I’m writing this blog just two weeks before a pivotal national election. A key campaign issue this year has been the question of the role of government. How big should it be? How much power should it have? How intrusive should it be in our daily lives?
This election cycle has staked out two entirely different viewpoints on these questions. Both sides believe devoutly in their positions. Now they are in a contest to see which viewpoint will prevail.
This then takes us to the heart of a paradox that runs underneath leadership in any constitutional democracy.
Indispensable to constitutional process is the idea that power is ultimately answerable to principle. That is, no one is allowed to use personal or corporate power in a way that disrupts or destroys the constitutional order.
Constitutional government therefore means that society should be controlled by a set of ideals, principles, and values, not by brute power or the force of arms. And if ideas and ideals are to shape us, then elections become a battleground for competing visions of the future.
Each of these visions rests on certain principles that its proponents hold dear. For these principles to carry the day, however, the proponents must gain power. And therein lies the paradox.
To put it simply, advocates of given principles cannot set the agenda for the future unless they have political power. So having begun our constitutional journey by subordinating power to principle, we must now pursue the triumph of our principles by acquiring power.
The American experiment has made extraordinary effort to subject the pursuit of power in elections to a set of guiding principles.
Nevertheless, when gaining power is the only way for your principles to prevail, even principled people are tempted to compromise on their ideals and do whatever it takes to win, no matter how unprincipled.
In a word, the pursuit of power begins to consume the principled life so dearly espoused.
This makes principled political leadership particularly difficult in constitutional democracies. It’s up to leadership to respect principle so greatly that it holds true to principle, no matter how intense the political power struggle.
Few people have every fully succeeded at that balancing act. And interestingly, those who do succeed are not generally thought of as politicians. We tend to call them statesmen.