Could An Honest Politician Be President?

Above this (future) race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835)

It is both ironical and tragic that democracy, which Churchill rated “the worst political system except for all the others”, carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Ever since its emergence in ancient Greece, demokratia, the power of the people, has demonstrated not only its astonishing potential, but also a perverse death wish, the most notorious examples of which are found in Athens, the French Revolution, the Weimar Republic, and the spiteful ideological divisions tearing western nations apart today. Inevitably, the question we should be asking today is, “What may we logically expect from our politicians in a time of democratic decline?” And the question has important ramifications for leaders in business as well.

As the 2016 election cycle in the United States heats up, the receding tide of democratic sentiment is plain enough for all to see. As in all other western democracies, in the US, the greatest democratic experiment in history, all the hype and histrionics cannot hide the obvious facts: the Left wants to give even greater powers to central government, the Right wants the establishment-friendly status quo maintained, and the vast, vexed middle just wants someone strong to make their troubles go away.

Notwithstanding the oft-repeated hand-on-heart promises by Republican hopefuls to return power to the states, all the elements point in the direction of increased centralisation and the continued erosion of democratic principles. In this era of deceit, freedom of the press has morphed into manipulation by media, education has been reduced to an unsubtle mix of vocational training and social engineering, civil society has degenerated into alienated communities, capitalism is only understood alongside the ugly adjective ‘crony’, and democracy is degraded as the power elites flirt ever more brazenly with Orwellian options.

It necessarily requires freedom of association and speech, and other human rights, because the choice of representatives is meaningful only if people are informed and free. It also demands the rule of law to ensure that all people, government officials included, are accountable, and a free-market economy that promotes not only prosperity, but also individual enterprise and autonomy.

However, the reality of the representation is something about which people throughout the West have justifiably become very suspicious. The mechanisms of representation, the electoral system, the organization and financing of parties and candidates, and the entire socio-political system, with the media and the vested interests of powerful commercial, professional, and ideological blocs, have encouraged the widespread conviction that the so-called democracies of the West are in reality oligarchies. To whom are politicians in the West accountable – the people or the oligarchs?

In most western nations, the top five percent of the population now belong to a massively wealthy cosmopolitan elite heavily invested in globalisation with its implications of transnational culture and loyalties. The 15 to 20 percent of the population immediately below them, drawn from corporate life, primarily financial and high-tech, the media, academia, and the legal profession, also enjoys the largesse of the new economic order. Regardless of what these people may say in public, their commitment to globalisation and the new world order that must inevitably flow from it, is fully subscribed.

Of course, globalisation has been less than kind to the other 75 to 80 percent of the population in western countries, the struggling middle and lower classes who are constantly taunted by the conspicuous consumption of the rich and powerful. The current popular hostility towards the TPPA and the TTIP, the growth of grassroots protest groups like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, and the strong support for rogue candidates in the current election cycle, are indicative of the serious challenge facing both the Left and the Right in politics. Which party can disclose its true agenda without alienating vast tracts of the electorate?

Political situations arise from human choice and action, inviting a variety of options regarding the responses to be made. A response in any situation can only be made on the basis of a set of beliefs about what is good for people and what is bad for people. Thinking about the probable consequences of some course of action or other is only meaningful in the light of an understanding of the good by the people involved in the particular political arrangement. This is where the West as a whole has unwittingly crafted an insoluble problem; for there is no longer a shared understanding of what is good for people and what is bad for people. Multiculturalism, by definition, means there will be conflicting beliefs in this regard.

The United States has always had a major advantage with this foundational socio-political issue, because of the genius of the Constitution and the quasi religious aura with which it has been enrobed, notwithstanding the fact that the arguments between strict construction and loose construction go back to almost the time of ratification. However, the quasi religious commitment has been progressively eroded, if you will forgive the unintended pun.

The distribution of power between the federal government and the states has swung inexorably in favour of Washington, judicial activism has become more brazen, and the whole system of checks and balances seems to be paid mere lip-service by politicians in every branch of government. Add to all this an often arrogant and politicised bureaucracy, and the survival of the ideals of the Founding Fathers seems rather less than a remote possibility. The original vision of the United States has been corrupted by precisely the factors the architects of the American Experiment feared.

