The 2016 US Presidential election is once again being framed as a brutal contest of wills between two disparate ideological camps: the activist government liberal and the skeptical libertarian conservative. Neither party is actually offering anything like that kind of decisive metaphysical clarity. On both sides, there are deep divisions over how to put ideas into practice and which ideas express the “pure” sense of principled public service.
The world is more connected than ever, and this means all issues of public controversy are now more complex than ever. Every choice, whether in the realm of action or in the realm of ideas, has ramifications. Interconnectedness and complexity mean those ramifications are less and less likely to flow directly from the ideological core of a given way of acting, thinking or talking.
We live in an ever more unruly landscape of possibility where precedent is not likely to govern future dynamics. This means old rivalries can be resolved, and major challenges can be overcome in ways not previously available to us, but it also means that risks emerge all the time which require vigilance and imagination of any leader who would meet such a challenge.
The presidential ask in 2016 is more subtle, more unpredictable, and more fraught with frustration than any of the candidates would like to admit. They will make declarative statements about their abilities, their future actions, and the nature of our world, which will prove premature or incomplete within months or years. They will face the frustration of surprise, emergency and conflict, and they will have to win friends from among their rivals.
The descent of Iraq and Syria, as well as parts of Africa, into deeply inhuman violence, even against young children, is a degradation of the human condition which threatens all people everywhere. Candidates who angrily declare it an “existential threat” to the world’s most powerful nation are, however, riding piggy-back on that nihilistic and inhuman violence.
The rule of law, the moral restraint that exhibits true responsibility in power, and a cool adaptive vision capable of meeting big challenges while providing for the liberty and self-governance of the general public, are the best tools for avoiding the “existential” challenge posed by nihilistic violence. Walls, factional retrenchment, cultural stereotyping, and feudal posturing, do not solve problems; they exacerbate them.
On issue after issue—climate change, war and peace, economic cooperation, technology and exploration—the next US president will have to transcend ideology, think beyond barbed soundbites, and address complex and evolving realities. An unwillingness to operate and to speak about that complexity will limit the political capital any president could use to ably do this work.
While media companies, “super PAC” advertising, and campaign operatives, insist we are living in a time of deep division and intractable factional opposition, the people of the United States need a head of government who will put service before ideology, work with all potential problem-solvers, and focus on building a more flexible, diverse, principled, and optimal future.
The presidential ask in 2016 is for a candidate who can exhibit ethical integrity, bold imagination, agile adaptability, and a deep sense of devotion to the role of leading public servant. With all of the hot-headed sniping of the primaries, there will come a moment, in September or October, when candidates, the public, and the more level headed media analysts, will recognize this challenge and try to meet it.
We should all be asking for responsible leadership now, lest we end up in a position where no one can provide it when it becomes the only credible standard.