| Second Thoughts |

Follow the Leader or Follow the Follower?

Do vote, but don’t expect very much


The ongoing American presidential debates and our ancient Sages are not obviously connected, but the series of debates — 24 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination — evokes a well-known Talmud pericope.

Among the phenomena that will take place just before the coming of the Messiah, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a and Sotah 49b) lists pnei hador kipnei hakelev, literally: “the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog” — very cryptic. Some translate pnei hador as “the leaders of the generation,” which renders the phrase as: “the leaders of the generation will be like the face of a dog” — still quite puzzling. Among the most incisive readings is that of the legendary Rav Elchonon Wasserman citing Rav Yisrael Salanter: A dog may run ahead of its master, but when there is a fork in the road it waits to see which way the master prefers, and then runs ahead again — until the next fork in the road. Physically, the dog is in front, but he is not leading. The master, though he is behind, is actually leading.

So it is with today’s political leaders. They wait for the latest poll results before making policy pronouncements. They are not leaders but followers… of the polls. (They should be called poll-iticians, not politicians.) One leading candidate, for example, was anti-abortion ten years ago; today his position has “evolved,” and he is now pro-abortion, reflecting the change in public attitudes. What does he personally believe about the issue? Next question…

The debates are good theater, but ultimately they mean little. The candidates are actors with predictable, well-rehearsed lines written by their staffs. They are marionettes on a string, dolls of the ventriloquist. Do they have any convictions of their own? We will never know, because the words emanating from their lips are words orchestrated by others, designed for mass appeal.

At best, the debates only demonstrate who is a skilled debater and who can think on his feet. These are fine qualities, but do not necessarily indicate who will be a good leader. As for their policy statements, these are boilerplate and have little relationship to their actions once they get in office.

What, then, are the debates for?  Cynics might answer that they are for the networks that attract millions of viewers. Yet they do have a certain value in that they enable the electorate to actually see the candidates in action and to make their own personal judgments. Such judgments are for each listener subtle and intuitive rather than objectively rational.

The problem is that whatever value the debates might have is diluted by the media’s horse-race mentality of immediately ranking “winners and losers”: who led in applause lines, who fell behind in the race, who moved ahead.

By what omniscient power does a hack reporter divine who won and who lost? How can he know what impression candidate A made on the farmer in Idaho, or the impression candidate B made on the banker in Boston? The problem is that when the media pronounces who won and who lost, that becomes, in the minds of the populace, self-fulfilling and factual.

Will anyone in the media ever write about who among the candidates seems to have fine leadership qualities, or who might best inspire the country to reach for higher levels of behavior beyond bread-and-butter issues? And would any moderator ever ask the candidates to outline their personal principles and beliefs, and whether there are any red lines in their personal behavior that they would never cross, even to get elected?

What do we want in a president of the US? First and foremost, someone with character, principles, integrity, driven not by his ego but by his vision for the country. With over 300 million people in the US, surely there must be some whose personal decency outstrips their ambition. But such good people refuse to run for public office and to jump through the hoops in today’s vulgar climate. (Climate change, anyone?) And so the electorate is usually handed the choice between the less mediocre and the more mediocre. Sadly, what our Sages in Avos 2:3 said 2,000 years ago is still relevant: “ Beware of political rulers, for they befriend someone only for their personal benefit, but do not stand by someone in his time of need.” That is, do vote, but don’t expect very much.

But there is hope, because maybe the current fulfillment of the Talmudic parable about dogs leading and following is, as the Sages suggest, a harbinger of Messianic times. Hang in there.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 774)

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