The Presidential Non-Debate was a brutal exposé of the leadership crisis in the West. A useful way to see how far we have fallen is by a comparison with another age. In The Revolt of the Elites (1996), Professor Christopher Lasch remembered an example of leaders debating the issues prior to the American Civil War: “The Lincoln-Douglas debates exemplified the oral tradition at its best. By current standards, Lincoln and Douglas broke every rule of political discourse. They subjected their audiences (which were as large as fifteen thousand on one occasion) to a painstaking analysis of complex issues. They spoke with considerably more candour, in a pungent, colloquial, sometimes racy style, than politicians think prudent today. They took clear positions from which it was difficult to retreat. They conducted themselves as if political leadership carried with it an obligation to clarify issues instead of merely getting elected. The contrast between these justly famous debates and present-day presidential debates, in which the media define the issues and draw up the ground rules, is unmistakable, and highly unflattering to ourselves. Journalistic interrogation of political candidates – which is what debate has come to – tends to magnify the importance of journalists and to diminish that of the candidates.”
The emerging openness to the totalitarianism of both Left and Right in Europe and America is the result of decades of sub-standard schooling and the inability of liberal democracy to sustain the virtues essential for its survival. In 1976, the Böckenförde Dilemma, articulated by Ernst W. Böckenförde, a prominent German legal scholar, pointed out the existential predicament of liberal democracy: the liberal secular state stands on principles that it cannot itself guarantee. On the one hand, it can survive only if the freedom it allows to its citizens is regulated by the moral character of individuals and by established cultural standards. On the other hand, it is unable to enforce self-regulation and standards without violating liberal principles.
Two and a half thousand years earlier, Aristotle had explained in the Nicomachean Ethics that the virtue of a state depends on the virtue of its citizens, their disposition, habits, and rationality. And in 1811, the Savoyard philosopher, Joseph de Maistre, proclaimed the unsettling truth about political community in his famous maxim, “every nation gets the government it deserves”. Yet these are truths that postmodern consumers (as opposed to citizens) and their masters would rather not openly address.
Greedy investors and corrupt corporates would find the sage advice of Confucius in the Analects echoed in every great civilization: “Everyone desires wealth and position, but if they can only be had by violating one’s principles, they should be spurned. Everyone hates poverty and nonentity, but if they can only be avoided by violating one’s principles, they should be accepted. A virtuous person who rejects goodness doesn’t deserve to be called a virtuous person because virtue and goodness are constant companions. Under pressure or duress, the virtuous person still holds fast to the good.”
The reduction of overstressed, underpaid, and insecure white collar workers to the status of disposable work units is part of a dehumanization process that has for more than a century been flagged as social suicide by historians, novelists, and psychologists. The philosopher, Josef Pieper, in his 1948 classic, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, wrote: “…will it ever be possible to keep, or reclaim, some room for leisure from the forces of the total world of work? And this would mean not merely a little portion of rest on Sunday, but rather a whole ‘preserve’ of true, unconfined humanity: a space of freedom, of true learning, of attunement to the world-as-a-whole. In other words, will it be possible to keep the human being from becoming a complete functionary, or ‘worker’?”
Freedom and justice and respect for human dignity in our world are heavily under siege by cynical forces on both Left and Right hoping to establish a global order of Mandarins and the Masses. While the masses will, according to this vision, be well-equipped with electronic diversions and distracted by other shallow delights, the ability and inclination to question and think will have been drained from them. Who today is even aware of the warning given by John of Salisbury, writing in Policraticus in 1159?
“Liberty means being able to choose freely in all matters according to one’s personal judgment, never hesitating to condemn what is immoral. Virtue is the only thing superior to liberty, that is if the two can ever really be separated. In fact, sound thinking dictates that true liberty flows from virtue alone. This is why there is general agreement that the greatest of all goods is virtue, the only thing that can break the evil chains of slavery, and philosophers have held that we should be prepared to die for it because life would have no meaning without it.”
The words of Schumacher quoted at the beginning of this essay explain the process of dehumanization being driven by the oligarchs in every liberal democracy today. Self-gratification at a purely sensory level, that is, the level of animal urges, has become the central focus in the lives of most people, while the intellectual dimension of their humanity, the very thing that makes them human, has been suppressed. Continual growth in the knowledge of the world as a whole, of what it means to be human, questioning, understanding, and relating to the fullness of being, is hidden from them, and in that state, they do not need leaders, but merely masters.
Leadership is built on vision, virtue, and vigilance. That is, it rests entirely on truth. Without truth, what do words like integrity, justice, potential, and fulfilment even mean? Which is why the philosopher who wrote the original guide for the perplexed, insisted:
“Your purpose…should always be to know the whole that was intended to be known.”
–Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed