Amy Patterson By: Amy Patterson
Professor of Politics
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23 May 2020 : Mourning the lack of leadership

Tonight at dinner, my husband, two daughters, and I went through what now has become the usual evening conversation about politics and COVID. (We all read and think too much.) It was a day or two after President Trump visited Ford Motor Company in Detroit, a city hard-hit by the virus in a state (Michigan) where people with guns have marched on the capital for the “freedom” to go anywhere, to be out of lockdown, and to not wear a mask. (That is, the freedom to just go out and infect other people!) The Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has done—according to my Michigan friends who work in health care and the grocery business—a “great job” in setting clear guidelines and in sending a strong message about health and safety. One of those guidelines is to wear a mask at work, including at Ford Motor Company. But the US president thinks he is the exception! What about the rule of law? That idea that just because you are an elected official you still have to play by the same rules as everyone else. No wonder getting people to wear a mask is difficult! Instead of the US president thinking about himself, the president should help the population realize that when we work together—and that means following the rules!--we all benefit. There really is something to the idea of benevolent self-interest.

As the dinnertime ranting continued, my daughter said, “The US is now a joke in the world.” It seemed a trite, inconsequential statement from a teenager who likes provocative ideas. Except the statement didn’t hit me that way. Instead, I became quite sad, yes, ‘crying at the dinner table’ sad. You see, my family has lived, studied, and worked globally, often with US government support. I can say things in the classroom because I teach in a free country. And my earliest political memory is of generosity: my small town in Oklahoma helped two Vietnamese refugee families that had come to the United States after the Vietnam war. (I know the US is not the only democracy where these things are possible, but these are points that I would hope would make the US not a “joke”.) Yet, I fear that my daughter is right, and that the rest of the world does see the US as a joke. The US, the country with the most economic and military resources, incredible freedoms, and what I thought was a generous spirit, has not stepped up in the biggest crisis since the Great Depression. The US has refused to cooperate with other countries; the president has suspended funding to the WHO; the president and high-level administration leaders have continued to blame China; the president won’t even wear a damn mask! The Administration has denied that its inaction cost lives, even though studies clearly show that if US leaders had acted on the information they had in early March, at least 35,000 lives would have been saved. 

I grew up in the Reagan era, and while I did not support President Reagan (and my parents constantly grumbled about his policies), he did have a vision of US global leadership. In his farewell address he quoted the Puritan leader John Winthrop about being a “city upon a hill”, one that people globally admired for its ideals and its responsibility to address global challenges. (Ironically, Reagan ended the speech saying the best ideas in America start at the dinner table.) Now, when the world needs compassion, cooperation, inclusion, generosity, and visionary leaders that bring out the best in people, we Americans have a mask-refusing, science-doubting president and his cabal. I am left sobbing at the dinner table over the left overs and dirty dishes, mourning a lack of leadership and what might have been.

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