Several months ago, Donna Ladd asked Jackson Free Press readers on social media which politicians inspire us and why. I said at the time that I think politicians basically fall into three categories:
•People who think expanding human rights and social welfare to include more people always comes at a cost, and should be avoided even when it seems to materially benefit the rest of us.
•People who think expanding human rights and social welfare to include more people is worthwhile when it materially benefits their main constituents, and should be opposed when it doesn't.
•People who think expanding human rights and social welfare to include more people is worthwhile for its own sake.
Politicians who fall into the first category come across as cynical and selfish to some of us, but to their supporters, they're just telling it like it is. They're worried about people taking away their stuff, or their community's stuff, and the main thing they want to do is protect it from the rest of us.
These politicians have a moral objection to expanding the definition of human rights, or giving people social or financial security that they don't already have. Chris McDaniel, Kirk Fordice, Donald Trump and Phil Bryant are all good examples of politicians who fall into the first category. They're a dime a dozen in the Deep South, but outside the Tea Party movement, they're pretty rare in the rest of the country.
The vast majority of white politicians in both parties fall into the second category. They're pragmatic; they say they aspire to objectivity; they're concerned about bottom-line economic questions; and they tend to frame moral dilemmas in those kinds of conditional terms. The Clintons are masters of the category-two approach, telling us we should support universal health care because preventative care saves money, or that we should or shouldn't invade Iraq because of our strategic interests, or that we should end or continue the War on Drugs based on whether or not it's "working" (whatever that means).
Politicians who fall into this category sound like mature, emotionally detached number-crunchers, which is great in some ways and not in others. As a category, they're not really inspiring because they don't talk about public policy in moral terms.
That's why the third category matters so much. These politicians say that making people's lives better doesn't have to be justified in economic terms because it's already justified in moral terms. I find them inspiring for the same reason pundits laugh them off: However pragmatic they may be about their means, they're more visionary about their objectives. In Mississippi, the vast majority of category-three politicians can be found in the Legislative Black Caucus or in local government; they don't tend to do well in statewide races. They're not all that common in the rest of the country, either.
Every now and then, a national figure seems to come out of category three and promise a new approach to politics based on fundamental moral concern rather than economic pragmatism: Howard Dean in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008, Bernie Sanders this year. The trouble is that one of two things always seems to happen to them: They lose, or they win and shift right over to category two. It seems that a candidate can be an inspiring moral visionary, but an elected official—beyond a certain rank, at least—can't. In order to get and keep the power to make incremental, pragmatic change, they have to put aside their commitment to the big picture and dissolve into the power structure they've joined.
In other words, it's not just that power corrupts. It's that, in a very real way, power dilutes. This is why activism is about changing cultural values and social systems, not just changing laws and the people who make them. "For we wrestle," the Apostle Paul writes, "not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
At least one former president seems to be echoing those words. When asked if he regretted serving only one term, Jimmy Carter said: "If I had to choose between four more years and the Carter Center, I would've chosen the Carter Center."
As this increasingly strange election season draws to a close, let's be conscious of where we draw our inspiration. And let's acknowledge that while good leadership is important, and bad leadership can be fatal, the kind of visionary change that inspires us can't just come from leaders; we must primarily draw it from each other. It's not enough to elect, or become, great leaders. If we're really going to repair the world, it's the social context itself—the "principalities and powers"—that we need to change.
Tom Head, Ph.D., is a Jackson native. He is the author or coauthor of 28 nonfiction books, including the forthcoming "What the Slaves Believed."