shadow
2019
February
21
Thursday
Noelle Swan
Science Editor

This morning, mourners gathered in Indianapolis to remember Mustafa Ayoubi, who was killed on Saturday during a traffic dispute. Witnesses told police that the assailant hurled Islamic slurs at Mr. Ayoubi just moments before shooting him twice in the back. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has urged the FBI to investigate the incident as a hate crime.

Around the world, anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks have been on the rise in recent years. But Yusufi Vali, executive director of New England’s largest mosque, has been tracking another surge: interfaith support.

On Feb. 10, 2017 – just days after a gunman in Quebec City opened fire in a mosque killing six people – a group of compassionate Bostonians hailing from “all faiths and no faith” surrounded Mr. Vali’s mosque in a silent human chain of peace.

Watchdog groups have expressed alarm as a long-present undercurrent of intolerance has crested into more overt acts of hatred since the 2016 election. Still, Vali has in some ways seen a positive aspect to the exposure of such anti-Muslim sentiment.

Many Americans are confronting for the first time a strain of intolerance that Muslim Americans have silently endured for decades. That reckoning, he says, is the first step toward societal healing.

Now on to our five stories for today.

Share this article

Democracy under strain

1. Parties over? Republicans, Democrats, and the Howard Schultz challenge

Weaker political parties along with more extreme partisanship have made for a dangerous combination – one that experts say threatens democratic norms. This is the sixth installment of our “Democracy Under Strain” series.

Michael Conroy/AP
Former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz spoke at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., Feb. 7. Mr. Schultz has presented himself as a ‘centrist independent’ and an alternative to major-party candidates.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 12 Min. )

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has made criticism of the Republican and Democratic Parties a central theme of his as-yet unofficial presidential campaign. He and his advisers describe the parties as increasingly extreme, migrating to the far right and far left of the political spectrum, respectively. “Are we fated to be in this duopoly in perpetuity?” Schultz adviser Steve Schmidt recently asked.

Well, maybe not this duopoly. Throughout US history, the two parties that compete to run the country have changed, combined and split, died and been reborn. Still, given the winner-take-all US electoral system, our two-party system appears likely to endure.

But what if the parties’ real problem is weakness, not strength? In the modern era, electoral reforms have hurt their organizational cohesion, outside money has weakened their hold on candidates and elected officials, and partisan media has diluted their ability to define their own policies and positions. 

At the same time, the parties as ideas are as strong as ever. Decades of ideological sorting have produced clear left/right, blue/red teams. Like rival teams everywhere, the members are ready to fight – no matter what their nominal party leaders want to do.

The defining characteristic of our age is that the parties are weak, but partisanship is strong, according to Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University. That’s a dangerous combination, as it risks unmediated political combat that could burst through norms and damage the idea of legitimate opposition. And the solution might lie not in attacking the parties from without and supplanting them, as Mr. Schultz would do, but rebuilding and modifying them from within.

Collapse

Parties over? Republicans, Democrats, and the Howard Schultz challenge

America’s two-party system is broken. That’s what former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says, anyway. The self-described centrist and possible candidate for president has made criticism of the Republican and Democratic Parties the central theme of his as-yet unofficial campaign.

“Both parties today on the far left and the far right are more interested in partisan politics, revenge politics,” said Mr. Schultz in a CNN town hall broadcast on Feb. 12. “I think we could be doing much better.”

On that point, many voters might agree. They’re tired of the bickering and gridlock and policy problems left unsolved. Americans’ trust in the parties as institutions is quite low, down there with phone companies, Congress, and the media. The percentage of citizens who register as “independent,” rather than “Democrat” or “Republican,” is at an all-time high. 

But what if the parties are the solution, as much as the cause, for the nation’s malfunctioning political system? After all, political scientists and other experts view them as the indispensable organizers of democracy.

In this view, the parties’ real problem is weakness, not strength. Electoral reforms have hurt their organizational cohesion, outside money has weakened their hold on elected officials, and partisan media has diluted their ability to define their own policies and positions. 

At the same time, the parties as ideas are as strong as ever. Decades of ideological sorting have produced clear left/right, blue/red teams. Like rival teams everywhere, the members are ready to fight – no matter what their nominal party leaders want to do.

