One of my earliest memories from politics was a speech Ronald Reagan gave in 1983. He declared the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” I was twelve years old. The Soviet Union terrified me, and I believed Ronald Reagan would protect us from a nuclear war. The evil empire rhetoric frightened both Republicans and Democrats. It was an example of uniting the masses against a common enemy — a proven leadership technique.
Over the last thirty years, politicians switched from leadership strategies to cult recruitment strategies. A cult leader knows he can only influence a small subset of the population. He appeals to the desires and fears of his target group. His detractors serve a useful purpose. The cult leader designates them as the enemy. He unites his group of followers against a common enemy. It’s similar to what a real leader does but with a subtle difference.
There are dozens of definitions of leadership, but there’s one definition that can be summed up in four words.
A Leader Unites People
It’s similar to what cult leaders do, only with a slight variation.
A cult leader divides people and then unites those who are vulnerable to his narrative.
A cult leader knows she can’t win over everyone. She targets a small group that already believes what she believes. She feeds their passion and panders to their biases. She knows she can exploit the non-believers to advance her narrative.
A leader tries to unite everyone. She knows not everyone will buy into her vision, but she attempts it anyway because that’s what real leaders do.
Yes, you can serve in a leadership role like President of The United States. That does not mean you are showing leadership. It’s a critical distinction.
How Do Leaders Unite?
There are three techniques leaders have used throughout history.
Unite around a common belief or value
Example: Martin Luther King showed leadership by rallying folks around the notion that all people are created equal.
Unite around a common goal
Example: John F Kennedy rallied Americans around the goal of going to the moon by the end of the decade (the 1960's). Your political affiliation did not matter. It was a cause everyone could support.
Unite against a common enemy
Example: Say what you want about Ronald Reagan and his evil empire speech. It helped unite both Democrats and Republicans. He won the 1984 election with forty-nine states. Yes, a lot of that had to do with the economy. The common enemy need not be a person or country. It can be an idea like ideology or religion.
It might seem that uniting against a common enemy is a bit underhanded. The truth is a little murkier than that. Leaders throughout history have exploited these techniques for evil or benevolence and everything in between. Hitler used all three during his rise to power.
Is It Our Responsibility To Follow Our Elected Leaders?
That is a commonly held belief. What if we don’t believe in our elected leader? There’s a difference between giving a leader a chance to lead and blind obedience. There is an axiom in communication that we can apply to leadership.
Let’s first take a look at this vital communication truism.
“It is the communicator’s responsibility to make sure his message is received, understood and acted upon in the manner he intends. It is never the recipient’s responsibility.”
Now, we apply that rule to leadership.
“It is the leader’s responsibility and burden to inspire and persuade others to unite around a belief, goal or against a common enemy. It is never the responsibility of others to blindly rally behind the leader.”
If you take a step back from the political melee, you can see the big picture. Trump has divided the nation into us versus them. He’s won over them (or us depending on your perspective). He then designated everyone else the common enemy.
The Democrats are not off the hook either. The everything not Trump is a goal that energizes existing believers, but it fails to persuade opponents. You might counter by saying the other side is a lost cause. If you think of your political opponents as lost causes, they’ll remain political opponents — if not enemies.
We need leaders who have the guts to stand above the fray and unite all of us around shared beliefs and a compelling vision. And if he or she chooses to unite us around a common enemy, make it an idea or entity both Liberals and Conservatives share agreement.
It’s a monstrous challenge. I get that. It’s difficult to show restraint when one side uses hate as their primary platform. Maybe I’m just an over-optimistic foolish GenXer trying to reclaim a memory of happier times. I’m convinced the right leader can make it happen.
Here’s the real challenge.
There is a leadership vacuum in this country. Nobody in the political establishment exhibits any. I know this because we are not uniting around a leader. We’re uniting around a desire to make sure the other side loses.
But We Agree On Nothing
No, we agree on plenty of universal issues. We just don’t talk about them.
One of the most significant issues facing all Americans has gone unmentioned this election cycle.
According to the NIH, over Seventy-two-thousand people died of a drug overdose last year — almost half coming from synthetic opioids. That number is widely believed to be under-reported. How often do you hear politicians talk about that? It scares the shit out of almost every parent I know.
There are some issues we will never agree on: gun control, the role of religion, taxes, abortion rights, and social services.
The majority of us want an opportunity to pursue our dreams with minimal government interference. We want quality education for our kids. We want clean water. We clamor for affordable and quality healthcare without the looming threat of bankruptcy. We want to protect our children from drugs and evildoers. We want well-maintained roads, bridges and trains. We can disagree on the roadmap to achieving these goals, but we can start by focusing on the things we all desire as part of a democratic society.
Today’s circus leaders have learned an unfortunate truth.
It’s far easier to attain and retain power by dividing and energizing a few than it is to unite the many.