Why do awesome people – like us – have such inadequate leaders?

Summary:  Each campaign season brings complaints about the quality of the candidates.  Why such a poor selection, unlike what we see at Best Buy?  Read this for an answer, proven by history.   I tweaked this, as comments suggested that the inital version was unclear.

“Have you ever stopped to consider that there is a difference between ideals and the methods of attaining them?”
— Letter from FDR to a friend

Ready for the next political debate!

I recommend “A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney”  in the March 31 New York Times.  David Javerbaum proves that candidate Romney is — something bad (he provides more mockery than analysis).  Perhaps a duplicitous fool.  Clearly unworthy of our votes.  Such articles appear every campaign season, complaints that we inexplicably choose from a slate of politicians that fail to match our awesomeness.  The even lie to us!  We are forced to elect them again and gain.

Like all social science questions, amateurs can only guess at the causes of this phenomenon.  Here’s mine.

Let’s do a virtual experiment (Gedankenexperiment in German).  Running for high office, you face an evil and incompetent opponent.  You must win for the sake of America.  Today you address a key audience, whose support you need for victory.   An unusually intelligent audience, as dogs go.  In fact, they are dogs.  What do you say?  Do you discuss the perils facing the Second Republic?  The delicate macroeconomic crisis?  The complex process of globalization which America must master to prosper in the 21 century?

Only a fool would do so.  A winner would promise free bones every night, slow cats and cars to chase, and an immediate halt to involuntary castrations.  Anything more would confuse them, perhaps even anger them. An aroused pack of hounds can become dangerous.

So it goes for candidates in America.  They often face opponents who will certainly damage America.  They must gain support of voters who want impossible and contradictory things.  Freedom and liberty.  Low taxes, a balanced budget, and massive government spending.  Tight regulation of competitors and vendors, light regulation of themselves.  Low food prices for consumers; high food prices for family farmers.  A peaceful world with no foreign entanglements.

What do our finest statesmen do?  They lie to us.  Let’s look at one of our greatest Presidents, masterful in both war and peace:  FDR.  He lied to us for our own good, as clearly proven by history (see the details below).  There are many other examples.

We can learn from this history.  Let’s find great citizens for our high public offices.  Reward those who tell us the truth, even harsh news violating our beliefs.  Vote against those who tell us pleasing lies and glittering generalities.  That would help make us a great people, and put us on the path to prosperity in the 21st century.

And, last, have some sympathy for Romney.  In the primaries he strives to gain the support of an aroused GOP membership dominated by ignorant and often vile people — motivated by hatred of people of different color and religion, consumed by bloodlust (applauding torture and assassination, with lots of “collateral damage” to uninvolved women and children).  His faces only ugly choices.

(1)  The 1932 election:  FDR advocates a strong US dollar and a balanced budget

After the election FDR saved us by devaluing the dollar and running large deficits.  These measures, combined with a plethora of other — contradictory — policies, sparked a partial recovery that carried us through the 1930s.  No long depression (like France), no Hitler (even so, extremist parties flourished during the 1930s — the American equivalent of the NAZI party had 20,000 people at its 1939 convention in NYC).

Campaign Speech by FDR in Atlanta on 24 October 1932

I should like to take this opportunity to say, loud enough to be heard in Washington, that even in hard times it is possible to have a balanced budget, and Governor Russell has done it, and I want to say further that Governor Russell has done this by cutting expenditures rather than by loading the people with more taxation. And I want to say that loud enough to be heard in Washington, too. And I want to say also, loud enough to be heard in that section of Washington in which the White House and the treasury are located, that Governor Russell did not wait for a political campaign to start considering how to get within his income.

Democratic Party Platform, 27 June 1932

We believe that a party platform is a covenant with the people to have [sic] faithfully kept by the party when entrusted with power, and that the people are entitled to know in plain words the terms of the contract to which they are asked to subscribe. We hereby declare this to be the platform of the Democratic Party:

The Democratic Party solemnly promises by appropriate action to put into effect the principles, policies, and reforms herein advocated, and to eradicate the policies, methods, and practices herein condemned. We advocate an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government. And we call upon the Democratic Party in the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result.

We favor maintenance of the national credit by a federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues, raised by a system of taxation levied on the principle of ability to pay.

We advocate a sound currency to be preserved at all hazards …

… The removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest.