In US politics, the defining characteristic of our age is that the parties are weak, but partisanship is strong, according to Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. That’s a dangerous combination, as it risks unmediated political combat that could burst through norms and damage the idea of legitimate opposition.

The solution might lie not in attacking the parties from without and supplanting them, as Schultz would do, but rebuilding and modifying them from within.

“The norms that we depend on to keep democracy functioning aren’t just there or not. They are enforced by political actors, and parties play an important role in this enforcement,” wrote Dr. Azari in a 2016 analysis on the blog “Mischiefs of Faction.”

Not part of the plan

We’ll get back to Schultz and his independent presidential ambitions in a bit. First, let’s consider why the United States has political parties at all.

They weren’t part of the original plan. There’s no mention of parties in the Constitution’s elaborate scheme of branches of government with interlocking and balancing powers. Many of the Founding Fathers were suspicious of such political organizations. James Madison warned of “the mischiefs of faction” in Federalist Paper No. 10.

But when the new Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton decided to push controversial plans, such as repayment of state war debts and creation of a national bank, he reached out to like-minded business leaders and nationalist-minded citizens to form a supportive network. Almost inevitably, this solidified into a party in favor of a strong centralized government, the Federalist Party. Its success in the 1790s produced a pushback, and figures in favor of a smaller federal role in US life, such as Madison and Thomas Jefferson, coalesced into the Democratic-Republican Party.

These parties began selecting candidates for office, running the polls on Election Day, and, in general, organizing the machinery of American democracy. The two big parties of today aren’t literal descendants of these ancestors – there have been organizational zigs, implosions, and reversals along the way. But they’re constructed on the framework established 220-odd years ago.

Twenty-first century parties have expanded their scope of operation, of course. They still hold polls and vet and select candidates, but they also raise money, disperse it, emphasize and frame issues, try to promote their views to the public, and more. Defined in their largest sense, parties today include interest groups, lobbyists, factional organizations such as the Freedom Caucus, and partisan media.

Perhaps most importantly, they serve as brands. Politics is complicated, issues are numerous, normal life is demanding. Who can be an expert in mayoral politics and state issues, as well as the whole range of national questions, from taxes to foreign policy? Party brands are a shortcut – they serve as a general indication of what voters should think about particular candidates or proposed issue solutions. 

“Americans do not have time to sit there reading an entire candidate’s platform. So the parties perform an important function in serving as this heuristic,” says Samara Klar, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona and a scholar of individuals’ political identities and behavior.

A permanent duopoly?

This is the system Schultz and his advisers want to blow up. They describe the Republican and Democratic parties as increasingly extreme, migrating to the far right and far left of the political spectrum, respectively. In such a situation, what should a poor centrist do?

“Are we fated to be in this duopoly in perpetuity?” said Schultz adviser Steve Schmidt.

Well, maybe not this duopoly. Throughout US history, the two parties that compete to run the country have changed, combined and split, swapped places, and died and been reborn. The period prior to the Civil War is notable in this regard. The Whig Party went under, to be replaced in large part by the new Republican Party. The Democratic Party split, with slavery as the wedge. Some Democrats, notably northerners, stayed loyal to the Union. Some, notably southerners, became Confederates.

But the machinery of the US electoral system just isn’t set up to encourage multiple party presidential bids. For one thing, the winner-take-all nature of (almost all) US elections herds voters into two parties. Duverger’s Law, named for the late French scholar Maurice Duverger, posits that electoral systems where individual races are decided in favor of whomever has the most votes inevitably produce two-party coalitions. That’s because citizens are loath to waste votes on candidates with no hope of winning.

“The brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated,” Duverger wrote.

Nor is there a pool of persuadable independent voters in which a third-party candidate could fish for support. True, “independent” is a category in many major political polls, and surveys indicate that 30 to 40 percent of Americans now describe themselves as independents. But political scientists long ago determined that most of these voters are hidden partisans.

About one-third of independents vote no differently than committed Republicans, and a similar percentage are Democrats in all but name. The remaining slice, representing about 10 percent of all US voters, is truly independent. Generally speaking, these are the least-engaged citizens in the country, with below-average interest in political issues and the lowest propensity to vote.

