Unfortunately, the term political leaders is often a misnomer. Politicians are quick to adopt the mantle, but voters should be asking whom they believe more: politicians or their own eyes. Their eyes will tell them, pretty convincingly, that the political class is composed almost entirely of followers. Provided it is sufficiently large, politicians will jump in front of any parade in their never-ending attempt to curry favor with voters and donors. And when called on it, they will claim to have “evolving positions.” It happens so often that it is incomprehensible that voters cannot see it for the cynical vote-getting ploy it is.
A notable example was Hillary Clinton’s fabulous flip-flop on gay marriage. The Democratic Party’s 2016 standard-bearer was staunchly opposed to gay marriage until about 2013. Why? Because that’s the way the wind was blowing at the time. When running for the Senate in 2000, she said: “Marriage has historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is … between a man and a woman.”
What magic happened by 2013 to make Clinton change her mind so completely? Most obviously, the American people had changed their minds about marriage equality. Almost as obviously, she was getting ready for a run at the presidency. Her long-held belief that marriage was an institution between a man and a woman simply had to change. As Alan van Capelle, former director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said at the time: “In terms of LGBT rights and marriage, there were people who led and people who followed. And on that issue, she followed.”
Politicians follow all the time. It’s in their blood. It is the very reason they employ pollsters.
As if to prove the point, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced recently that he would introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, saying that such legislation was “long overdue.” In explaining his change of heart following two decades in the Senate, Schumer said: “The American system of government works best when states are allowed to serve as the laboratories of democracy, as the founders intended.” Of course, the same Sen. Schumer showed little interest in these laboratories of democracy when he favored federal bans on green laser pointers, certain e-cigarette flavors, powdered alcohol, and powdered caffeine, to name but a few. Where marijuana is concerned, though, Schumer has suddenly discovered federalism. This is not the hallmark of a leader. It is the mark of a politician desperately trying to stay off the wrong side of voters, 64 percent of whom now think marijuana should be legal.
If the Democrats confuse leading for following, the Republicans are likely even worse. Whereas Democrats jump to the front of the parade, their Republican counterparts sit on the curb as the parade goes by. They seem unable either to do what the American people want or to explain to those same people why they should want something different. Are Republicans for or against gay marriage? Decriminalizing marijuana? Obamacare? A balanced budget? No one knows.
In the end, it’s fine that Clinton and Schumer changed their minds on issues that were important to Americans. It would have been nice had they done so at some point before the public demanded it, because that’s what legitimate leaders do, after all. But compared with their opposition, maybe this is the best we can hope for.
The real lesson here is that politicians who set their moral compasses by polls rather than by principles aren’t leaders. They seek less what is right and just than what is expedient. In short, they are followers. We would do better if we saw them for what they are, and treated them as such.
Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. James R. Harrigan is CEO of FreedomTrust. They host the weekly podcast Words & Numbers.