We're facing a leadership crisis in America.
We've become increasingly obsessed with what national leader we're for or against. President Trump is just the most bombastic example of this phenomenon, which has been playing out for decades. Our affiliation, or opposition, to a particular leader (and especially our current leader) is the closest thing we have to a common experience.
Our crisis in leadership, then, is that we're far too focused on leaders at the expense of focusing on more fundamental things, like our communities and institutions. We've reached a point where leaders set the terms for how we see the world, rather than us setting the terms for how leaders should serve us. Whether we support or oppose President Trump, when we place him — or any leader — at the center of our lives, we're ultimately ceding power.
While this is, in part, a political phenomenon, it has roots in our biology. In his book Behave
, neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky points out that conformity and nonconformity are two of the most powerful drivers in human cognitive processing. We often shape our conformity or non-conformity relative to a source of authority. In plain speak: Leaders are helpful because they frame our decisions for us. From complexity, they offer simple choices.
It's easy to fall into the trap of leader-centrism, then, because it makes things easier. And that's occasionally fine, as far as our individual lives go. But it's not a recipe for forging the type of consensus required to move forward as a nation.
The only way out of our crisis of leader-centrism is to forego the easy enthusiasm we hand to leaders. Better political leaders are important, to be sure. But better leaders will only emerge when appealing to a sense of shared purpose, and collective responsibility is a winning strategy to mobilize an electorate.
We need to make it possible for leaders to energize us with a call to a shared sense of citizenship in difficult times, rather than merely promising that they are the answer to making the difficult times magically disappear. We first need to focus on finding inspiration in ourselves, our institutions and our communities. Lots of measures can get us part of the way there: Improving civics education is one important example; beginning to close the wealth gap is another.
National service, however, is the best way to forge of forging a stronger sense of patriotism, pride and mutual respect in our increasingly diverse society. It would be a humbling reminder of the power we have in our own voices and the responsibility we have to support one another.
I don't mean conscription. As I've argued before, I believe in a year of national service for every young American at some point between the ages of 18 and 28. Some young people will continue to serve in the military, but most would serve at one of the country's millions of community organizations: nonprofits, hospitals, schools and libraries; or in one of hundreds of programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. By working in local communities, young people would be doing important work and solving problems on the ground. But more importantly, our young people would be gaining shared experience — the sort of common hardship that forges bonds stronger than our affiliation for or against a single leader.
Our reflexive connection with or revulsion to the leaders we support or oppose is much more powerful than our bonds with one another and our attachments to the institutions that safeguard our republic. If we want our leaders to appeal to a sense of shared identity, then we need to forge one. We must bridge the divides in our own lives. It will be impossible for our leaders to do it for us.