Dr. Klar, co-author of “Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction,” says her research shows that voters who decline to identify as Democrat or Republican disproportionately don’t want to talk about politics or do anything that betrays their tilt, like post a lawn sign.

Labeling oneself an independent “is a social presentation,” Klar says. “It’s a frame that people like to use.”

For these reasons and more, the US remains a largely two-party country. It’s been more than 50 years since a third-party candidate won a state in a presidential election (that was George Wallace, who in 1968 won five states and 46 Electoral College votes).

But third-party candidates have swung elections to someone else: ex-President Teddy Roosevelt, running as the choice of the Bull Moose Party, drew votes from GOP President William Howard Taft and helped put Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Some Democrats still blame consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s run as a Green Party candidate in 2000 for Republican George W. Bush’s razor-thin 2000 election.

This doesn’t mean a Schultz win is impossible. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 has taught a generation of pundits never to dismiss possibilities just because they are outside their normal frame of reference. Many American voters don’t yet have any idea who Schultz is – 46 percent of respondents to an early February CNN poll said they’d never heard of the coffee entrepreneur.

Still, Schultz’s early numbers are brutal. That same CNN poll found only 4 percent of voters said they were very likely to back him. And that number was steady across Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. He appears to have no natural base of support from which to build.

Schultz would have been better off running as an independent voice within a party, says Klar. In essence, that’s what Mr. Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (an independent who caucuses with Democrats) did in the 2016 campaign. Neither seemed beholden to party orthodoxy. At times, they seemed to be running against the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.

“If you ID yourself as a post-partisan candidate within a party ... you can have this image of being an outsider, nonestablishment type,” says Klar.

Gatekeepers no more

But the success of outsiders such as Trump and Senator Sanders inside the system may be a sign of trouble in the modern US party structure. It could mean the ability of party leaders to police renegade political behavior is declining.

One of the fundamental purposes of a political party is to serve as a gatekeeper for potential candidates. If it weakens in this regard, its ability to shape what the party is for and about lessens, too.

Democratic Party leaders squashed a fast-rising Henry Ford for President movement in 1923, for instance. (Ford was a virulent anti-Semite.) They moved to marginalize segregationist George Wallace within the party, forcing him into an independent presidential bid in 1968.

The importance of back-room deals and party bosses has been undercut by the rise of binding primaries and post-Watergate party reforms, however. The good news is, that’s made candidates more reflective of voter choice. That’s the bad news, too. The Founding Fathers worried about the possibility of demagogues and the fickleness of popular choice.

“Binding primaries were certainly more democratic. But might they be too democratic?” write Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book, “How Democracies Die.”

Today, the ability of party establishments to act as gatekeepers appears to have ebbed. In decades past, would Sanders, a self-declared independent, have come as close to winning the Democratic nomination as he did in 2016? Would Trump have been shut out of Republican consideration altogether? Many GOP leaders didn’t want him to win; by the time they recognized the threat he posed to them, it was too late.

Meanwhile, the definition of “party” is broadening in modern America, with the rise of partisan interest groups, lobbyists, and right- and left-leaning media organizations. The Democratic and Republican Parties today might be seen not as hierarchical quasi-tribal groups so much as conglomerate blobs. 

At the same time, the party structures have become as polarized as they’ve ever been. Democrats and Republicans used to be big-tent coalitions, with substantial numbers of moderates in both. But a big sort begun in the 1960s is now virtually complete. Southern Dixiecrat Democrats are today almost all Republicans. Rockefeller Republicans are Democrats or powerless members of the GOP.

This polarization didn’t come about by accident. It was a deliberate process pushed by activists, politicians, and experts across the political spectrum, says Sam Rosenfeld, an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University and author of “The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era.”

In 1950, the American Political Science Association even produced a report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” which advocated for more ideologically distinct parties as a way to give voters a real choice and produce competing approaches to solving postwar America’s big problems.

“There is a lot to be said for political parties that are organized around actual, distinct, substantive agendas, and that clarify the stakes,” says Dr. Rosenfeld.

