Political Leaders and the Search for Purpose

by Erik Fogg

I recently had the opportunity to join a panel on "The Search for a Purpose" (which you can listen to as a podcast) with Living Room Conversations, which is hosted on Coffee Party USA Radio. I was joined by a group of folks with very diverse backgrounds, political affiliations, and perspectives. It was a real joy, I learned a lot, and you should check it out.

Amidst discussing our own search for purpose, we discussed how a search for purpose might be related to the election.

There is I think a feeling of a lack of purpose in peoples' lives in the West. Neitzsche warned, when he said that "God is dead," that the decline of the feeling of awe towards, and devotion to, religion would lead to nihilism--a sense of meaninglessness. I think many of us turn to some form of hedonism in adventure, in enjoying oneself, being popular, collecting wealth, etc. Others turn to some form of existentialism. But none of these give someone a sense of purpose.

I also recently got to read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which (besides being an incredible book) I believe makes a compelling case that people really do need meaning in their lives to feel complete, rather than just being comfortable or enjoying themselves.

How does this relate to the election?

We know it's fairly common to look to a nation or political and religious leadership for meaning. People want to look for something bigger than themselves in their search for meaning, and a nation or leader can provide this.

Sometimes, it makes us great. If we think of John F Kennedy, he implored, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." We had the Space Race. We were fighting the Soviets in an ideological battle for the minds and hearts of people across the world. America was perhaps at its best against the Nazis and Japanese Empire in World War II. The United States' sense of meaning has, in the 20th century, been wrapped up in greatness, global leadership, prosperity, and having an enemy to fight.

Looking to political leaders for meaning can also be very destructive. Mussolini's Doctrine of Fascism lays out very clearly how his fascist state was designed to give people meaning that they were missing. The call of radical Islam and ISIS appeals to a search for meaning, as well: young radical Muslims seek meaning in an extremist interpretation of Islam to fight a war against the West's comparatively materialistic ideals that threaten to crush religious values. ISIS has harnessed this need for meaning like no other previous Jihadist group has.

The United States and the West may be in their own crisis of meaning. Americans want something to stand for, and to fight for. Is it any surprise that "Make America Great Again" appeals? There is a sense that the United States is on a decline--in prestige, in leadership, in prosperity, in meaning. We don't have anything great to fight: we have grown weary and cynical of the War on Terror. We don't have Nazis or Soviets to fight any longer. Many Americans feel weak in the face of rivals abroad. Americans used to be happy to sacrifice well-being, and to devote work and energy, for what America stood for--what do we stand for now?

I think the Sanders movement appeals to a sense of meaning, as well. It appeals to a sense of justice, and many young people are wildly enthusiastic about his brand of delivering that justice. There is a bad guy, and it is the wealthy. There are downtrodden masses, the working and unemployed poor. There is fury and hope.

We have lost a taste for the boring, pragmatic administrators of the past, that is for sure. We lack meaning, and we are hoping desperately that someone we elect will give it to us. Will that leader propel us to greatness, or to folly? Should we even be seeking meaning externally, or from ourselves instead? Something to consider.