by Unknown | 1/28/2008 06:24:00 PM
[Cross-posted at Open Left.]

Paul Rosenberg, who used to post here occasionally and who is now a bigwig at the very good blog Open Left, is dead wrong on Obama's Reagan comments, and on history. His argument, in a nutshell:

1. Our problem is not that people are too partisan. The problem is the opposite--there are too many people with divided loyalties, and this has produced a 40-year period dominated by divided government, unlike any other time in our history.

2. The problem is not that Democrats are too combatative, just like Republicans. There is nothing the Democrats have done that is remotely close to the GOP impeachment of Clinton. To the contrary, the Democratic leadership has refused to even consider impeachment for a list of literally dozens of high crimes and misdemeanors.

3. The problem is not individual attitudes preventing politicians from agreeing. There are real, fundamental differences, driven by a widening wealth gap, and loss of political power by average people.

4. Kennedy and Reagan were not transformative leaders. FDR and Nixon were--not necessarily because of who they were, or anything to do with personal charisma, but because they came to power at the true turning points in political alignment--or in Nixon's case, de-alignment.

Okay, maybe he's not dead wrong on all of these -- I agree completely with Paul on #2 and #3, and #1 is an interesting argument. But Paul's absolutely wrong on #4.

I don't have time to explain this thoroughly right now, but I'd advise Paul to read James MacGregor Burns on the subject of transformative leadership, seing as how Burns actually coined that phrase in his 1978 book Leadership. Paul is looking at leadership from the perspective of realignment elections and policy decisions, but that has nothing to do with what transformative leadership really means. Burns puts it very succinctly:

Transformational leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.

The value of this frame is that it makes evident the stark difference between transformational and non-transformational leaders. Some leaders -- George H. W. Bush, for example, or Gerald Ford -- simply do not engage the engine of transformational leadership. Their leadership is completely different; it has nothing to do with emotions and everything to do with the details of governance (what Burns calls "transactional" leadership). Others -- like JFK, MLK, and, yes, Ronald Reagan -- do attempt to reach directly into the public well of emotions and inspire ordinary Americans to dream and believe and hope and act. This is what Obama was talking about when he praised Ronald Reagan as a transformational leader. It is also the correct definition of transformational leadership, as propounded by the term's originator.

Viewed through this lens, Kennedy's "Ask Not" speech absolutely typifies transformational leadership. And Reagan's First Inaugural, as my co-blogger Ralph Brauer notes, isn't far behind. This has nothing to do with realignment elections and political coalitions, but with a deeply personal relationship between a leader and his followers, something that can't be captured in Paul's graphs and charts. Paul does his readers no favors by changing the definition of transformational leadership to suit his purposes, even if the argument he makes is a good one. He's talking past Obama and at the same time attacking him, a fruitless combination that frustrates Paul's argument even as it reinforces Obama's. I understand it's an election season and Paul's required to put out an enormous amount of content (much of it quite good) in a short amount of time, but I expect better from him on this issue in future.