But there were some important flaws in the polarization plan. Those who thought it a good idea didn’t foresee how often government power would be divided in the future, with one party holding the White House and another Congress, or at least one congressional branch. Supporters thought polarized parties would be more likely to produce unified, parliamentary-style, efficient government. Instead, the US has too often faced gridlock, brinkmanship, and chaos.

Nor did they appreciate how powerful party identity would become in a polarized era. Republicans and Democrats are increasingly culturally, socially, and racially distinct. The GOP is predominantly white and Christian; the Democratic Party is largely a coalition of minorities and some whites with college degrees.

That’s a recipe for each side to see members of the competing party as the “other” – people you don’t want to talk to or live with, a separate tribe.

“A benefit of that old system was a kind of basic level of functionality of governing,” says Rosenfeld. “Today’s polarized system has a brittleness to it, a tendency toward grinding dysfunction and systemic crisis that is a real problem.” 

Legitimate opposition

This is the situation that Marquette’s Azari defines as “weak parties and strong partisanship.” Party organizations don’t have any real power over officeholders or candidates. Meanwhile, the rank and file is eager to defend itself against those people on the other side of the ideological divide. The result is a decaying sense of legitimate opposition, or the realization that the opposing party will win one day, in a continuing cycle of exchanged control.

The chants of “Lock her up!” at Trump rallies in 2016, referring to Hillary Clinton, were good examples of this loss of a legitimate opposition norm. In 2020, who thinks there won’t be Lock him up!” chants at some Democratic candidate’s events?  

Colgate’s Rosenfeld prefers “hollow” to “weak” when discussing the state of party organizations. Party structures in Congress remain quite effective, he points out. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in their own ways, have both proven this point. At the national level, the parties remain skilled at raising money. But at the state and local levels, they’re far from the vital institutions they used to be.

Improving US governance in today’s polarized world might involve reducing the places in the system where individuals or small groups can exercise veto power and bring normal operations to a halt, Rosenfeld says. That could mean getting rid of filibusters, or the need to vote to raise the debt limit, or vote to keep the government open.

“Getting rid of supermajority requirements like the filibuster would not be a solution to polarization, but it would allow for a single party, when it had power, to do more,” he says.

It’s also true that viewing the state of US political parties in 2019 in the broader context of US history can make the current state of affairs seem less fraught, if not exactly stable.

Schultz, for example, insists that both parties are moving toward the extremes of their respective ends of the political spectrum. He’ll offer a centrist choice, he says, more comfortable to voters.

But extremism is in the eye of the beholder. Polarized politics has come and gone in the US over the years, notes Simon Gilhooley, an assistant professor of political and American studies at Bard College.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, his disparagement of minorities, and his anti-intellectualism are all longstanding elements of US politics, says Dr. Gilhooley. At one point, socialism was, too.

Between 1900 and 1915, 140 towns in America elected a socialist mayor, according to Gilhooley. “Oklahoma was a very vibrant area for American socialism,” he says.

A more expansive political spectrum has a storied history in the US. To some extent, today’s ideological transformation of party politics, with the GOP moving right toward Trumpian populism and Democrats shifting left toward Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, could be seen as a return to the future.

“As the parties have become more sorted and polarized, the candidates that appeal to the base in both parties are moving away from the center to try and secure nominations,” Gillhooley says.

In that sense, the period following the end of World War II might be the real anomaly – a time of relative centrism and overlapping parties driven by the need to stand together against the perceived existential threat of cold war communism. Today’s robust debates, about things as far apart as Medicare for All and The Wall, might just be a reflection of the true American political ethos.

Other parts of the “Democracy Under Strain” series:

Part 1: A system under strain: Is US democracy showing real cracks? 

Part 2: Neutral no more: Can Supreme Court survive an era of extreme partisanship? 

Part 3: Amid complaints of a rigged system, one woman’s effort to end gerrymandering. 

Part 4: Risk of a new civil war? Today ‘us’ and ‘them’ differs from the 1850s. 