The 1940 Campaign: keeping us out of the war

FDR ran on a platform of neutrality in the 1940 election, but was actively helping the Allied Powers.  I agree with that, but the regret the necessity to lie — and the precedent it set.  He did what he had to do.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat #14, 3 September 1939:

Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality. This would have been done even if there had been no neutrality statute on the books, for this proclamation is in accordance with international law and in accordance with American policy. This will be followed by a Proclamation required by the existing Neutrality Act. And I trust that in the days to come our neutrality can be made a true neutrality.

… I hope the United States will keep out of this war. I believe that it will. And I give you assurance(s) and reassurance that every effort of your Government will be directed toward that end. As long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States.

On 2 October 1939 the Act of Panama established a 300-mile wide neutrality zone off the coasts of the Americas (excluding Canada), enforced by`the eight US Navy groups of the Neutrality Patrol.   We alerted the Royal Navy of any U-boats sighted.  On 11 March 1040 we began Lend-Lease, in effect direct aid to the foes of the Axis Powers.  As the election grew closer and the war heated up, some of FDR’s speeches grew more equivical, vaguer, about our role in the world.  See his speech Democratic National Convention on July 1940.  At this point we were on the knife-edge of active participation.  Sometimes he outright lied, as in this speech at Brooklyn on 1 November 1940:

I am fighting to keep this Nation prosperous and at peace. I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars, and to keep foreign conceptions of Government out of our own United States.

Our aid rapidly became more explicit after the election.  The Western Hemisphere Security Zone extended the “neutrality zone” to 26 W longitude on 10 April 1941.   On 11 April 1941 the US destroyer Niblack on dropped 3 depth charges on a German U-boat, beginning a undeclared naval war against Germany.  In response, on 21 June 1941 Hitler ordered NAZI forces to avoid any possible contact with US naval forces.  Admiral Dönitz wrote in his Memoirs:

“… meant that the U-boats could no longer attack their most dangerous enemies, the destroyers, frigates and corvettes, whether British or of any other nationality. With this intermingling of British and American naval forces the U-boats found themselves in a situation which was unique in the history of war. All the British employed on anti-submarine duties pursued the U-boats with every means they possessed, while the latter had passively to suffer all their attacks without trying to defend themselves or strike a counter-blow.”

On 7 July 1941 US Marines replaced the British on Iceland, a key post protecting British convoys — freeing-up UK forces.  On 4 September 1941 USS Greer (DD-145) pursued a U-boat, facilitating British attacks.  The U-boat attacked in reply; the Greer responded.  FDR declared that the U-boat attack on the Greer was “piracy”, the U.S. Navy to “shoot-on-sight”.   After Pearl Harbor, Hitler unwisely decided that outright war with the US would work better for Germany than the current pretend peace.

For more information

For more about these matters see the FM Reference page Politics in America.

About American politics:

  1. The USA *after* this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
  2. America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
  3. Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
  4. About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process, 17 June 2009
  5. More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009
  6. Please put on every milk carton: America’s political class is MIA, 17 November 2009
  7. The breakdown of the American political system, pointing to a new and better future, 2 February 2010
  8. Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
  9. Which political party will best protect our liberties?, 10 September 2010
  10. Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 1 September 2010
  11. Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?, 29 October 2010
  12. We have the leaders we deserve. Visit McDonald’s to learn why., 30 October 2010
  13. The winners and losers from this election, hidden amidst the noise, 3 November 2010
  14. In America, both Left and Right love the long war, 30 March 2011
  15. The good news:  America’s politics are neither polarized nor dysfunctional.  That’s also the bad news., 16 November 2011
  16. The hidden dynamics of the 2012 campaign, and what it’s doing to America, 9 March 2012

23 thoughts on “Why do awesome people – like us – have such inadequate leaders?”

  1. And why do the Chinese have such great leaders?
    We finally have some real competition, which elects its leaders differently. It’s well worth studying their model.

    1. That’s a powerful question. Might China’s system of choosing leaders (“elect” is somewhat misleading) be superior?

      The the famous misquotation of Chou En-Lai to Kissinger applies perfectly here: it’s too soon to tell. We have 230 years of experience with our system; they have a few decades with theirs.

  2. roger erickson

    do policy staff really have to lie to voters? that approach simply cannot scale; it never has; expedient lies only accelerate misconceptions, and the ensuing complications seems more correct to say that the only scalable politics is to focus on unfolding operations, sans constraining interpretations

    1. Roger Erickson

      FM wrote: “Do you have an evidence for your assertions?”

      Show me any history that isn’t. Go back to, say, Pericles sordid story, for initial success followed by complications. Then look at what most parents tell their kids about little white lies. Then compare that to the USMC’s own docs on War Fighting. Success never follows what one or a few people say. Rather, it follows quality of distributed decision-making.

