Jill Long Thompson: On democracy and leadership, pyrotechnics or serenity?


By Jill Long Thompson

Guest columnist

On the evening of July 3, while enjoying a local fireworks display, I noticed the big, beautiful full moon rising in the sky, and the glow was truly breathtaking.

It was as if nature wanted to participate in the celebration of our independence and the liberties that are central to our democracy.

Since childhood, I have loved watching fireworks, and I always look forward to the Fourth of July celebrations. But this year, if there had been a contest between that beautiful moon and the beautiful fireworks display, the moon would have been the hands-down winner. No contest.

While looking at the fireworks and the moon, I could not help but think about our political system and how some politicians are loud and disruptive, while others are thoughtful and respectful. Some are all about blowing everything up, like pyrotechnics. Others have a more serene approach and prefer to collaborate and find bipartisan solutions to our challenges.

This is not to suggest that a fireworks display celebrating independence and democracy is the same as the destructive behavior of some politicians whose actions undermine the democratic process, and therefore, have the potential to destroy democracy. But it is reasonable to suggest that a fireworks display, while it can lift our spirits as we celebrate an important occasion, is not something most of us want as a steady diet.

While our nation has experienced divisiveness throughout our history, the polarization of the past several years is concerning. The success of democracy depends upon how well we work together to find solutions to the challenges we face. Cooperation, collaboration and compromise are essential to democracy, and I think the dependability and serenity of the moon are reminders of how we should conduct ourselves as members of a democratic society.

The late political science professor J. Roland Pennock defined democracy as “government by the people, where liberty, equality and fraternity are secured to the greatest possible degree and in which human capacities are developed to the utmost, by means including free and full discussion of common problems and interests.” There are no pyrotechnics in that definition.

As we know, the first democratic government was in Athens, and the word democracy comes from the terms demos, meaning the people, and kratos, meaning power. In other words, the power is shared by the people, and we must work together and compromise.

In addition to sharing the responsibilities and authorities in the democratic process, we will be our strongest when we elect the best leaders. And research shows that the most effective leaders consistently demonstrate character and ethics in their leadership. They tend to be understated, and they give credit to others for successes while taking responsibility when there are failures. They are honest in their dealings, and they welcome criticism so they can work to improve their performance. They are serene.

Fireworks can be exciting, beautiful and uplifting. But a leader or a group who behaves in a pyrotechnic way will be more likely to cause damage than solve a problem. And a steady diet of pyrotechnics will disrupt the work that has to be done to make democracy thrive.

On the other hand, the moon with its dependability and serenity, is a better symbol of the kind of leadership that is needed in democracy. Serious, respectful and serene leadership is essential.

Jill Long Thompson is a former member of Congress who represented northeastern Indiana for three terms in the U.S. House. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and by President Barack Obama to serve as board chair and CEO of the Farm Credit Administration. This commentary previously appeared at statehousefile.com. Send comments to [email protected].

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