Do we get the leaders we deserve?

Marcilaughlin
8 min readNov 29, 2020
Photo by Stephen Mayes on Unsplash

“I haven’t decided if I’m going to vote yet,” said a friend of mine on a group zoom meeting a week prior to the election. “Both candidates suck. We don’t have any good choice! In the end they’re all the same. I’m thinking of writing in a candidate.”

The sip of water I’d just taken caught in my throat and adrenaline rushed through my body. I could feel my cheeks flush. “Down, Marci, down!” I told myself. I reminded myself to breathe deeply, as the suppressed voice inside me screamed, “How can you NOT vote?? How can you find ZERO difference between Biden and an incompetent, narcissistic president who actively promotes lies, bigotry and polarization? Biden may not have been your optimal choice, but how can you not discern a difference between the VALUES that these men represent, even if the system IS terribly broken?”

I witnessed the tirade in my head and took some more deep breaths. I sensed it was the wiser thing to do. Meanwhile, the famous quote attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to mind:

Silence in the face of evil is evil itself…Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

I let the natural flow of conversation in the group ensue while I tried to douse the fire inside me. The others on the call, all non-American, seemed nonplussed by my friend’s comment. I knew any words that came out of my mouth accompanied by flames would only lead to a defensive reaction. So I sat and argued with myself over whether I should say anything at all. After all, in this era, people are so tethered to their certainties. What could I possibly say that might change her opinion? What could possibly convince her to vote? And should I even make it my business?

I had to admit that I couldn’t totally fault her. I’d been there myself: utterly disenchanted with the system. The disillusion began when protesting the first Gulf War. I had experienced participating in protests of tens of thousands of people in Sacramento and in San Francisco, only to find that the evening news would then report only “a couple thousand”. In the 3 months of the first Gulf War in 1991, I sat at a 24-hour protest vigil outside the university Student Union for months with some other dedicated students where we were occasionally graced with visits by journalists. A few of them sat with us on some long cold nights and off the record, expressed the inner turmoil they felt about watching their news articles get censored.

Later, as a graduate student of international relations, I watched my hopes for change veer from official channels to the non-governmental, and civil society arenas. And with time, I began to even wonder if any real justice or equality– e.g. dismantling of a racist, sexist, classist system — might not require some uncivil society. So, like my friend, I had long ago given up expecting any significant change to be brought about by our political system. Having lived abroad for nearly 20 years, and witnessed other political systems, I was long aware of the glaring shortcomings of our two-party system, and its utter lack of any REAL political diversity.

In the early 2000s I too began to wonder “Why vote?” Did it really matter in the end? After all, we resembled a corporatocracy far more than a democracy. I registered with the Green Party. Then as an Independent.

But then Hurricane Trump happened. And there seemed no high ground left to escape to. How had we fallen so low? Especially after Obama? I’d finally been able to feel proud of being American while living abroad, after years of claiming I was Canadian to many who asked my nationality. Those who have not lived out of the States probably can’t imagine the giddiness I felt when the tide shifted in 2008. The sensation was akin to my first time on a water slide. Weeeeee! I now walked into cafes, green grocers, and gelato shops where Italians, Sri Lankans, Indians, Egyptians would break out in spontaneous grins, and greet me with: “Obama! Yes we Can!”

Two outdoor baristas celebrating Obama

I was living in Rome during this period, and then began working part-time for a Hungarian lawyer and committee member of the Council of Europe who was infatuated with Obama. He was so inspired by Obama’s election that he hired me to help his small organization launch a Europe-wide competition aimed at fostering leadership among minority youth. He wanted to call it the “Eurobama” contest, but opted instead for the roll-off-your tongue title of “AtmosphEuropa”. (No, it didn’t sound any better in Italian.)

While many of our global neighbors are not big fans of America, which they see as a hypocritical bully, the rise of Obama to the Oval Office inspired a different tune in many. It seemed that at long last, perhaps America was about to walk its talk. Maybe Americans were becoming more color blind; just maybe the average Joe (but not Josephine), could aspire to the highest office. Just maybe a shinier, more tolerant world was in the making and the huddled masses were really breathing more freely.

