Practical Curiosity and Democratic Leadership

Analysis of democratic leadership

Obama speaking at a rally in Pittsburgh, 2008. Credit/Creative Commons.

One mark of fine scholarship is that the author provides such solid evidence that it is possible for the reader to draw different conclusions. In his book The Obama Question, Gary Dorrien has provided just such scholarship in his analysis of the political and ethical challenges of the Obama presidency, and the import of those challenges for liberals and progressives.

Dorrien claims that “Obama governs with deep caution, even timidity, as he pushes for risky things.”

I disagree. What Dorrien sees as timidity, I see as genuinely democratic leadership in the face of formidable challenges—not only economic, environmental, and military crises, but also a resolutely recalcitrant Republican party and a deeply divided Democratic party, unable to muster agreement on the contours of financial regulation, economic stimulus or health care reform.

As a lifelong activist, I have known the satisfaction of clarion calls for social change. As an administrator, I have learned that the work is not done when the protests are heard. Rather it is here, it is now, that another fundamentally more difficult work begins.

We may criticize alone, and we may envision alone, but to implement that vision, to build on that critique, requires the cooperation of other people—other people to actually carry out the work on a daily basis, other people to judge, refine, and critique new systems and processes. And, as you may have noticed, other people tend to have different ideas—not only different ideas of how to meet shared goals, but possibly better ideas about the most fitting ways to administer health care, redress income inequality, and support environmentally sound economic practices.

It is at this juncture that we have much to learn from the feminist economists Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, who wrote collaboratively as a single persona under the penname J. K. Gibson-Graham starting in 1992. Gibson and Graham are involved in the analysis and support of community economies throughout the world. They have found the work of playing economy justly is “best shaped by practical curiosity as opposed to moral certainty about alternatives to capitalism.”

I contend that it is our failure to cultivate practical curiosity, our inability to reckon with the complexity of democratic governance and leadership that is responsible for the low numbers of people within the United States who identify as liberal or progressive. The statistics that Dorrien provides are sobering. Only 20 percent of people within the United States identify as liberal or progressive, while 70 percent identify as conservative or moderate.

In my work with conservatives and moderates, I find that their resistance to liberal and progressive policies is clear, straightforward, and largely unaddressed by the Left. They do not doubt our commitment to justice, nor our compassion. They question our competence.

David Brooks’s March 27, 2012, critique in the New York Times of the Obama health care policy provides a case in point:

But I think the Obama administration made a disastrous error in centralizing so many of the cost-control elements of the new health care system. I don’t care how many comparative effectiveness research studies they commission, there is no way centralized dirigistes can keep up with a complex, innovative system. There is no way government can adapt quickly to failure.

Here, then, are three core principles of effective democratic leadership:

1) As anyone knows who has run a business or nonprofit agency, there are unanticipated consequences, both positive and negative, of any course of action.

2) It is easier to rectify mistakes when we first acknowledge that we will make them.

3) Solutions are most effective and long lasting when crafted with the input of those who will implement them, and this for two reasons: a) when solutions are imposed from the top, resistance is steady and persistent; and b) people may well comply with a charismatic leader, but then lack the understanding of foundational principles that enables creative modifications in response to inevitable errors and negative consequences.

In short, this is the challenge of the Obama presidency and the challenge for progressives—relinquishing the short-term satisfactions of moral denunciation and embracing the harder, long-lasting work of humility and practical curiosity in the creation and implementation of economic and political policies that may support the common good.


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