Pandering leadership – the practice of telling followers what they want to hear, even if it is not what they should hear – is an affliction that has permeated politics since the dawn of the Republic. The only difference in this election cycle is that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have elevated pandering politics to near pandemic levels in their battle for the Republican presidential nomination.
In Federalist 71 (a series of “blogs” written by Alexander Hamilton and others in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution) Hamilton argued that a political leader had an obligation to candidly discuss the issues and propose solutions, even when voters hold ill-informed or irrational views on the issues. Hamilton was not naïve, as he recognized that an individual running for elective office would be incented to pander to the fears and beliefs of the electorate, no matter how illogical they may be. Nevertheless, he argued that since leaders normally have more information about the issues, (the exception being Trump) they have an obligation to educate the voter. Ultimately, this would define their success as a leader.
Besides being disingenuous, sycophantic political pandering to voters ultimately leads to the destruction of the leader’s credibility and effectiveness. This is an important lesson to learn for anyone who seeks a leadership role. Pandering may be successful in the short term, but it always plants the seed for the ultimate failure of leadership. Observing the pandering ways of politicians is a wonderful way to learn this lesson, because it is so obvious and easy to see how destructive it can be.
Pander at Your Own Risk
The risk that arises from a pandering style leadership is that it ignores the complexity of some issues, raises false expectations and causes disillusionment when the promised fixes are unfulfilled. While there are many, a good example of how political pandering to the voter can come back destroy the leader is encapsulated in George H. W. Bush’s famous remark at the 1988 Republican Convention. In his acceptance speech he pandered to the voters by pledging, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” He said this despite the fact that he full-well knew that for any hope of controlling deficit-spending, taxes would have to be raised. The pledge helped Bush will the 1988 election, but the fact that he did break the pledge and raised taxes (as he should have) was the wedge used by Bill Clinton to defeat him in 1992.
Going to New Heights Pandering Down to the Voters
Despite a 200 year history of political pandering in America, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have taken the art of pandering to new levels. They both are pandering to the fears and ignorance of the base of the Republican Party. Cruz is the worst of the two, because he hypocritically promised that he would never pander to voters; only to try to outdo Trump. At least give Trump credit for being unabashed about pandering to the electorate. From his first speech and television appearance he has openly admitted doing nothing but pandering to “the base.” Both Trump and Cruz have different approaches to their pandering, but their target is the same; they appeal to the root fears and frustrations of the base, without offering education or constructive solutions.
The latest example of Cruz pandering – and probably his most egregious effort yet – was his reaction to the terrorist attack in Brussels. Before the smoke from the bombing had even cleared, Cruz was rushing to the nearest television camera calling for increased surveillance and police patrols in American Muslim neighborhoods. Aside from this approach being ineffective in preventing terrorist attacks (just ask the French and Belgium police), Cruz, as a self-described constitutional scholar, knows that such an action is unconstitutional. But desperate to overtake Trump in the nomination process, Cruz is trying to out-Trump Trump when it comes to pandering to the fears of people. Not to be out-pandered Trump’s retort to Cruz was, “I’ll call your surveillance bet and raise you increased torture when we catch those Muslims.”
The problem is not that people have fears, because that will always be the case. Leadership is defined by how leaders – both political and business – respond to those fears. Leaders acknowledge but allay the fears of the followers, while demagogues the likes of Cruz and Trump fan the flames of fear for their own benefit.
As ludicrous as the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has become, what is really frightening is that a dominant majority of the Republican Party and close to a majority of the general electorate would accept either one of these empty vessels of leadership as president.
There is a great lesson to learn here for anyone who desires to be an effective leader in business or politics. The simple lesson is that pandering to those we want to lead is not leadership, it is herding. Leadership is not about doing what can be done, but doing what should be done. The challenge is that most followers don’t have the perspective to understand what should be done and this creates the need for leadership. A real leader does not acquiesce to and inflame the often uninformed fears and feelings of followers in order to be popular. Instead, a true leader sets out a vision of what should be done and shows the way to do it.
Franklin Roosevelt, one of the great leaders of the 20th century, did not fan the fears of fearful people. Instead, he confronted those fears by telling followers that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt was a great leader because he was not afraid to challenge people to understand that fear was the real enemy; not other groups and certainly not another religion. And he cemented his effectiveness as a leader by offering constructive ways to defeat the fear of fear. One thing is clear, neither Trump nor Cruz will ever be in the league of leaders who are compared to Roosevelt.