By Maria Saporta
It was an unusual forum to ask: “Whatever happened to leadership?”
The occasion was a gathering of more than 20 years of alumni from the Regional Leadership Institute — a one-week immersion to get up-and-coming leaders to think regionally.
The Atlanta Regional Commission started the Regional Leadership Institute back in 1991 as the brainchild of then-executive director Harry West and former Gov. George Busbee.
The idea was to get leaders from throughout the region to learn about metro Atlanta’s issues and challenges while building relationships a friendships with people from all over the region. After 22 RLI classes, there have been hundreds, if not more than a thousand, of leaders who have been through the program. (I was in the Class of 1999).
Theoretically, that would mean that the Atlanta region has a strong foundation of leaders who have gained an appreciation and understanding of how we can work together across county lines.
So on Nov. 1, as about 75 RLI alumni met at Magnolia Hall in Piedmont Park, it was ironic that the topic was about a void of leadership.
The keynote speaker was Drew Westen, a clinical personality and neuroscientist at Emory University. Westen has become an expert in political psychology, and he is the author of the book: “The Political Brain.”
For Westen’s most current thoughts on the 2012 election, check out his “America’s Leftward Tilt?” column in the New York Times’ website on Nov. 3.
Although Westen said he tends to vote as a Democrat, during his talk, he spoke of his disappointment with both parties. “I’m going to attack both parties ruthlessly,” Westen told the RLI group. Then he got to the point. “At no time have we needed strong leadership more.”
Speaking of President Barack Obama and his challenger, former Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, Westen said five days before the election: “There’s a lack of enthusiasm by both leaders.”
Then he listed a litany of America’s problems: 23 million Americans who are unemployed or underemployed; there’s a disappearing middle class;
plus there’s declining wealth.
“This is not the America I remember growing up,” Westen said. “This is not the America we signed up for.”
With a growing disparity in wealth, the society is becoming more unstable. Higher employment can “keep an economy humming” with more consumer spending and new tax revenue.
“We are looking at a country that hasn’t investment much in infrastructure,” Westen said. “A crisis in infrastructure is bad for business, and that’s bad for growth.”
Then Westen spoke about how people in the Atlanta region had defeated the one-percent regional transportation sales tax on July 31, a missed opportunity to invest in metro Atlanta’s infrastructure.
Despite growing scientific evidence of climate change and extreme weather, Westen said: “we have two candidates running for president — neither of whom will utter the words climate change. Where is leadership when you need it?”
Then Westen made a comparison between the Wizard of Oz and the current characteristics of different political forces. For the Tea Party: “If I only had a brain.” For the fiscal conservatives: “If I only had a heart.” And for the disappearing left: “If I only had courage.” But Westen said that the most popular figure and institution in America today is: “None of the above.”
Of particular concern is the shrinking middle class. “The great American middle class is being dismantled brick by brick,” Westen said. “The jobs that are coming back pay half the wages of the jobs we lost, and they don’t have benefits.”
An alarming statistic Westen shared was that 400 families have more wealth than half the families in the United States combined (150 million people).
Where there is consensus among liberals, independents and conservatives is that there is too much money in politics. “Money can’t buy me love, but it can buy me Washington, D.C.,” Westen said. “The average cost of a Senate seat in 2010 is $10 million.”
But instead of pushing for campaign finance reform (which doesn’t poll well among voters), it’s best to use phrases like: “clean, fair elections;” or “government not owned by corporations” for real reform. A sentiment that was embraced by most was a desire “to get money out of politics.”
If the president had been more beholden to the general public rather than Wall Street, Westen said that instead of bailing out the banks, the government could have given homeowners low-interest loans so they wouldn’t have to go into foreclosure.
Another popular sentiment (getting 86 percent support) was “it’s time politicians stopped running for or against government and started running it well.”
No matter the outcome of the Nov. 6 election, both political parties should do some soul searching — nationally and locally.
The demographics of our state and our nation are changing — becoming more diverse with each passing day. Westen said that this past year, there were more black, brown and Asian babies born than white babies.
“By 2042, it certainly won’t be a primarily white country,” Westen said. “It’s a tremendous mistake to leave racial issues under the table.”
In Georgia, those demographic trends will be ahead of the national ones with some predicting that by 2020, the state will be more blue or purple than red.
The party that can anticipate the policies that appeal to the broadest array of Americans will be the party that will dominate our political landscape for years to come.