      We all “simplify” messages, over-summarize frequently, and use indirection to speed indirection. Shewhart & Deming spent their lives documenting that we have zero predictive power in any context – which the thermodynamicists had mathematically proven in universal terms. We are never “in control” of contexts, we only seek to be “in control” of our distributed reactions as groups surf situations or individuals surf an ocean wave with a surfboard.

      Sooner or later, political success is defined by outcomes. Best way to converge outcomes & success is to treat it as a total-team campaign, and solicit full-group intelligence instead of having some supposed pundit impart wisdom to group intelligence. Seems everyone hears that before graduating from highschool – or officer training – but sees it practiced as “accidents” where someone like Henry J. Kaiser is considered a personal genius for actually listening to his team, instead of being a pundit.

      If anything, this whole discussion re-proves PT Barnum’s point. Populations never seem to have any idea what they’re really doing.

      1. FM wrote: “Do you have an evidence for your assertions?”
        Erickson: “Show me any history that isn’t”

        You seem unclear on the “evidence” thing. You make the assetion, you provide the evidence.

        (2) “Go back to, say, Pericles sordid story, for initial success followed by complications.”

        Weak. Pericles had his ups and downs, but was doing OK until killed by the plague.

        (3) “Then look at what most parents tell their kids about little white lies.”

        OK, we’re done here.

  3. FM, while I agree with a lot of what you say above, surely it’s a little utopian to believe that 100 million people can be made to think in the way you suggest. Does it not ignore a lot of the work done recently in behaviourial science as to cognitive dissonance?

    In any event, I’m more curious as to what you make of the New Yorker article, “The Unpersuaded” by Ezra Klein, 19 March 2012. . It’s available to read in full here.

    1. Lim,

      (1) Can the American people hold politicans accountable for their lies, and ask politicans to tell us the truth. Sounds to me like a low bar to jump. It would be a valuable cross-cultural study for a political scientist.

      Note that there are nations far better governed than the US, by most metrics. For example, Norway, Denmak, Sweden, and Switzerland. How do they relate to their leaders.

      (2) Klein’s article describes well-founded political science research. Seems obvious to me. The bully pulpit can start a conversation, but expecting a Presidential address to change minds on a large-scale seems unrealistic.

  4. Seems to me the difference is that after WWI Americans were afraid of entering another tragic and wasteful war. So politicians told the people hopeful stories of staying out of the war. Now I think the situation has changed. It’s the American people leading the way with strong anti-Muslim feelings. Check out this poll here.


    Now the politicians are again telling the American people what they want to hear — that they will have revenge against Muslim people for the WTC attacks, whatever rocket makes its way out of Gaza or whatever offenses Muslims are collectively guilty of. I’m expecting a dramatic game of political one-up-manship over who can be the ‘most tough’ against Muslims.

  5. With all due respect, FM, the fact that we (supposedly) elect such inadequate leaders casts our status as “awesome people” into question to say the least.

    Unfortunately, I think one of the reasons why Americans have been electing such inadequate leaders over the past few decades — we didn’t always do this after all — is because in that space of time, our culture as a whole has not only become increasingly superficial but also so used to comforts and convenience that we’ve become far too accustomed to the “quick fix” approach to problems (also known as the “buy now, pay later” approach). If you take a critical look at our society, it shouldn’t take you too long to see just how incredibly pervasive the “quick fix” approach has become throughout our culture.

    One of the results of this is that a significant percentage of Americans are either no longer capable of looking beyond their own needs and those of their family, or no longer willing to do so — they support candidates who favor an agenda that promises to serve their needs, no matter how selfish they might be or what impact they might have on the rest of the country or the rest of the world. Another result is that politics and politicians are relying less and less on the vital principles of ethics, logic, caution, reason, and fairness because these do not mesh well with a “quick fix” approach. (As I pointed out recently on another message board where I regularly post comments, many self-professed conservatives today demonstrate a remarkably unconservative mentality when the issue under discussion involves potential profits to be made…regardless of whether you’re talking about war, tar sands, “pink slime”, or the privatization of critical societal institutions such as education and criminal corrections.) Iinstead, they’re relying more and more on visceral and sensational appeals.

    Sadly, however — as many Americans have learned the hard way — while the “quick fix” approach may be easy and may seem cost-effective in the short term, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most effective approach or even the most cost-effective in the long run. In fact, that’s quite often not the case.

    1. “casts our status as an “awesome people” into question to say the least”

      Obviously the post was not clear. We are more like dogs than awesome people. I’ve tweaked it, hopefully for greater clarity.