Part 5: The deep roots of America’s rural-urban political divide

shadow

2. Beyond Amazon debacle, wider doubts about tax breaks as tools

When New York City saw its deal for a corporate HQ collapse, some leftist politics was involved. But the bigger message may be rising scrutiny of whether tax breaks for employers make sense.

Noelle
Mark Lennihan/AP
Housing units stand in the shadow of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in New York. Amazon’s cancellation of plans to build a massive headquarters in the city drew mixed reactions, but economists say cities often gain little – or can even lose – by showering tax breaks on corporations.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Amazon’s planned deal to locate a second headquarters in New York City looked like business as usual: Giant company dangles jobs, and host city offers big tax breaks to get them. But this deal went off script. Local critics, including a rising star of the Democratic Party’s left wing, kept lashing out at the plan. And ultimately Amazon felt the best course was to walk away.

Plenty of New Yorkers aren’t happy about that, but it could signal a healthy rise in scrutiny of the tax-break process. “It doesn’t do the things that we think it’s going to do,” says economist Peter Calcagno in South Carolina. “It doesn't lead to overall greater economic growth. It doesn't necessarily reduce unemployment.” And according to recent research, the incentives play a minimal role in companies’ location decisions.

A better model for how to swing such deals is northern Virginia, development experts say, which offered smaller incentives but landed a similar number of jobs as New York was promised. And Virginia touts the road and transit and school upgrades that local residents would get.

Collapse

Beyond Amazon debacle, wider doubts about tax breaks as tools

It looked more than a little weird: One of America’s most successful companies decides not to locate a headquarters in New York, and some of the city’s most prominent politicians cheer.

A week after online retailer Amazon announced it was pulling the plug on its New York plans – and with it the prospect of some 25,000 mostly high-paying jobs – the backlash against those Amazon critics is as loud as their own chants of triumph in making the giant retailer feel unwelcome.

But according to a broad spectrum of conservative and liberal economists, those politicians on the left have a point: Cities and states often lose when they give away tax breaks and other subsidies to lure any company to set up shop. And the debacle for Amazon could signal a shift toward greater public scrutiny of big tax-break deals for corporations.

The failed New York-Amazon deal sits at the nexus of so many crosscurrents – involving local and national political divisions, coastal versus heartland economies, and the realities of urban inequality – that the optics threaten to overshadow the facts. Nevertheless, the economics are clear: Luring companies with incentives doesn’t work very well.

“It doesn’t do the things that we think it’s going to do,” says Peter Calcagno, an economist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “It doesn’t lead to overall greater economic growth. It doesn’t necessarily reduce unemployment.”

From a national perspective it’s a zero-sum game, in which taxpayers bear a cost and corporations reap a benefit. And researchers say it’s hard to tell in many cases whether even the “winning” cities reap any long-run gains.

That’s partly because local and state incentives play a minimal role in companies’ location decisions, according to recent research. Nevertheless, corporations demand them and governments offer them because the opening of a new business is an almost irresistible lure for politicians.

“The instinct for politicians who face elections every few years is to go for that short-term gain,” says James Pethokoukis, a policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “They love cutting ribbons in front of new plants. That is a very tangible result of your efforts because you gave this subsidy, you have those jobs.”

And the prospect of thousands of jobs, paying well over $100,000 a year, offered by a fast-growing tech leader and the world’s most valuable company is still proving irresistible to many cities, even after the New York failure. Several cities who lost out to New York have contacted Amazon indicating their continued interest, even though the company says it will expand in existing locations rather than locate another headquarters. One Dallas development official admitted he’d watched six hours of TV coverage of New York City Council’s debate over the Amazon plan.

‘What does that say to working people?’

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has lashed out against fellow Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star from the city who used her perch as a new member of Congress to criticize Amazon’s plan. But, while saying the congresswoman didn’t understand the economics of the deal, the mayor also leveled a warning at Amazon – and by implication at other companies considering investments.

“They said they wanted a partnership, but the minute there were criticisms, they walked away,” Mr. de Blasio said on an NBC talk show Sunday. “What does that say to working people, that a company would leave them high and dry, simply because some people raised criticism?”

The optics of New York’s deal with Amazon were challenging from the beginning. The idea of a city giving a tax break to a company owned by the world’s richest man helped fuel what Mr. Pethokoukis calls a backlash against billionaires.

