Every group has a purpose. Whether a small unit or a large organization, whether situated in government or business, whether located in China or Canada, members of groups affiliate with each together to fill a function. These functions range from accomplishing certain tasks to providing community and comity. The point is that groups are not random collections. Their members are joined for a reason.
The six people who are the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States constitute a small group that has two purposes particularly. The first, in sequence, is to select someone to be the Democratic standard bearer between the party convention in mid-July and Election Day in early November. The second is to preclude the Republican standard bearer, President Donald Trump, from winning a second term.
As I write, in late February 2020, the small group in question is fixated on its first purpose while ignoring nearly entirely the second. Though Democratic experts and pundits have pleaded for the candidates to spend most of their time taking on Trump, by and large these pleas are ignored, so busy are the contenders taking on each other. One could argue in fact they are obsessed with the less important task – being the standard bearer themselves – while neglecting the more important task, doing everything they can to preclude the incumbent president from winning a second term in office.
Why is this? Why are their priorities screwed up? Well, the obvious answer is that each of them wants to be the leader. Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (and even Tom Steyer, still in the race though not recently on the debate stage) all want to lead, none of them wants to follow. Each wants to be president of the United States and, at least at this point in the process, nothing short of being at the top of the heap will suffice.
From a distance, for each of the candidates to cling to this position has little logic. While some have a crack at becoming the Democratic candidate, others clearly do not. For example, two who during the last debate turned on each other with special venom, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, have no chance whatsoever at winning the Democratic nomination. On the contrary, one could argue that at this stage of the process they would gain public support, not lose it by pulling out of the race and, instead, throwing their weight behind another candidate more likely than they to be the Democratic nominee. It would not hurt their future in electoral politics, and it would help their chance to have a positive impact on this one.
Still, they run. Still all six of them prefer to pick at each other instead of picking at the president. Which brings us to the next level of analysis. Why exactly do they want to lead? Why are they so extremely averse to following? If you asked each of them this question chances are they would say that they are best equipped to lead us, their fellow Americans, to a new and better place. That they would be more ethical and effective a leader than their Democratic rivals. Similarly, chances are that they would not admit to vaulting ambition. Nor would they say that leaders are stronger and superior, while followers are weaker and inferior.
Truth is though that these last two reasons are the more powerful. The reasons all six run and then continue to run, even when they’re running against all odds, is first their ambition is beyond apparent reason, and second they are persuaded that leading is somehow better, far, far better, than following.
The first reason is individual – it is psychological and personal. For a constellation of reasons, some related to nature some to nurture, some people are far more ambitious than others. The second reason is collective – it is sociological and cultural. We have grown a generation, by now two generations, in which leadership is exalted and followership is denigrated. In which standing out is more highly valued than blending in. In which individual achievement takes center stage and the common good is shunted aside. Until these values change – until we revive the conception of civics as the ultimate in high mindedness – we will be saddled with putative leaders for whom personal ambition takes precedence over the national welfare.