Where Are The Leaders?

I know it's popular to tag Millennials as the "entitled generation," but it simply is not true. They are bright, idealistic, intelligent, and engaged. They are a great generation of emerging Americans. My "baby boomer" generation is the entitled one. We're acting like irrational spoiled children. And worse, we're letting young Americans down.

Look at the current political mess. Where are the leaders? "We the People" need inspiration, but there is a dearth of leadership. Across the political spectrum--local, state, and national politics--selfishness, denegation, dishonesty, and partisanship are the rule.

We know how leaders should act. We saw it during this summer's Olympics. Athletes sacrificed to accomplish their goal. They were modest about accomplishments; they supported teammates and often their rivals; they showed us how honored they are (win or lose) to be on the field; and to a person they are patriotic representatives of country. These athletes are heroic. We need to ask ourselves why American political candidates exhibit hate, uncivil speech, partisanship, and self-aggrandizement instead of the sacrifice, mutual support, and honor like our nation's Olympic athletes.

The American system has always been fragile--always seemed to some to be on the verge of collapse. We should never forget that the American Revolution nearly failed. Americans held on by the skin of their teeth as social, economic, and political turmoil wracked the former colonies. The Constitution had a traumatic birth. The disagreement over national government--loose confederation or centralized strong republic--pitted patriots of the Revolution against each other. The first crisis of the new republic saw President George Washington leading an army of Americans against other Americans, marching into western Pennsylvania to end the Whiskey Rebellion. A few years later Federalists in the John Adams administration suppressed free speech with the Alien and Sedition Acts. Decades later, when South Carolinians took steps to nullify a federal law, Andrew Jackson threatened federal military intervention. And don't forget the slavery crisis that overshadowed all of the century's politics. Throughout the 19th century, Europeans constantly predicted the United State's demise. In 1861, a French publication, Le Monde, declared that "the republican tree" planted 80 years ago was dead, "its spoiled fruits had fallen, and its roots were rotten."

Our struggles continued. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fight for workers' rights erupted in violence again and again. The Great Depression devastated families and communities across the nation. African American demands for equal rights were met first with thousands of lynchings, then with bombings and other bloody attacks. The tumultuous protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention were preceded that year by the assassinations of national leaders Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Six years later, President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and resignation shook the foundations of the republic.

Today is no less tumultuous.

But in the past, we had leaders who reminded us that, as Americans, our revolutionary heritage lived within us. They encouraged us to accomplish the task, right the injustice, and create a more perfect union.

Today the rhetoric is altogether different. It is selfish: no trust, no empathy, no collaboration. Under the cover of faux patriotism, we spew vitriol at fellow citizens. We attack without any concern for facts or accuracy. We attack without offering constructive or collaborative solutions for proclaimed maladies. We create division among people to foment destruction. Rumor, innuendo, and flat-out lies are offered and accepted as truth.

We have forgotten that our democratic principles--the foundation of the republic--require the open, honest debate of well-informed and well-intentioned citizens. We have forgotten that maintaining our republic requires the sacrifices of many citizens, not just a few and not only those in uniform. Our freedom is not cheap. We all pay for it with devotion and sacrifice for the betterment of the polity. We are not just individuals; we are citizens and we must work together. Our revolutionary ideals are as remarkable today as they were 250 years ago.

We, the citizens of this nation, are sovereign. The success or failure of the republic rests with us. It is now our time--our responsibility to excise the cancer of partisanship, rancor, and selfishness. From presidents, to members of Congress, to state executives and legislatures, to local government and civic organizations, we must demand better leaders, even offer ourselves as those leaders. We must demand that leaders put our community, our state, and the nation first--before party, ideology, and selfish interest. Citizens will not all agree on the right course. We will debate it vigorously, but we must now hold ourselves to a higher standard than the feeble politicians claiming to be our leaders. We must open our hearts to the realization that each of us--no matter our background, creed, region, or social standing--are American citizens. We the citizens are not each other's enemies. We each want the best for our children, our community, our state, and the nation. Collaboration and compromise is the only way to achieve it.

I may be too idealistic. But if so, I'm in good company because across our history we have been fortunate to find leaders inspired by American ideals. In 1832, Andrew Jackson was desperately trying to hold the nation together in the midst of a constitutional crisis with South Carolina nullifiers. He ended his December 1st proclamation with this prayer: "May the great Ruler of Nations grant that the signal blessings with which he has favored ours, may not, by the madness of party or personal ambition, be disregarded and lost; and may his wise Providence bring those who have produced this crisis to see the folly, before they feel the misery of civil strife; and inspire a returning veneration for that Union which, if we may dare to penetrate his designs, he has chosen as the only means of attaining the high destinies to which we may reasonably aspire."