Sadly, of course, both political parties and the political press insist on characterizing modern elections in just this way. Leaders, not parties or platforms, are placed front and centre in all messaging, while elections are described as tournaments among single champions.
Yet neither Prime Minister Trudeau nor President Donald Trump always gets his way. Both can be, and have been, called to account at least at times, and both clearly want to do things they haven’t yet done, or even attempted to do, because they cannot do just anything they like. They depend for the power on their parties and other networks of support.
It’s not wrong for us, however, to examine closely the quality of leadership available for our choice. American presidents remain what Americans like to say they are: the most powerful men in the world, despite the vaunted checks and balances of the U. S. Constitution. Canadian premiers and prime ministers at the heads of majority-holding parties are virtual dictators, restrained only by the courts, public opinion (heavily modulated by the media), and major donors.
It matters, therefore, that the best our Canadian parties will give us are the likes of Trudeau, Scheer, Singh, May, and Bernier. South of our border, we see that the Grand Old Party continues to be dominated (“led” is perhaps not the right word) by Donald Trump, while the excruciating winnowing process continues among Democratic presidential candidates.
We are right, therefore, to focus on leaders. But how we focus on them is key.
Since we can’t avoid talking about him a little more, let’s talk about him a little more. Sensible defenders of Donald Trump—and I’ve read a few, and met a few more—consistently make a sharp division in their appraisal of his presidency.
In column A, they put his abominable character, his terrible record as a businessman (despite the illusion fostered by “The Apprentice” that he was successful), his preposterous antics, his blatant immorality, his wreckage of normal political life at home and abroad, and his truly dumb ideas. In column B (and for Trump’s detractors, as a rule, there is no “column B”), they put actual policies of his that they appreciate: deregulation of business, defunding of Planned Parenthood, defense of nurses’ right to conscientious objection to abortion, standing up to China’s overreaching, and more.
In this (I am startled to find myself suggesting), these defenders of Trump offer a lesson to us all. We should be supporting politicians, and parties, for what differences they have been making, and likely will make—since the point of politics is, after all, about transacting life together toward the best possible outcomes.
What politics isn’t supposed to be, we all agree, is a popularity contest. But then parties keep nominating, and voters keep electing, people who present a likable image while sporting manifestly thin résumés and spouting manifestly thin proposals.
The Bible itself warns us not to be dazzled by the attractive appearance of leadership candidates. God looks on the true essence of a person and puts in power—not the nicest, or even the most godly, of people, but those who in this situation will get done what God wants done. Some of those people (page through the Book of Judges sometime) are manifestly unattractive. But they’re effective.
For the record, I am no fan of Donald Trump. My Column A versus Column B prompt me to oppose his continuing in office one more second. So I don’t want my point today to be misunderstood. Whatever candidates we are considering in the next election, let us be neither entirely put off by their initial repellence nor perpetually enthralled by their initial charm.
What does our nation, and particularly the most needy and vulnerable members of our nation, require at this juncture? Where have things been going, and who will help nudge the great ship of state in a better direction for the next while?
Moreover, who will best help our nation to participate most fruitfully in the community of nations as we tackle international challenges—again, not just in regard to our own interests, but particularly in the interests of the poorest and weakest of our global neighbours?
Truly great leaders haven’t always been heroes, not always the kinds of people you’d want to move in next door or have your kids to grow up to be, or marry. Politics in the real world is a difficult, often dirty, business. Character matters: of course it does. But the character required is the character required for this business: not to be a cool schoolteacher, or a reality show star, or an exemplary pastor, or a ruthless soldier, but a politician in this place and time.
And to decide about that, we’re going to have to go ‘way beyond voting for the candidate we happen to like best.