Instead others are something to leverage to attain your goals so that you can be top dog. The price of that world view is an inability to empathize and feel compassion. When you don't have a lot, it is easier to see how you need others and how they need you. They see themselves in others. As the word "Namaste" illustrates: I honor the light in you that is also in me.

Our society continues to reward narcissistic leaders who are easily corrupted by power because of the emptiness they feel and try to fill ineffectively through materialism. I think it's time to change that game and begin to embrace the global view of interdependence and the power of empathy to help a world in so much need of healing.