Does Courage in Politics Still Matter in America?

By Dale Galbraith

There are numerous occasions throughout ones political career, which presents the opportunity to impress a cynical public, to reach deep inside the public’s repository of ill will specially reserved for a profession few understand or can relate to. Consequently, once afforded the opportunity to exhibit any form of inspiration, there remains a responsibility to do so. To that end, it appears the public and party faithful alike are often left wholly disappointed.

For reasons that emerge shallow, with little regard to substance, politicians at times defy logic, and the obvious, by acting in a manner contrary to reason or sound judgment. The reward for the many who care deeply about the integrity of our representatives and party, and by extension the citizens of the respected country, is not the hope that our leaders simply act (that in fact is our minimum expectation), rather the true reward, albeit fleeting, is that our leaders act in a manner consistent with our high expectations. The ultimate reward therefore, is a leader who acts well beyond expectations, well beyond simple integrity and well beyond false courage.

Some years ago I was introduced to a book that presented extraordinary examples of political and moral courage, and which has guided my belief in politics and democracy over the course of my involvement at a party level. I often leaf through the well-worn pages when exposed to week or undeserving political leadership. Not surprisingly the events in America (and at times in Canada) over the past year have caused a review of the entire book, front to back. I wish, during such turbulent times, I could send a copy to each of our political leaders including party members, as a reminder to all why we commit to a specific political philosophy and why, once elected to govern, we must consistently gauge our moral compass and progress against these principles.

To enhance my argument I would present to each of our leaders, respectfully, the notion that “we-the- people” expect exceptional moral and political courage from each of them. We should reinforce the notion that a political organizations strength remains within its volunteers, structure and governance through to the elected members, not the reverse. I would introduce ‘our’ expectations of courage as presented in the little book I so long ago read, which expresses so exquisitely the meaning of political courage described by a senator in his 1866 eulogy, delivered upon the death of a colleague;

“When, Mr. President, a man becomes a member of this body he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed;

of how much courage he must possess to resist the temptations which daily beset him;

of that sensitive shrinking from undeserved censure which he must learn to control;

of the ever-recurring contest between a natural desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty;

of the load of injustice he must be content to bear, even from those who should be his friends;

the imputations of his motives;

the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance and malice;

all the manifold injuries which partisan or private malignity, disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head.

All this Mr. President, if he would retain his integrity, he must learn to bear unmoved, and walk steadily onward in the path of duty, sustained only by the reflection that time may do him justice, or if not, that after all his individual hopes and aspirations, and even his name among men, should be of little account to him when weighed in the balance against the welfare of a people of whose destiny he is a constituted guardian and defender.”

Every political party at some point faces a crossroad, the successful of them recognize when they are there. If political history has taught us anything, it surely is that the ones who take the ostrich-approach eventually fail to exist. Therefore, as a messenger of the obvious, I encourage at this very moment we dig deep within our structure and remind ourselves what it is we truly stand for as a party and citizens, and what we expect from those who represent us. We cannot, for one minute longer, sit as political pacifists on an unavoidable train wreck.

We have the tools and the talent, and, at this place, and at this time, we must only support candidates with the deep moral and political courage. History will judge the coming year to be sure. However, the outcome we choose will set us on a course of discovery and reinvention as a nation or potential irrelevance in the eyes of our naysayers. Many, including historians will, when all is said and done, point to this time as the defining legacy of all political parties’ and politicians alike. They will talk with fondness and not a little bewilderment of our choices, or they will speak in enviable tones of our good judgment and courage. We are the deciders of that story and we must all recognize and accept that;

“Not only do the problems of courage and conscience concern every officeholder in our land, however humble or mighty, and to whomever he may be responsible – voters, a legislature, a political machine or a party organization. They concern as well every voter in our land – and they concern those who do not vote, those who take no interest in Government, those who have disdain for the politician and his profession. They concern everyone who has ever complained about corruption in high places, and everyone who has ever insisted that his representative abide by his wishes. For, in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, “holds office”; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand or deserve. “

These words, written a half century ago, are as powerful and relevant today as any time in political history. “We get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.”

For many of us, this statement resonates to our core and reveals a painful and overlooked truth. From my humble perspective within this still-relevant movement, it is no longer acceptable to wish for our savior to appear gift-wrapped and riding in on a white horse. We must raise our expectations significantly and demand ‘powerful’ leadership from each of our representatives. No sub-par performances, no status quo, no deals to ensure political longevity or importance.

Onlookers may lament (and rightfully so at times) that a good deal of our leaders suffer from what one astute politician described as, “the lag between our way of thought and our way of life” which he compared to the subject of this anonymous poem:

There was a dachshund once, so long

He hadn’t any notion

How long it took to notify

His tail of his emotion;

And so it happened, while his eyes

Were filled with woe and sadness,

His little tail went wagging on

Because of previous gladness.

To create a new culture takes courage to be sure, and during this new course we will lose those who cannot or will not participate, for them we express our best wishes with the knowledge and hope their void will be filled by constituents from the new vision. It is worth reminding both old and new however, that; “the courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality. To be courageous, as this little book points out, “requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, and no special combination of time, place or circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all. Politics merely furnishes on arena which imposes special tests of courage”.

If we focus on the upcoming Presidential election in the US this would be an apt time to restore the courage and vision demonstrated by past leaders – the shoulders of whom we continually stand – to create a new and relevant vision.

If we agree that politics does in fact; “furnish an arena which imposes special tests of courage” then I offer a long-held personal belief that “to empower people you must include them, to invigorate a political organization, you must continue to renew its reason and purpose and to ignite the passions of a country you must provide inspired government”

Oh, by the way! The little book, which I so heavily quote in this article is entitled “Profiles in Courage” and was authored so brilliantly by a US Senator who later became the 35th President of the United States.

From my humble perspective on Politics-Business-Life, I remain.

Dale Galbraith

Please follow my blog One Critical Element which contains relevant articles and commentaries on business, politics and the relationships and realities that often dictate our successes and direction!

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