The man over at the edge of the room had the look on his face that people get when they really need to say something. He raised his hand. “We need to remember,” he said, “that as public leaders we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.” I was in Charlottesville, Virginia with the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at UVA, addressing a leadership group on ethics. Sorensen runs one of the better such programs in the nation, mixing ethics and political leadership in a sustained, integrated way.
The comment crystallized a number of themes that many had brought up that morning. For some, it was a breath of fresh air. We had been talking about the “appearance of impropriety” while we debated a case study, as if the way something looked was more important than whether it was or was not ethical. The man was right, people seemed to say to themselves. We need to think about something deeper than appearance here.
The man indeed had a point. This endemic mistrust underlies many of our civic dysfunctions. The fundamental problem is that, in public life today, the ability to understand, talk about, and act upon ethical obligations has been eviscerated. No longer is there room for “ought” in the public square. But that is precisely what we need.
Thankfully, some people see it that way, too. And not just at the Sorensen Institute. There is an instinct to reclaim the responsibilities of citizenship in a way that makes sense in today’s fragmented world. Talking to people across the country, this instinct can be felt, but is often hidden from view.
People are extending themselves, in small ways and large. When you talk to them, in their voices you hear a desire for themselves and others to live up to the ethical sense they have about what citizens should do and how they should behave. You can see it in the new discussion groups that are forming, with new rules and new members: People who had been shut out are finding political voices. You can see it as others take advantage of network technologies to communicate with public institutions: Just a few years ago, they would not have ventured out of their homes. All of these people are expressing a desire for something deeper than politics as usual, something that feels real.
This is nothing short of a new way of thinking about what we bring to the public square — and what we should do when we get there.
These instincts need nurturing. The people who seek an authentic connection with their responsibilities want to hold themselves to that higher standard. They need inspiration, motivation, guideposts. Where are those things?
Today’s elite discourse is choked, on the one hand, by partisan ranting and, on the other hand, by professional civic theorists who speak incessantly of “process.” In few places is there real discussion of ethics in public life, but in many there are arguments over so-called “values” that are really conflicts over power.
But there are emergent leaders who are beginning to sidestep all that and to speak instead to those with open minds and a desire for something more in public life. People in communities across America, who are more concerned with their neighbors than with the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and who wonder “what is the right thing to do?” instead of considering just the expedient thing.
These emergent leaders work hand in hand with their fellow citizens, at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, at the Common Place Family Learning Center in Peoria, and so many other places. These leaders are looked to as reliable sources of street-level information and as moral exemplars. Some of them have begun to filter into leadership programs such as the one at the Sorensen Institute. But their credibility begins in the community. In the neighborhoods, people don’t wonder, “What would Colin Powell do?” but instead they wonder, “What would Sally down the block do?”
And to these neighbors, true leaders do not shout but instead they whisper. “You can do better,” they whisper. “You should do better.”
How do you answer?