For the past eight years, America has been swept up in the fervor of personality cults. First it was the cult of Barack Obama, a Messianic figure who shattered the White House color barrier and drew adoring fans to project onto him their highest hopes of racial unity, hope, and economic progress.
Yet throughout his presidency, Obama did not, do what Harvard leadership professor Ronald Heifetz calls “give the work back to the people.” He used government as the means to achieve his agenda rather than fulfilling his campaign refrain that “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Obama used the cudgel of federal authority to impose external mandates when many of the changes he sought could be significantly improved through behavioral, cultural changes and the free market.
He was seeking for what Heifetz calls “technical fixes” for “adaptive problems,” e.g. expanding Medicaid without accountability and assuming that would improve outcomes without the deeper behavioral changes of diet and exercise required to effectively improving people’s health (that is why data shows growing Medicaid doesn’t improve health outcomes). Expanding the welfare system is a technical fix that does not address the systemic, chronic problem of unraveling family structure driving the cycles of poverty, high school dropouts, gangs, and incarceration. If it did, we would have seen fewer of these chronic problems, not more, with the trillions of dollars spent since LBJ’s “War on Poverty.”
America’s new personality cult is now built around Donald Trump, a man who is offering equally sweeping promises offered by him, the new Messiah. Why make the people do the work of making America great again when a strongman leader can do it for them? Rather than carefully, methodically adapting our populace to America’s shift away from manufacturing to an information-based economy, his trade wars are his technical fixes. Education and job retraining are what Americans need to adjust to the job flight abroad, but those just don’t sound byte as well as a bellicose denouncement of Mexican immigrants and Chinese trade deals. In debates he refuses to touch the impending fiscal collapse of entitlements and instead creates phony deficit reducing plans, exposed by Fox News in a recent debate.
During last night’s victory speech following Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s home state victory, he offered a salve for the country that would move us beyond the cult of personality. Kasich’s best line: “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.” Though he is far less entertaining or bombastic, Kasich’s wisdom would move us beyond the Messianic, cult mentality and into a self-actualized, compassionate citizenry.
“What I learned as a boy is that the spirit of America rests in us, it doesn’t rest in a big time politician,” he said. “You hire us to go do a job, but that’s not where our spirit is. Our spirit is within us, in believing in our efforts and that we can change the world and carve out a better future. Our job as Americans is to dig down and understand that purpose and never underestimate our ability to change the world in which we live.”
It’s appearing that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can offer a candidate that can unify the country. Both frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Trump have strong negatives that would likely disqualify them from a broad-reaching coalition. Rumblings grow stronger that a third-party candidate could serve as a unifying force should it appear that Trump indeed takes the nomination. Kasich could be that anti-cult figure who reminds us of a simple truth: our power lies within ourselves.
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