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  • James Burnham

Our Need for Ethical Leadership in Politics



“I lost my ethical compass. My ambition obscured my judgment.Jeb Magruder Deputy Director of the Committee to Reelect Pres Nixon.

I voted today and for some reason I kept thinking about the apartheid. I was a teen in the 80’s and in college in the 90’s. Stories of South Africa’s political corruption were frequently highlighted in the news, in my classes, and weighed heavily on my mind. It was inconceivable to me that a nation would blatantly disregard a majority of their population based on the color of a person’s skin.


The injustice distrubed me. The lack of humanity was painful to witness.


Unfortunately, we are witnessing this same type of exclusionary rhetoric within the political arena of America today. Instead of black vs white, it is republican vs democrat. Each party is claiming that their way is the only way to security, prosperity, and much needed social change.


Both parties have had ample time to bring about the changes they keep promising. However, once in power, our elected officials become determined to topple their “enemies” across the aisle. Many bicker, sling dirt, lie, and cheat. Many point out the beams in the eyes of their opposition while ignoring the mote blurring their own vision. Far too many are blinded by power, money, and personal ambition.


Nelson Mandella spent 27 years in prison for fighting a corrupt and actively racist regime. When international sanctions finally forced South Africa to hold a fair election, Nelson Mandella was released from prison and elected President. Tempers were hot on both sides of the aisle. Black South African’s were justified in their anger. They had been woefully mistreated for many many years. White South African’s were justified in feeling fear of retribution and the loss of control over an angry population that now held the reins of power.


The tension was palpable.


Instead of lashing out, and completely removing all political groups that represented the oppressive white rule, Mandela embraced everyone and created a broad coalition government which heralded in a new constitution for all people in his country.


Imagine the pressure President Mandella must have faced to seek unilateral retribution for the years of hostile treatment that his fellow black citizens had experienced. Imagine the righteous indignation he must have felt at finally breaking free of his tiny cell and becoming the leader of a nation and the people who had imprisoned him.


If you have ever been unjustly wronged and then placed in a position to seek reparations for the damage you have suffered, you will perhaps know a small portion of what he must have felt in that moment.


Mandelle demonstrated his greatness when he set aside the desire he must have felt to crush his enemy in defeat. He demonstrated it again when he calmed his brothers and sisters justifiable thirst for blood, after being freed from systemic oppression. He did everything in his power to bring peace. He unified, through common humanity and rule of law, and acted to protect all humans, regardless of ethnicity, or any other measure of status.


I don’t believe we have an elected leader in America who has demonstrated such compassionate leadership. It saddens me. Many politicians pander to their base and seek guidance from polls rather than their own “ethical compass." They seek for ways to diminish their opposition with lies, blame, and distractions, rather than trying to find a unifying purpose to help all people.


The good news is that we have a robust, tried, and tested constitution. We can protect our nation with our voices. We can rally and be heard. But we must not seek to win at the expense of each other. We can only win when we forgive, embrace and unite over an inspiring goal.


Our desire to see change in American is almost as palpable to me now as it was so many years ago when I watched President Mandela usher in an era of prosperity for South Africa by choosing to unite all sides, instead of taking the well worn path of division and hatred.


May we begin to see our humanity reflected within the eyes of those who stand before us. May we choose compassion over retribution. We owe it to ourselves to rise above the political culture which defends and denies, casts blame and obscures. We must choose a better course, one less travelled, that will unify us.


Avoid news that tells you your democtratic neighbor is a bleeding heart who wants to steal your freedom, your rights and your money--it is not true. Avoid news that tells you your republican family member is an ignorant, bigotted, white man trying to protect the status quo--it is not true. If what is said by many of our political leaders and media conglomerates inflames your desire to lash out, seek greater understanding. Resist the tempation to fight perceived ignorance with anger.


We can unite! We can be better! America is already great! Don't let the political vitriol spewed from the mouths of our leaders and pulpits of our pundits convince you otherwise. Seek understanding and, like Mandella’s South Africa, perhaps, we too can usher in a new period of peace and prosperity.




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