    2. Mind you…just in case there was any confusion, when I used the phrase “we (supposedly) elect such inadequate leaders”, the word “supposedly” was intended to emphasize the word “elect” and not the word ” inadequate”. Anyone in this country who’s still capable of paying attention and thinking critically — and the numbers seem to be shrinking as time goes on — have realized by now that there’s plenty of reason to question (if not doubt) whether We The People are still choosing our leaders entirely of our own free will. In fact, the increasing sense that a growing number of our elected officials no longer respect, care about, listen to, or even know what most of their constituents really want suggests that perhaps they know something we don’t. Is that so impossible? These days, I think you have to admit that the answer to that question is no…it’s not all that impossible anymore.

      To say the least, there’s growing evidence to indicate that there are relentless, ruthless, and remorseless efforts under way from both the politicians themselves and the media (whom the Founding Fathers never intended to become collaborators with the government against the people) to manipulate us into supporting certain people over others.. There are also equally relentless, ruthless, and remorseless efforts under way from lobbyists and other representatives of special interests (who do not represent the interests of the people as a whole) to manipulate — or should I say corrupt? — the politicians into voting a certain way. (For the moment, we’ll overlook the additional problem that running a successful campaign for national office has become such an incredibly costly endeavor that anyone who isn’t already wealthy is caught between the rock of allowing themselves to become indebted to special interests and the rock of not having enough money to run — and even then will often not receive enough attention to survive the primaries, never mind the election) At worst, the questions over electronic voting and voter suppression as well as the questions raised by the Citizens United decision suggest that the elections are slowly becoming little more than a pretense and that the question of leadership is primarily being settled behind the scenes by small groups of people (such as the Koch Brothers) with vast monetary resources at their disposal who are attempting to use every means within their power to decide the outcome.

  6. Buzz Killington

    This just come out last month. http://www.livescience.com/18706-people-smart-democracy.html

    “The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.”

    “Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they ‘effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders.'”

    1. roger erickson

      You needed a published study to consider that documented? Doesn’t the study title beg the definition? Can you document your assertion with a tautology study?

    2. How do we choose an architect, or a plumber, or a veterinarian, when we are not skilled in any of those areas?

      We don’t attempt to evaluate their competence directly: we go by past results and the experiences of others (professional licensing boards having already weeded out most of the truly incompetent). An architect who doesn’t produce satisfactory results for his clients will soon have few clients.

      We lack any effective feedback loop of this sort in politics. (The way conditions come back to haunt a sitting president is more akin to scapegoating than feedback. It can sometimes reward clever short-term, short-sighted manipulations, but rarely has anything to do with valuable service to the public.) This is a fundamental deficiency of current implementations of “democracy” which, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to be overcome in any known system.

  7. After voting for over 50 years, I can say that though the quality of politicians has continued to decline over the years, the earlier one, including some of our “heroes” like JFK were far from perfect. Take a look at Dwight Eisenhower’s history. He was largely responsiblde for perpetuating the “military/industrial complex,” which he so strongly decried in his farewell speech. Thus, as noble as most sound during a campaign, they deal mostly in expedients, either getting elected, or more frighteningly, getting re-elected. And then they leave us with their sage advice only after the damage is done.

    Thomas Jefferson warned way back at the tine Virginia was establishing its house of burgesses that term limits should be a given, arguing that if one were able to be re-elected, once in office, the office-holder’s chief priority would become and remain, being re-elected. How right he was. As Lord Acton put it, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    My conclusion from that statement, including earlier historical renditions, is that if power corrupts, then politics is a natural place for those social leeches* who seek power and are so eagerly corrupted. Thus it is easy for them to promise the dog as many bones as necessary in order to secure its vote. There has to be a good dose of snake-oil salesman in every successful politician. Even (gasp) George Washington, provided rum to voters for him in an eaarly election on the Virginia political scene.

    And then, AFTER these people havde either done their worst in officed or have died in office where there are no term limits, we get the nobility. Those who go out suddenly become comcerned about the probldms in the country. Washington, Eisenhower, both showed their serious concern only after they had reached the end of their tenure atop the pinnacle. Their farewell addressses are excellent demonstrations.

    So . . . not to continue too much longer, the dogs get what they deserve if their only concern is their own personal supply of bones. It is the same for us. I agonize every election because there seems no one running except those willing to romise bones and later claim a slortage of them at the slaughterhouses, while theyr own dogs have not only bones, but T-bone steaks, and all at our expense. Whoever invented the term “swilling at the public trough” surely had these regimes in mind. But if all we can do is continue to accept them as they are and vote them in anyway, rather than demanding, in unity, those who really care more about our country than solely shredding its constitution, we are not quite the awesome people FM sees. There just aren’t enough of us awesome ones to collectively save the country from these politicos and from ourselves.