Also, the company was allowed to bypass oversight by the city council, stoking tensions with the mayor and the governor who headed up the deal.

And the up to $3 billion in incentives, while not unusual by New York standards, was approximately three times what other locales typically offer corporations on a per-worker basis, says Tim Bartik, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich. And because Amazon had split its second headquarters proposal in two, northern Virginia was getting a comparable deal with only up to $800 million in state and local incentives.

Not only were the tax-break comparisons obvious, Virginia officials went about selling the Amazon deal by pointing to all the upgrades in road and mass transit infrastructure and educational offerings that local residents would get as a result, Dr. Bartik says. “From both a substantive and a political standpoint that package made a lot of sense. [Upgrading high school and education opportunities] means that Amazon is more likely to fill more of the jobs locally, which is good for state residents.”

Questions of inequality

Amazon’s failed New York deal also raises deeper issues about income inequality. For all its glittering success, New York, like most US cities, has not seen its economic growth help its poor, says Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington and author of the 2018 book, “The Divided City.” “Barring some major effort by Amazon and by the city, few of those jobs would go to local residents who did not already have the degrees and the skills….. And so in the end, as typically happens with these kinds of things in city after city after city, the people who really need a boost economically would probably have been left out in the cold.”

That’s a switch from the 1950s and ’60s when the opening of, say, a new manufacturing plant meant the creation of new, mostly middle-class jobs. At the time, unions had power to push for higher wages and US corporations, facing little foreign competition, could afford to pay them.

These days, by contrast, big companies tend to create a greater range of employment. Mr. Mallach says Amazon’s jobs fall into a barbell shape. Besides all those high-paying jobs at the top, the company pays many people at the low end to man its extensive network of distribution centers around the country. So far those jobs aren’t unionized. Last fall, the company announced it was raising its minimum pay for workers to $15 an hour.

“The problem is, $15 an hour is not enough to get you into the middle class,” Mallach adds.

But he is also leery of progressive activists, who have cheered the New York debacle as a blow against Amazon. “You need the growth, you need the investment, you need the jobs if you’re going to have any hope of changing things,” he says. “If you have a city where everybody is poor, you could argue that that’s more equal and less polarized. But it's not good.”

shadow

3. When Putin goes, will Putinism persist? Russians debate.

For decades, the Kremlin has been almost synonymous with Vladimir Putin. A recent article suggesting that the Putin regime could endure beyond his tenure has sparked concerns about succumbing to an ideological illusion.

Noelle

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s once-foremost ideologist, last week argued that the political regime set up by Vladimir Putin is itself a complete ideology – a “Putinism” – that can survive any challenges, even the loss of its founder. In doing so, Mr. Surkov has triggered a firestorm of debate among leading Russian intellectuals over the essential nature of Russia.

The central idea in his article is that Mr. Putin has developed a form of government that unites the will of the leader with that of the people. In Putinism, Surkov claims, the Russian state has no need for trappings of Western democracy. Whereas Western democracy requires a hidden “deep state” to steer the ship despite the capricious choices voters might make, he writes, Russia has a “deep nation” that runs in harmony with its leaders.

But Russia’s educated class largely regards the article as an attempt to flatter Putin. Putinism is “not an ideology,” says Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist. “Surkov’s article shouldn’t be taken seriously for any of the ideas it presents. It should be seen as a mirror of our present moment, with its uncertainties and complications.”

Collapse

When Putin goes, will Putinism persist? Russians debate.

For Russians, ideology looms as all-important in political discourse.

Since the collapse of the USSR, a state in which ideology regulated everything from foreign affairs to personal life, some Russians have searched hard for a new “Russian idea” to animate national existence and impart a sense of belonging and purpose. Many others push back at any attempt to impose an official ideology, which they view as the bane of Russian history.

But Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s once-foremost ideologist, last week argued in a newspaper article that the political regime set up by Vladimir Putin is itself a complete ideology – a “Putinism” – that can survive any challenges, even the loss of its founder.

