Writing to Alexander Dubček, would-be communist reformer in 1960s Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel has this to say about the importance of political leadership:
A politician—and any social elite, for that matter—is not merely a “function” of society. Society is also, to a certain extent, a “function” of its politicians and its elites.
These elites act on society and mobilize those forces within it that can be mobilized. Cowardly policies encourage cowardice in society; courageous policies stimulate people’s courage.
Our nations have a capacity for both cowardly and courageous behavior, for demonstrating holy zeal or selfish indifference.
Which of these propensities prevails at a given moment, both in society and in individuals, largely depends on what situation the political elite has created, the choices it places before the people, the qualities it encourages in them: in short, it depends on what the elite’s activities and examples stimulate.
This is why politics makes great demands on the human and moral qualities of those who practice it. The more power politicians have, the greater the demands on them.
In a democratic society, we choose our own elites through the votes we cast, the goods we purchase, the books and journals we read, the shows we watch, the ideas we entertain and affirm. In turn, those we elevate influence us in the manner Havel describes.
Democracy can be said to make great demands on the human and moral qualities of every citizen.
It is not enough to complain that our elites leave us no good choices. When Coca Cola rolled out “New Coke” in 1985, it never intended to give its customers a choice in the matter. Yet soon enough they had their “Classic Coke” back again, by irresistible demand.
Today, Coca Cola intends to offer us nothing but the pseudo-fashionable formulas of reverse racism. Despite appearances, this leaves us with one very delicious option: the irresistible sweetness of “No Coke”!
If we long for an elite with the courage to lead us in what is true and good, we must have the courage to reject falsehood and malice, even when they appear to be the only thing on offer.
One need not be an elite to be courageous, and yet courage lifts even the most obscure of us to the level of the genuine elite.
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