Voting For Something, Not Just Against It

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.”  – Winston Churchill (1947)

The best answer to making democracy work well is to move toward something, not away. In a presidential primary season of crudeness and even violence, it’s worth reminding ourselves that eventually we need to vote “for” and not just “against.” Although American politics often can involve negativity – tearing down your adversary through “oppo research” and sound-bite advertising – voters ultimately prefer positivity. Whatever your ideology may be, we can agree that positivity is what helped such consequential presidents as Ronald Reagan and FDR succeed.

In the private sector, when I’m selecting CEOs, I consider whom I can trust to deliver results. That’s a way of asking, “Whom will help a company move toward something?” This is the essence of trust – which, in turn, is the essence of leadership. The same test might apply to politicians: What will they deliver? In order to gauge that, perhaps ask yourself if they possess the necessary ingredients to produce good results. Will they:

  • Attract great people, rather than cronies or sycophants?
  • Bring judgment and pattern-recognition to problems, rather than having to resort to first impressions?
  • Tell the truth, rather than spin or hedge?
  • View compromise and consensus-building as a strength, rather than be paralyzed by ideological inflexibility?
  • Set simple, clear priorities, rather than be distracted by off-mission hobbies?
  • Measure what matters, rather than settle for vague, semi-quantitative assessments?

In the end, we should only trust those we think will deliver in these six ways. I’ve found that only leaders who do – whether in business or in politics – are likely to get stuff done that stays done. And if those we elect get things done just through the exercise of raw power, the resulting frictions will create lots of heat but very little light. Unfortunately, that’s how things are in Washington these days. Democracy is built on trust. Trust demands listening and compromise. Trust requires leaders who can build consensus, set priorities, and communicate effectively.

In the current presidential season, voters seem to be voting against, rather than for, things. Each party has a potent candidate who embodies a rejection of something, be it establishment politicians generally or the economic status quo. Each of the two candidates is grabbing roughly 35% of his respective party’s primary vote by tapping into a well of anger, frustration and fear. In some ways, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the same candidate reinforcing the same information – but through different lenses on the left and on the right.

Senator Sanders represents a kind of Occupy Wall Street 2.0, drawing on frustrations with inequality, and energizing young people with talk of college debt and uncertain job prospects in a system that he calls “rigged.” In Mogul Trump’s worldview, the enemies are forces of political correctness, globalization, and immigration.

I hardly mean to suggest that dissent should be ignored. In his recent book,Winter is ComingGarry Kasparov, the former Russian World Chess Champion – and critic of Vladimir Putin – has nicely described the importance of listening to dissidents. In our 2016 election cycle, Sanders and Trump are the dissidents – the alternatives to the status quo, the canaries in the coalmine. Their messages – and the public’s embrace of them – must be taken seriously by policy makers.

But the question for voters will come down to the details of what these dissident voices are for, and, above all, the specifics of what they’re proposing. While emotionally satisfying to be “against,” it’s never enough. And what they’re for doesn’t yet add up. It still feels more like a rant than a path to improvement.

As I tell my students, move toward, not away from, challenges and opportunities. Engage rather than withdraw, confront rather than avoid. The major decisions in life are best made leaning in, not running away. As more primaries approach – and nominating conventions loom – American voters might remember this as we participate in a potentially pivotal presidential election.

By Joel Peterson

My new book, “The 10 Laws of Trust: Building the Bonds That Make a Business Great“, will be published in May.