Return to:

  Home  |  About Us  |  Contact Us   Text Size:

Sowing Leaders 
Published: Oct 15 2003

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

American philanthropists have spent hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of their own money on efforts to foster the growth of democracy abroad. They have helped evolving nations around the world train and encourage leadership, and promote understanding of and vigorous debate about issues that directly affect the health of the body politic. But what about at home? Who can claim to have made a serious effort to improve the quality of the candidates or the process by which we choose our own leaders?

The unfolding disappointments of the Bush administration—from Iraq falsehoods to Ashcroft repression to wholesale kleptocracy (to say nothing of California's election of a movie star with no program or track record)—have clearly underlined the dangers of inattention to the basics of elections, such as what kinds of people are considered to be leadership timbre, and what kinds of policy choices they face. Yet the Democratic presidential primary race finds Americans once again having to choose from an unexceptional, largely mediocre alternative cast, short on courage, wisdom, originality, charisma or even coherent ideological moorings. Few of us can say with confidence that we understand who these people are and whether they will serve us well. The only candidates generating much excitement are a military mystery man with hazy positions and no political record at all, and a previously-unknown governor of a tiny state whose population and problems are hardly representative of the country as a whole.
We need to make a concerted effort to find and cultivate vision and talent, and to generate an honest discussion of issues.

In order to get better presidents (and governors and senators), we need to make a concerted effort to find and cultivate vision and talent, and to generate an honest discussion of issues. To do that, America needs what amounts to a domestic Marshall Plan for rebuilding American democratic vitality and leadership. Here's what it might look like:

1. Create a non-profit public corporation—call it the "Fund for New Leadership"—to launch an ongoing campaign of political education on a grand scale.

2. Establish a body of full-time researchers whose job is to scrutinize would-be leaders, spell out their accomplishments, analyze their stated positions on major issues, detail their connections to financial supporters, etc.

3. Create a group of media-savvy journalists and academics, together with advertising and PR consultants, to illustrate and publicize the findings of the researchers in a compelling manner.

4. Build a cadre of nonpartisan "headhunters" to proactively seek out leadership talent, and encourage these new faces to get involved in politics.

The Fund ought to strive for rigorous nonpartisanship. Its board should be made up of those who have spent years in the trenches promoting various aspects of democracy and freedom—thoughtful people across the political spectrum, from outfits like Common Cause and George Soros's Open Society Institute to Greens and Libertarians, who share a faith that the people will do the right thing when presented with clear, accurate information.

It's hard to think of a more worthy or selfless endeavor than revitalizing American participatory democracy.

Right now, it's pretty much up to journalism to reveal the truth about candidates. But journalism is largely reactive by nature, not inclined to thorough evaluation of individuals in advance of any buzz. To do this right requires the services of skilled researchers not under pressure to generate headlines—a process that's less Associated Press than Congressional Research Service or Consumers Union. These researchers would scrutinize prospects' track record—votes, statements, etc—and interview people who have worked with them.

It's not enough to offer information in the flat, sober style of the dignified election brochures from the League of Women Voters. Today's audience demands entertainment, and even ordinarily dry material can sing in the hands of jazzy and inventive communicators, including but not limited to political admakers—who understand how to draw out the essence of a challenge or an idea, and how to illustrate complicated notions simply. A recent example: the way philanthropist-activist Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's fame brought home to audiences the bloated military budget, using megastacks of military cookies towering over piddling piles of educational sweets.)

The Fund for New Leadership must also live up to the "new" in its name. It's a sad fact that the individuals most qualified to deal with the serious issues facing our nation are often the least likely to put themselves forward as candidates. By conducting the kind of search that awards committees do—MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" style—we should be able to unearth Americans with proven track records of responsibility and vision. The headhunters would establish the same sorts of specific criteria that any well-run organization does in seeking talented leadership, look in all the right places—business, academia, nonprofits, and government at all levels—and solicit public advice. The Fund could also make it easier for promising individuals to move up, by offering training, guidance and resources.

Of course, a fund needs funding. But it's hard to think of a more worthy or selfless endeavor than revitalizing American participatory democracy. The ship of state is adrift and taking on water fast, and unless we fix it, nothing else will matter much. Surely that's an argument that would resonate with a Soros, a Jobs, a Spielberg—even a Gates. If any of these people were willing to take the lead, it's likely a groundswell would follow. So—who's first?


Recent Articles by

The Unilateral Party Is Over
Bush Moves On
All Spin All The Time

Financial Privacy Update
Mental Illness: Out Of The Shadows
Beyond Patriotic

Windfalls Of War
Home Safe Home
Double Payment

Take on the News
Shrill Conservatives
In A Pinch
Leader Of The Pact

The Mission
Move Over, BBC

Op Ad
Thanks From Corporate Tax Dodgers
If It Ain't Broke, Break It
$18 Billion For Polluters

Support UsSubscribe