Reflections on Democratic Leadership and Popular Exploitation

            The Institute I direct helped to host a newly retired distinguished United Nations official this past week. He had just completed 27 years of service in locations throughout the world, most recently in a leadership role in peacekeeping in Lebanon. During his visit to a graduate seminar I lead concerning leadership and governance, he shared the story of an encounter with a young man while on a packed bus traveling through a seedy part of his hometown. He was sufficiently concerned about conditions that he removed his wallet from the back pocket of his slacks and placed it in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. When the young man departed the bus, our guest felt for his billfold in his back pocket and, not finding it there, was certain that the individual had taken it. Our visitor jumped from the bus and shortly had the young man pinned against it (with an alarmed audience aboard the vehicle witnessing his actions) and screamed at him to return the wallet. Our guest soon discovered, however, that his billfold was still in his own pocket. This episode, he reported, was built on a false certainty borne of fear and fury, and it ended in acute embarrassment and chagrin.

            Our guest shared this story to illustrate a broader point concerning leadership, especially democratic leadership. Such officials must be able to discipline their behavior and be careful about reaching conclusions without significant evidence suggesting their accuracy. First reactions cannot be prevented, so leaders must learn actively to hold those perceptions in abeyance until such time as evidence suggests that their observations and judgment are indeed compelling. This aptitude or capacity requires self-reflection and self-awareness in addition to self-discipline to prevent the equivalent of the sort of scenario our visitor described.

            A broader conclusion one may draw from this example is that fear is a profoundly powerful force, and that democratic leaders bear a special responsibility to distinguish between when strong responses in the name of fear are appropriate, and when these are likely only to worsen situations and conditions. All of this is pertinent as America’s political leaders debate how best to address the advent of the Ebola virus epidemic in three nations in West Africa. However apt the argument that democratic officials bear a singular responsibility not to exacerbate the fears of the populace they serve in situations such as this outbreak, it is nonetheless tempting for too many such individuals to exploit the power of fear for their own electoral purposes or personal efforts to gain power. The result in such situations—when leaders succeed in whipping a broad share of the general population into hysteric frenzy concerning a postulated menace—is always injustice and worse.

            Consider for example, the hysteria that swept the United States near the advent of World War II that Japanese-Americans would prove disloyal to the nation; that fear resulted in the round-up and internment of tens of thousands of innocent citizens in a perpetration of mass injustice. Consider, too, the Red Scare of the 1950s, led by the monomaniacal Senator Joseph McCarthy (WI), that resulted in unjust treatment of thousands and the ruin of many professional careers. Ponder, too, the more recent populist claims of many U.S. leaders concerning the nonexistent “menace” of immigration from South America, resulting in the construction of a highly securitized wall along 700 miles of the nation’s boundary with Mexico, and a recent refusal to handle with humanity the situation of thousands of children at the border. Finally, recall how too many Americans, because of fear unleashed by the September 2001 terrorist attacks, actively discriminated against this nation’s Muslims on the basis of nothing more than their faith.

            One might expand this list of past examples of how our country’s citizens and elected officials have responded to fearful events with shameful actions. I want to highlight a share of our political leaders’ current rhetoric concerning the Ebola virus that I believe illustrates how important it continues to be for our officials to discipline their personal ambitions for the public good when they might otherwise play on popular fears. It is likewise essential for citizens to be able to discern when would-be leaders are manipulating their emotions for personal aggrandizement or to gain office or power. Here, for example, is what CBS News reported concerning what Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), an ophthalmologist, and a likely GOP candidate for the presidency in 2016, had to say recently concerning the West African Ebola virus epidemic:

With millions of Americans already worried about the Ebola virus, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, fanned the flames by suggesting that the risk of infection is greater than global medical authorities say—and that the Obama administration is misleading the public about it. In footage from CNN of his speech at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, the prospective GOP presidential candidate called Ebola "incredibly contagious," and told the crowd that the virus can be spread to another person standing three feet away. He also said he believes the White House is withholding this information. "If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party they're contagious and you can catch it from them," said Paul. "[The administration] should be honest about that." Public health officials say our decades of experience dealing with Ebola outbreaks in Africa has proven that's not the case. "Should you be worried you might have gotten it by sitting next to someone?" Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said Wednesday. "The answer to that is no." Sen. Paul also claimed that Ebola is easier to contract than AIDS. "You're not going to get AIDS at a cocktail party. No one's going to cough on you and you're going to get AIDS," he said (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/sen-rand-paul-says-dangers-of-ebola-are-downplayed/).

            In short, Paul chose falsely to “fan the flames” of citizens’ concerns, in the face of decades of contrary public health evidence, to gain media salience and positioning in campaign politics. It is difficult not to label this for what it is: profoundly irresponsible behavior that might further fuel misplaced public hysteria. Meanwhile, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) has used the virus situation as fodder for his anti-immigration campaign and has called for closing the American border to people from West Africa, whether known to be infected or not.

            Sadly, this list of recent lamentable rhetoric by American public officials could be extended. What it suggests is the dearth of any self-imposed limitations among potential presidential candidates concerning what they might say to exploit the electorate’s fears (already overblown, in this case) for personal gain. Should their actions and statements result in widespread public hysteria concerning the Ebola situation, history suggests that injustice will occur. This situation underscores how important it is for reporters and analysts to characterize this behavior as the jingoism it is, and for citizens to take steps to inform themselves more fully to avoid manipulation. The present Ebola scenario illustrates one of the most enduring and difficult challenges of democratic governance: preserving the rights of all citizens in fear-filled situations, while avoiding the imposition of majority tyranny. This public health challenge may be regarded as a test of our nation’s capacity for self-governance, and one that too many of our leaders and citizens are surely failing thus far.