I reflected on what I’d been told years earlier while studying in Cairo. I’d been lamenting some of our political leaders, and an Egyptian friend told me, “All people get the leaders they deserve. This is according to the Hadith (the collected traditions) of the Prophet Mohammad.” She grabbed her Quran and quoted:

“If the people are upright, then their kings and rulers will be upright, and if they turn away (from uprightness), then their leaders will turn against them. And if they oppress and tyrannize, then their kings and rulers will tyrannize and oppress.” (Ibn Qayuum al Jawaziyye)

Her words came back to me when Obama was elected. Did it mean Americans had suddenly gotten more deserving? Were we inching closer to uprightness? Did the Occupy Wall Street movement reflect shifting values, the dawn of a new era in which we would no longer accept the glaring inequalities that unbridled capitalism had fostered?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Never being a TV owner, I only got vaguely familiar with Trump’s TV show The Apprentice during occasional visits to my parents during my years abroad. I remember feeling truly stunned as I watched some episodes. Maybe horrified is a better word. Perhaps a reaction reminiscent of unwitting attendees to a gladiator spectacle in ancient Rome. Were these the values we really wanted to glorify and inculcate in our youth? Did we really want them to believe that ruthless competition, rivalry, individualism and lack of integrity are the ingredients to success? But don’t worry…it’s not personal it’s just business. Just the way the “real world” works.

Maybe it was naïve of me to hope that the rise of Obama was an indicator of a value shift in this country and a new direction. For sure, if what my Egyptian friend said was true, I wanted to believe that the reflection in the mirror had improved. But 2016 seemed to prove otherwise.

What went wrong?

When I ponder the words of my Egyptian friend, I wonder, even though I bristle at the thought, if we really do get the leaders we deserve? Afterall, if we follow the Law of Attraction logic, and ascribe to the idea of vibration and resonance on a personal level, why would it not hold true on a collective level?

Maybe on some level we have all abdicated our responsibility both as citizens and as members of a collective humanity. Especially those of us with privilege. Did we trade in uprightness for comfort and complacency? It’s much easier to wait for others to champion the causes we hold dear and make the necessary changes. Did we all slip into laziness, looking to a savior to do the work for us? Certainly it’s much easier to binge watch Netflix while we gripe about the lack of equality, the level of injustice, and the Freak show in the White House.

And from a place of relative security, from our comfortable couches and a bit of privilege, it’s easy to say, “Voting doesn’t matter. Nothing changes. We just see one talking head exchanged for another.”

And that may be true to an extent. But what is also true is that the values the different “talking heads” stand for do matter. And LIVES are on the line with respect to those significantly different values. What they STAND for matters. It matters for the millions of Americans who may lose affordable health care. It matters for the families that have been ripped apart at our borders. It matters for those barely subsisting and needing a higher federal minimum wage. It matters for women wanting to retain the right to make decisions about their own bodies.

But beyond the political agenda, what we each do matters. I know that I must do more to stand in integrity around what I believe. And what this era of pandemic has highlighted is that we can no longer be complacent. The gaping inequalities and systemic injustices are neon-lit. Our society — indeed our planet — cannot afford for any of us to rest in the hammock of “It doesn’t matter.”

And if voting doesn’t matter to us we have to find what does matter, and act on that. I know, on a personal level, that I have to up my game. I have to do a serious audit of where I am out of alignment with my values. I know I can’t both gripe about Bezos’ extra $72 billion profit during the Pandemic or decry the loss of small and medium businesses because of Amazon’s thirst to conquer, and still order merchandise through Amazon. I can no longer justify such an action because of its convenience and the desire to save a few dollars on shipping. Our planet is in peril for the sake of our convenience and myopia. In the end, our choices matter. Even the micro ones. Especially if you multiply them by 7 billion. (And if you’re not convinced of the power of tiny changes, just read James Clear’s Atomic Habits.)

And if we just don’t like the reality outside of us, it may be time to take writer and activist Glennon Doyle’s advice: look to our inner reality. To our imagination. In her book Untamed, she reminds us that if those of us who were not the architects of reality only consult reality for possibilities, then reality will never change. She writes:

“We are here to fully introduce ourselves, to impose ourselves and our ideas, our thoughts and dreams onto the world, leaving it changed forever by who we are and what we bring forth from our depths. We must unleash ourselves and watch the world reorder itself in front of our eyes.”

Maybe we will get the leader we deserve once we have fully plumbed our depths and imposed our dreams onto the world.

Or better yet, maybe each of us will become that leader.

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Marcilaughlin

Globe-trotter, coach, master of deep conversation. Loves coffee & correctly using the subjunctive in Turkish & Italian. Happiest when opening minds & hearts.