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Perspective: Is this the best we can do when it comes to leaders?

The late comedian George Carlin knew that imperfect leaders rise from a society shorn of values

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An electronic billboard makes its way through the London advertising a story regarding Boris Johnson’s resignation.

An electronic billboard on a vehicle makes its way through the London streets advertising a story regarding Boris Johnson’s resignation as the Conservative Party leader in Britain.

Associated Press

Boris Johnson resigned in Britain last week. His predecessor, Theresa May, also resigned, having failed to navigate the United Kingdom through a post-Brexit world. New revelations about President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and China get worse daily. Justin Trudeau, of Canada, has his own ethics problems. Donald Trump was impeached twice, and testimony from the Jan. 6 commission is repulsive

Need I go on?

The dearth of any common sense and decency on the part of the West’s political establishment is astonishing — and it’s not. Our knack for subpar leaders at the most defining historical moment since World War II begs the question: How did we get stuck with such a sorry lot? It’s time we look in the mirror and do an honest accounting of what brought us here.

Watching HBO’s latest documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” I was reminded of the comedian’s famous routines about politicians and voters. “One thing you might’ve noticed (is) I don’t complain about is politicians. Everybody complains about politicians,” Carlin says.

Where do these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from our families, our homes, our schools, our churches, our universities and our businesses. They are elected by our citizens. This is the best we can do, folks. This is what we have to offer.

The remarkable timelessness of Carlin’s wisdom is astonishing, and not just for American audiences. Fourteen years after his death, Carlin’s perspective is eerily contemporary; it sounds like he is riffing off yesterday’s headlines. 

Who else but a comedian, a truth teller untethered by the bonds of party or money or status could have the panache to tell it like it is? “If you have selfish, ignorant citizens you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders,” Carlin growls. “So, maybe, it’s not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here. Maybe it’s the public!”

He’s right. 

There’s no polite way to put it: Civil discourse across the West has become so withered and rotten that it’s hard to see anyone rise up, pass through the gauntlet of modern politics and stand out as a shining moral exemplar, a unifier of a nation.

It’s not that America suddenly stopped producing mensches: It’s that America and other Western societies have been reshaped by massive technological and social changes. We have silently watched the decimation of our moral landscape, while losing our ability to understand one another.

Robert Putnam argued nearly 30 years ago that social ties had precipitously declined since the halcyon postwar days when Americans had Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs in every small town, where neighbors met one another at least weekly in egalitarian settings to congregate and socialize.

Yes, there was racism that deplorably prevented many from participating in such civic life. But, broadly speaking, Americans — like Canadians and Britons — bonded over a shared sense of social norms and values. Today, faith in one’s fellow citizens, as well as major institutions such as the media and the courts, have cratered. 

Religion, once a leading source of community and connection continues to fall like a rock. The rise of the “nones” as Pew calls them, the areligious, is reshaping the American political landscape. Today, roughly 30% of Americans are unaffiliated with a faith group, up from just 16% slightly over a decade ago. 

The stabilizing effect that religion offers is evaporating, and in its place crept politics and “the current thing” — climate change, Black Lives Matter, preferred pronouns, Make American Great Again, Confederate monuments, “don’t say gay,” Pride parades, Ukraine, you name it. Whatever the current flavor of the month, the devoted move from cause to cause.

It’s not that we’ve never disagreed before, but disagreement is different when we marinate in identity politics 24/7. There used to be something called a conservative Democrat and a liberal Republican but they are virtually extinct today. The overlaps, the messy gray zones of American life have been substituted for the starkly red and starkly blue.

You’d think that social connectedness would have been strengthened, rather than weakened, by the rise of social media, but we now know that to be wrong. People are forming fewer deep friendships, prioritizing consumerism and replacing their spiritual outlets with Fox News and CNN. Sounds like a bad recipe, no?

From a sclerotic society we should expect sclerotic leadership.

Unfortunately, there is no true leader for a country that can be so easily divided down the seam. The bifurcation of red America from blue America has made the costs of nuance, of being partially left on some issues and partially right on others, untenable. We are living through the result of these knockdown, drag out, boxing matches that happen every four years to the ballet box.

Carlin closed his routine with a simple ask: “Where are all the other bright people of conscience? Where are all the other bright honest intelligent Americans ready to step in and save the nation and lead the way? We don’t have people like that in this country.”

He’s wrong about that. I put 10,000 miles on an Avis rental car earlier this year crisscrossing this amazing nation. From the Rio Grande to Yosemite, Salt Lake City to Austin, the United States is a land filled brimming with promise, diversity and beauty. There are leaders here. The world desperately hopes that you can find them.

Ari David Blaff is a Deseret contributing writer and freelance journalist in Canada. His writing has also appeared in Tablet and Quillette.