And in doing so, Mr. Surkov has triggered a firestorm of debate among leading Russian intellectuals over the essential nature of Russia, and particularly whether the undeniably resilient regime that Mr. Putin has created can outlast his personal rule.

And even those who take issue with the substance of Surkov’s arguments, of whom there are many, assume that the article’s publication has a greater significance.

“Surkov used to be the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, he is always interesting and entertaining, and he is one who tries to invent grand political systems,” says Nikolay Petrov, a political scientist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “No wonder so many people take this article as more than an expression of personal opinions, but as a signal from above. People are sure he must have been instructed, or at least given permission to publish this piece.”

Russia’s ‘deep nation’

Surkov’s article, landing at a time of growing social unrest and uncertainty over what happens when Putin leaves the scene, was bound to set off an explosion of controversy. Surkov’s grand schemes have shaped the political landscape of the Putin era – and unabashedly manipulated Russians’ perceptions about democratic choice.

Surkov was the architect of Russia’s so-called managed democracy,  which included an array of somewhat differently flavored pro-Kremlin political parties that Surkov, acting out his own conception of how Western democracy works, offered voters an elaborate illusion of choice. It also included civil society groups such as the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi and the Civic Chamber, a kind of parallel parliament of public groups. He lost his Kremlin job a few years ago after Putin apparently grew tired of his scheming. But he has been brought back repeatedly to handle delicate tasks, most recently as the Kremlin’s main point man to handle Russia’s crisis of relations with Ukraine.

The central idea in his article, titled “Putin’s Lasting State,” is that Putin has developed a form of government that cuts out the middle men, like parliaments and bureaucracies, and unites the will of the leader with that of the people. In Putinism, he claims, the Russian state has found the “sweet spot” of harmony with the eternal Russian people, and it expresses their will without any need for elections, opinion polls, or other trappings of what he openly derides as the fake dog-and-pony show of Western democracy.

“The stress tests which [this model] has passed and is now passing have shown that this specific, organically arrived at model of political functioning provides an effective means of survival and ascension of the Russian nation not just for the coming years, but for decades and, most likely, for the entire next century,” Surkov writes.

Whereas Western democracy requires a hidden “deep state” to steer the ship despite the capricious choices voters might make, Surkov writes, Russia has a “deep nation” that runs in harmony with its leaders.

“Our state is not split up into deep and external; it is built as a whole, with all of its parts and its manifestations facing out,” he writes. “The ability to hear and to understand the nation, to see all the way through it, through its entire depth, and to act accordingly – that is the unique and most important virtue of Putin’s government.”

‘Not an ideology’

Surkov’s article has brought howls of derision from many leading Russian intellectuals, who tend to be aligned with the opposition. Most of them regard the article as a transparent attempt to flatter an audience of one: Putin.

The key bone of contention is whether or not there is such a thing as Putinism.

Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked in the Kremlin with Surkov during the early Putin years, suggests that Surkov has mistaken the relative stability of the Putin years for some kind of eternal formula for social harmony.

“In post-Soviet Russia, we, alas, have not created a real state,” Mr. Pavlovsky told Business-Online, an internet newspaper. “Our system is a system of power whose behavior has no normal values. And this model of behavior is common for elites and for the population of Russia in general.”

Although Putin has developed mechanisms for communicating with average Russians over the heads of officialdom, such as his regular electronic town hall meetings and some impressive innovations in “digital democracy,” there is nothing that would add up to a mystical bond between leader and people, say experts.

“We can only understand Putinism as this particular regime, which has demonstrated its durability and flexibility in ways that need to be explained,” says Mr. Petrov. “But it’s not an ideology. It’s just a cynical and pragmatic manipulation of power, a constant search for majority support, which has until now been quite successful.... Surkov’s article shouldn’t be taken seriously for any of the ideas it presents. It should be seen as a mirror of our present moment, with its uncertainties and complications.”

A simplified proto-fascist state?

But some do see a distinct Putinist ideology emerging. In the West, scholars like Timothy Snyder see Surkov and Putin drawing on the Christian-fascist ideas of 20th-century Russian emigré philosopher Ivan Ilyan to create a modern-day to establish a Mussolini-like corporatist state.

