Since the shift in power this past election, it’s been both amusing and disheartening to watched political partisans trade talking points. My favorite, flagrant example of this is how unemployment numbers are recited and spun –no matter which party is power. If you’re in power, unemployment is down and the economy is growing. If you’re not in power, then the numbers are totally untrustworthy and the picture is much, much worse.
Possibly the unabashed exemplar par excellence of this side-trading was an exchange in a White House press briefing early last month:
Q Thanks, Sean. In the past, the President has referred to particular job reports as “phony” or “totally fiction.” Does the President believe that this jobs report was accurate and a fair way to measure the economy?
MR. SPICER: Yeah, I talked to the President prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly — “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” (Laughter.)
(I’m hoping the uproarious laughter from the press corp was at the president rather than with him –mostly because I’m hoping craven cynicism isn’t prevalent on both sides of the debate to the extent that everybody in Washington knows everybody in Washington is lying and the rest of us are just poor suckers who think WWE wrestling is real.)
I’ve Got the Power!
Anyway, one telltale sign political powers switching sides is who starts asking for a “conversation”. People in power don’t want discussion; people out of power do. Try this experiment at home: the next time you hear somebody saying they want to “foster a dialog” or “host a conversation”, see if they’re the ones in power. I grantee you they’re not.
When you’ve won the power, there can be this fallacious notion that you must have also won the debate. That is flatly untrue. The losing side, knowing it’s not true, think they can win power back if they can just get hold of the microphone. So they (occasionally respectfully, occasionally disrespectfully) call for “dialog” or “conversation”. Why? People in power think they don’t need to win anybody because they’ve already won.
The truly talented political operative knows that asking for fairness is the first step towards situating yourself as the underdog –America’s favorite hero type. Granted, some may be genuinely asking for a hearing, but in the pro league, these voices are feigning a quest for reasonableness to win the sympathies of the crowd. “Well, we just want a fair hearing.” “It’s only fair to hear both sides.” “We should make it faaaaaiiiirrreee”. From that place of sympathy, you win the crowd. And when you’ve won the crowd, you’ve won the power. And then you’re back on top.
Of course, once you’re on top, you have no interest whatsoever in “dialog” or “conversations.” Obviously. Brutus doesn’t stab Julius Caesar and then stab himself. Political treachery is, by necessity, a one-way street. It takes a special blend of political wisdom and insecurity to say, “I won’t give you a hearing because, already being in power, I have nothing to gain and everything to lose. You, on the other hand, have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
In-Power Vulnerability Is Strength
In light of that, my criteria of a truly confident thought-leader is someone who holds the political power but calls for (and hosts) debate/dialog/discussion and maintains power anyway.
Now, the pragmatist in me says, “Why in the world would I provide the forum for my own, potential downfall?” But the idealist in me says, “The strength of the argument that gave me power will be the same strength that keeps me in power.”
Beyond simply idealism, though, I would argue that hosting a steady stream of power-sponsored conversation actually defuses uprisings. When people don’t feel heard, they get shrill. Very shrill. They also tend to ghettoize, creating a sub-culture of loud, discontentment that can eventually reach critical mass to force a conversation if not an outright power change. I think it’s easier to do battle with small voices. But few in-power leaders are confident enough, articulate enough, in-touch enough, and (candidly) right enough to sponsor such conversations.
That, by the way, is one major advantage out-of-power leaders have over in-power leaders: in power leaders rarely have the capacity to lead conversations; they’re too busy, you know, actually doing the responsibilities their power gives them. Out-of-power leaders rarely have any responsibility outside of getting back into power. That laser-like focus needs a platform to launch an assault on the in-power-leader who is almost always less prepared for the confrontation.
And it leads to one of the greatest, cheapeast, most effective, pre-debate taunts: “They won’t debate us because they know they can’t win.”
Well, maybe. Or it may just be the side who is right is too busy doing their jobs to hand you a platform for your subversive agenda. It’s pretty cheap to practice on an obstacle course for a few years and then taunt your unprepared opponent (who has been busy doing things besides learning a particular obstacle course) with, “Well, he won’t do the course because he isn’t strong enough.” He very well may be strong enough, but in an obstacle course, strength is different from familiarity and dexterity.
That said, while the out-of-power taunt is cheap, it’s not as cheap as the limppwristed, stonewalling, dismissive, self-aggrandizing claim of “too busy” that unprepared leaders give in response. Being “too busy” to lead the conversation means you are too busy to lead because leading the conversation is leading.
What got you in power will keep you in power.
So many revolutions become like the establishment they overthrew. Orwell was right and the Animal Farmian cycle will never be broken if in-power leaders refuse to continue leading the conversation the moment they start leading from power.
Far too often, in-power leaders dismiss the barbarians at the gate because they think of them as barbarians at the gate rather than people under their leadership. Leadership means taking care of people under your care and that includes the subversive factions and their agenda-driven, issue-focused demands.
I’ve seen this dynamic is almost every church and non-profit I’ve worked with: Instead of engaging them, too many leaders dismiss/ignore/sigh etc. That reaction fans the flame of the rebellion and the continued failure to engage is eventually that leader’s or leadership team’s downfall. Every time.
So here is my word of encouragement to leaders everywhere: If you did the long hard work of winning hearts and minds one soul at a time, then don’t forget: what got you in power will keep you in power.