Topic: Government & Politics

The Ethics of Self-delusion

Self-delusion is surprisingly common among leaders, especially failed ones. Viewers of the Donald Trump TV ego-fest that is "The Apprentice" got an abject lesson in this phenomenon in a recent episode that culminated in the firing of the project leader of the so-called "Street Smarts" group (the current competition pits annoying college grads against obnoxious entrepreneurs with only high school degrees), which had produced an embarrassingly lousy TV ad for a new body wash. The project leader, Kristen Kirchner, had managed to mismanage every aspect of the task, while systematically alienating the rest of her team and showing a complete absence of tact, taste, judgement, and humor. Nonetheless, after The Donald had shot her down with a withering "You’re fired," she proclaimed herself blameless despite the abundant videotaped evidence to the contrary.

"I thought I did an incredible job on this task," Kirchner told the camera as she drove off in the yellow cab that ferries all Trump firees (where does that cab go?). "I worked well with everybody, everyone listened to me, they respected me and we all got it done. I did an incredible job."

The nice thing is that as a self-professed one-woman band, Kirchner injures no one but herself with these delusions. But those who lead others, influence others, and have the trust of others must be held to a higher standard. For them, self-delusion, with all its ego-salving features, can do real and wide ranging harm. Such leaders have an ethical obligation to avoid self-deception, tell the truth, accept responsibility, and allow mistakes to be analyzed and addressed.

Thus have the leaders of the Democratic Party failed their followers. After months of soul-searching following their devastating losses in the 2004 elections, the party elders emerged with a self-serving party line as fanciful as Kirchner’s. As explained by Senator Kerry on "Meet the Press," outgoing party chair Terry McAuliffe everywhere else and a hoard of lesser lights to the print media, the Democrats lost the White House because you just can’t unseat an incumbent president during a war. "Besides," they agreed, "we almost won anyway. Just flip 60,000 votes in Ohio, and it would be President Kerry today."

Sure enough, the message got through. A Gallup poll showed that indeed, Democrats believe that the "incumbent president in wartime" was the major cause of their defeat, while only 16% blame the loss on their candidate’s shortcomings and less than that feel the party’s position on issues was at fault.

This is mass delusion, caused by irresponsible leadership. To begin with, the "incumbent during wartime" edge doesn’t exist unless one’s name is Franklin Roosevelt, or unless one is running against George McGovern. Truman and Johnson had to decline to run for re-election to keep themselves from being defeated during unpopular wars. Only well-timed battlefield victories stopped Lincoln from losing mid-Civil War. The Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, Gulf War and World War I didn’t include a US Presidential election. The record shows no magic advantage for wartime presidents; Bush was completely beatable, and absent an astonishing number of tactical and logical blunders by Kerry and his campaign, could well have lost.

But not by "flipping" 60,000 votes in Ohio. This is an embarrassingly silly argument, an insult to the public that is supposed to swallow it. It is like a losing baseball team’s manager saying that just 25 more runs strategically scored in close games would have resulted in ten more victories and a winning record. Runs don’t work that way: if you are going to be able to add 25 runs to the close games, you’ll wind up scoring about a hundred or more in the other games as well. Similarly, a 60,000 vote swing to Kerry in Ohio would only have resulted from factors that would have cut deeply, or perhaps overcome, Bush’s nearly 4 million vote advantage nationwide.

The loyal followers of defeated leaders are fragile, and desperately eager to hold on to hope, pride, and dignity. This is why it’s especially important that their leaders have the courage and the honesty to be forthright about their own mistakes and culpability, to avoid facile excuses and be willing to accept full responsibility.

When the bloody remnants of the shattered Confederate army dragged itself back across the death-littered field after the fiasco known as Pickett’s Charge, General Robert E. Lee met them saying, "It was all my fault." It was Lee’s finest moment. There are times when the most important task of leadership is to admit failure.

Democratic leaders have shown themselves to be unwilling or unable to do this, choosing instead to pass their face-saving delusions on to the rest of their party. It is a failing of character and ethics that may cost the Democrats dearly.


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