    *NB: I use the word “leeches” to include such personages as Mitt Romney, for what a natural step it is for him to run for public office. As a natural leech, he has destroyed lives and companies through the financial machinations of Bain Capital, just as the wall Street hedge fund leeches have done.

  8. I think we’re at a point in our nation’s timeline where a widening cultural reliance on crass/vincible ignorance starts to evolve into particularly unwieldy cases of cognitive dissonance elsewhere in the body politic. Malignant memetic metastasis, if you will. I don’t expect to see a counter effect until after the federal level of government hits the economic skids well and good. An event that I first picked to occur sometime in the late 80’s. The failure of those predictions Inducing a degree of cognitive dissonance in its own right.

  9. amspirnational

    Buchanan’s “Unnecessary War” shows that FDRs war-related lies did not help the United States in the least.

    1. Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (2008)

      Summary by Gilbert Taylor at Booklist:

      Taking his swing at the origins of World War II, conservative pundit Buchanan incorporates the subject into his warnings, expressed in several populist jeremiads (State of Emergency, 2006), of the decline of the West. Certainly World War I, with which Buchanan begins, was a catastrophe for Western civilization whose ramifications continue to be felt. Buchanan’s interpretation generally holds that British and American participation in both WWI and WWII was avoidable if British leaders had recognized that Germany was no threat to the vital interests of the British Empire.

      Banking his thesis on such supposed benevolence from Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler, Buchanan criticizes various British policies of the 1920s and 1930s (who doesn’t?), and argues collaterally with Hitler’s statements disclaiming fundamental conflicts with Britain. The weakness in Buchanan’s line of thinking, of course, is that by 1939, Hitler’s international word was worthless; yet Buchanan hinges his case on what might have happened had Britain let Hitler go after Poland in 1939 as it had Czechoslovakia. Speculating a better future had the West permitted Nazi Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe, Buchanan cites the historical costs of Britain and France having at last drawn the line against aggression. Convinced? Controversial as is his wont, Buchanan reminds his large readership that the immediate ignition of WWII can still be disputed.

      The justification of slavery and Nazis take us to the dark heart of American conservatism (as the love of communist tyranny does for the Left). If you wish to justify Hitler’s actions, do so somewhere else. That’s a line one may not cross here. Further comments will be deleted.

    2. Buchanan’s argument is also wrong IMO not just on humanitarian grounds, as in why would we let fascists dominate continental Europe? But also from the perspective of great power politics, as in why would we allow Hitler to consolidate power over that much land paying particular attention to the sheer industrial potential that would be at his disposal. Especially considering at that time there were only 4 regions with any amount of industrial might back then, the US, USSR, western Europe and Japan.

  10. Linguistics expert George Lakoff’s article “Why `Rational Reason’ Doesn’t Work in Contemporary Politics” may prove enlightening.

    In 1955, economist Herbert Simon introduced the concept of “bounded rationality” to describe the non-rational processes by which people with incomplete information and cognitive biases arrived at decisions. Although bounded rationality was originally an economic concept, it has since become a focus of research on general human decision-making.

    “Findings from behavioral organization theory, behavioral decision theory, survey research, and experimental economics leave no doubt about the failure of rational choice as a descriptive model of human behavior. But this does not mean that people and their politics are irrational. Bounded rationality asserts that decision makers are intendedly rational; that is, they are goal oriented and adaptive, but because of human cognitive and emotional architecture, they sometimes fail, occasionally in important decisions.”
    — “Bounded Rationality,” Bryan D. Jones, Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 1999, Vol. 2, pp. 297–321

    Unless I’m mistaken (and please correct me if I’m wrong), bounded rationality and the cognitive biases identified by Tversky and Kahneman represent the body of research upon which Lakoff draws when he explains why logic and facts don’t work in politics, and why groups often make decisions of which each individual disapproves. Viz., “Intergroup relations and polarization of individual and collective judgments,” Willem Doise, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 12, No. 2, Jun 1969, pp. 136-143. Abstract: “Confirms the hypothesis that the opinion of a group is more extreme than the average of the opinions of the individual members.”

    1. Moore,

      Thanks for posting this interesting information. However the vice of social sciences is over=generalizing their conclusions.

      “when he explains why logic and facts don’t work in politics”
      That’s certainly a large overstatement.

      “why groups often make decisions of which each individual disapproves”
      An interesting and useful result.

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