Thomas Jefferson warned: “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” And Andrew Jackson, among many others, repeated the warning: “I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.” Ironically, they merely echoed the complaint of Aesop 2500 years earlier: “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”[/message]
It is all too obvious that the prime objective of most politicians is quite simply to get elected, as opposed to offering the electorate a vision of a better future for all, and the practical means of achieving it under the sage guidelines of the Constitution. The argument put forward by the politicians and their parties is that they can do nothing unless elected, suggesting that any deceit they engage in is morally acceptable because of the noble goals they intend to pursue once in office. And it is in this regard that leaders in business need to take a long hard look in the mirror.

A recent article on, attacking calls for ethical leadership, suggested that “…this moral framing of leadership substantially oversimplifies the real complexity of the dilemmas and choices leaders confront.” On the contrary, it is the Machiavellian pragmatism extolled by the article that tries to justify the reduction of leadership, which it tellingly defines as a mere “capacity to get things done”, to a simple utilitarian calculation, unhindered by moral considerations. So then, apologies to Enron, Libor, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and BP – all is forgiven! And let’s simply respond to the high rates of cheating on MBA programs, and the admission by many executives that “bending the rules is part of the game” with a nod and a wink.

The reality that the author tries to sweep under the carpet is that the single greatest threat to political and business leadership in the West is the loss of trust caused by the absence of a “moral framing of leadership”. The crises in politics and business stem from ethical confusion and moral perversity, and it is precisely our moral disposition that makes the human condition “complex and multidimensional”. Western society refuses to face the fact that its commitment to utilitarian ethics has been a Pandora’s Box, because once people come to believe that “the end justifies the means”, then it becomes possible to justify any evil, one way or another.

Should we be surprised at the angry electorate and the massively disengaged workforce?

However, here the original question must be turned against the sovereign people themselves. Even ordinary people, at whatever socio-economic level they may pursue their dreams, also have to be held accountable if democracy is to work as intended. It has truly been said that a country gets the government it deserves, and if the people are motivated by the same calculating, self-interested, utilitarian mindset as the politicians, they have no rational reason to expect anything other than the ugly Hobbesian nightmare emerging today. When we ask: “What may we expect from our politicians?” the answer can only be “the virtue we expect of ourselves”.

Two quotes from the early days of the Republic endorse this conclusion, one from the Right, the other from the Left. John Adams said:

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Patrick Henry agreed: “Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains…No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue; and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

It is significant that the horrors of the French Revolution, played out in the same epoch, provided a brutal example of what Adams and Henry were talking about. The American people face some hard choices that require painful soul-searching, and the rest of the world waits very nervously to see what the outcome will be. In the western democracies outside of the US, whatever side of the political divide one occupies, it is abundantly clear that what happens in America has a massive impact everywhere else. Pope John Paul II put it like this: “Radical changes in world politics leave America with a heightened responsibility to be, for the world, an example of a genuinely free, democratic, just and humane society.

In order to function and flourish, democracy demands virtuous citizens, people with practical wisdom, a sense of justice, courage, and self-control. Such people keep themselves properly informed and refuse to vote for charlatans. Unfortunately for the West, virtue has been severely eroded by the promiscuity and greed encouraged by utilitarian ethics, while the ability to keep oneself properly informed has been hamstrung by dumbed-down schooling, a politicised academia, and corrupt media. In the final analysis, the problem isn’t the system, it’s the people. Whatever may be wrong with the system can be fixed, but people without virtue will only corrupt the new system as well.

Let me conclude by walking past Madelaine Albright’s regrettable paraphrase of Dante, and giving you the correct quotation: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” And who can doubt that America, like the West at large, is deep in the throes of a moral crisis?


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. Excellent article, Andre. I also stand in awe at the amount of effort, money, and even American lives that have been thrown at the effort to instill democracy into other countries when we should be tending to our own fences.

    My great fear as it relates to all you say is that the majority of Americans no longer want what we had. Perhaps we have reached that tipping point of no return in our slide into socialism and corruption.

    • I don’t know if it is that they don’t want it or that they no longer trust that they can have it. Many people will stop allowing themselves to pursue what they consider to be a hopeless cause.

      For many, it appears hopeless. I believe we can craft an even better future for All (not just some) but not with corrupt leaders or leaders who do not seek the best for All or see the great value and worth inherent in all individuals.