Runcible Blog

Recipe for a Progressive Leader

What are the qualities of a successful progressive movement or leader? Last week I sent this video of a Henry Rollins rant to Albert, the resident conservative at work. He asked if Rollins was the "liberal Michael Savage," and I think that perhaps his style is similar. And yet, I don't think he's worth listening to, even if I do often agree with what he says.

I started thinking about why Rollins doesn't resonate with me, which lead me to think about the leaders who do inspire me. I came up with a list of qualities that a progressive leader should encourage in us.

  1. Informed: A population uninformed is a population doomed to manipulation. What are the problems in the world that we are working to change? What issues in my own community are important? What are the facts about the situation, and what is the larger context? A leader who can present the issues in a clear and rational manner lays the foundation of a successful movement. People who understand the issues hold more ammunition in a debate than those whose understanding comes from faith-based opinion.
  2. Empathetic: Empathy puts us in the shoes of people we otherwise wouldn't care about. Rather than appealing to the individual concerns ("What does this have to do with me? What do I gain from this issue?"), a leader can direct people's energy into causes that benefit others.
    Why should I care about torture? I'm not in any danger of being tortured. A lazy leader might say, "You should care because soon you might be the target of government torture!" — an appeal to fear is the wrong approach. An empathetic response might be, "You should care because we live in a country of laws, and no one is above the law. Our Constitution holds any treaty that the U.S. enters into as equivalent to the highest law in the land, yet the government defies the Geneva Convention and our own Constitution by condoning torture. The government should be working for the people, not breaking it's own hard-fought laws." Sure, that kind of response takes more words and is a little more nuanced than simple fear of government control, but empathy is a tough thing to inspire. When our society of consumption entices us to revel in our basest desires and focus on pleasing the self above all else, it can be an uphill battle to convince people to think outside themselves. But it's happened before, and it'll happen again.
  3. Hopeful: Without hope, informed, empathetic people mire in a low-level angry cynicism. Absent hope, apathy grows, leading to a less-informed populace with no power or motivation to change anything. A decent leader can inspire hope by pointing to examples of successful change in the past, by appealing to the possibility of a better future, and, most importantly, leading by example. People lose hope in their leaders because the leaders betray confidence through corruption and ineffectiveness. Being incorruptible and striving for honesty go a long way towards maintaining hope and motivation in a progressive cause. The prospect that a leader can lead a life above reproach would fuel a movement; people will gladly follow someone who leads by example. A progressive movement with a progressive leader who inspires hope, empathy, and knowledge would be on the right track toward change.
  4. Angry: Finally, a little anger can induce people to get off their asses and organize for change. Liberals (well, at least Democrats) often look down on anger as a quality in a leader — they see it as something embarrassing or "unelectable." The truth is that the "ineffectual liberal" stereotype has a basis in reality. Too often Democrats let themselves become bulldozed into irrelevance out of deference to opposing views (however wrong those views may be). Progressive leaders shouldn't be afraid to stand up for themselves against the tide of fundamentalism and intolerance. Speak loudly, passionately, and rationally, and others will feel empowered to do the same in their own communities. A progressive movement containing healthy doses of the other ingredients combined with an ounce of anger might, just might, gain enough traction to foster real change — change that benefits citizens while keeping government corruption in check.

  5. Michael Savage and others of his right-wing ilk focus on fear and the individual desires in order to manipulate people. They frame issues always as a conflict of us vs. them: Terrorists are trying to get you; Liberals want to tell you what to do; Immigrants are going to take your job. They have no interest in informing people with facts or reason, and they have no interest in speaking up for those whose voices cannot be heard. Those pundits are intolerant, hateful, and add no value to society.

    Rollins falls flat because his angry rants, though impassioned, do not inspire hope or inform me of anything I didn't already know. The rant is directed through the individual against the government. There is often no appeal to empathy for others. It's me against the evil government and conservatives. Although I wouldn't go out of my way to tune into his show, he constitutes that small dose of anger that I think might be helpful to motivate progressives, as long as he doesn't advocate blind violence or anarchy.

    Bill Moyers, however, does inspire me. As a journalist and effective documentarian, he's great at informing people about progressive issues through facts and debate, and he highlights the plight of others in a way I can relate to. Being a former director of the Peace Corps and part of the government means that he knows the potential for change exists, and I find his lack of cynicism refreshing.

    The challenge now to progressives in America is to seek more examples of honest, intelligent, passionate liberals who can inspire others to change the policies set by the current administration and head the country in a direction where the government works to help all the people, not just the richest corporations and lobbyists. At 73 years old, Moyers won't be at it forever. Who in my generation will stand up and make a difference?