But Western critics often appear to read too much into Putin’s occasional references to ideological thinkers. At one point the Russian Eurasian nationalist Alexander Dugin was labeled “Putin’s brain” in Foreign Policy magazine. Yet Mr. Dugin, fired from his university job a few years ago, is a critic of Putin who has never acknowledged any connection.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a political expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that Putin, with Surkov’s help, has been constructing a fascist-type state out of familiar ideological elements.

“Surkov represents the views of very influential groups, in the Kremlin and security services, and that’s why it’s very important to analyze this,” he says. “His views are a simplification of social reality. It’s a fascist, or proto-fascist, conception. He is testing the waters to see how liberal opponents and other people react.”

Putinism, Mr. Kolesnikov says, “is a mixture of nationalism, imperialism, dirigisme [state control of the economy], and anti-Western discourse. It’s authoritarianism with an imitation of democracy. It is not unique, and Surkov surely exaggerates its potential. But this is a serious moment.”

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Russia’s top elite-watching sociologist, says Surkov is just trying to stay relevant as the national conversation shifts to life after Putin.

“I heard all these ideas from Surkov 10 years ago,” she says. “I think he’s trying to reassure public opinion that what we have now is durable. At times like this there is alarm, fear of transition, and people turn critical of the authorities. His message is: Calm down, everything will turn out OK.”

shadow

4. Not your typical door-to-door sales: the family-planning ladies of Nigeria

“Meet people where they are.” It’s a common adage. But workers with MS Ladies take that literally. For women who aren’t comfortable visiting a clinic, or can’t, home visits offer more than birth control.

Noelle
Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Rakiyya Adamu leaves a customer's house in Kano, Nigeria, after a birth control implant procedure, which cost the woman N500 (about $1.50). Mrs. Adamu will earn about 75 cents in profit.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

By 2050, demographers project, Nigeria will be the world’s third-most populous country. And here in the northern state of Kano, birth rates are especially high: On average, women have 7.7 children. But if many women – and men – take joy in raising big families, they also, increasingly, are seeking control over how those families are formed.

Enter MS Ladies, a program of the family-planning charity Marie Stopes International. The group hires local health-care workers to make door-to-door visits to discuss options and sell contraceptives. Many clients can’t get them elsewhere – or won’t, because of stigma or family pressures. “I just want a rest for now,” Sakina Abubakar, a 33-year-old mother of seven boys, says with a laugh. She had her first son at 15, and since then, has thrown herself into raising what she calls “my small army.”

Mrs. Abubakar used to be wary about family planning, worried it was a foreign plot to stop African women from having large families. But her MS Lady is a woman she had seen at the mosque, at the market, walking her own children to school. If she believed in this, Abubakar thought, maybe it was all right.

Collapse

Not your typical door-to-door sales: the family-planning ladies of Nigeria

Three times a week, Aishatu Abdullahi slips on a flowy blue hijab, slings a bulging backpack of supplies over her shoulder, and sets out to sell her wares, door-to-door, to the women in her neighborhood.

In another time, in a different place, she might have been an Avon Lady, unzipping her bag to reveal tiny samples of lotions and lipsticks to neighborhood homemakers. But in northern Nigeria, in 2019, her powers of persuasion are directed toward unloading a very different kind of product.

“There are condoms, there are pills, there are implants, there is a shot,” she says cheerily, unsnapping a box of samples to show two potential customers. “It all depends on the type of method you’re looking for.”

Mrs. Abdullahi is part of a team of door-to-door contraceptive saleswomen hired by the family-planning charity Marie Stopes International to bring birth control to women here who can’t – or won’t – get it elsewhere. The model is part traveling saleswoman, part community health worker, a network of mobile midwives and health workers with a unique selling point. They come to you.

On average, a woman here in Kano state has 7.7 children, according to 2016 data from the National Bureau of Statistics, and about 94 percent of partnered women here don’t use any form of contraception. Nigeria as a whole has one of the world’s fastest rates of population growth, a boom that is expected to make it the world’s third-most populous country by 2050.

But if many women – and men – here take great joy in raising big families, they also, increasingly, are seeking control over how those families are formed.

“You know, there’s still a taboo – people are afraid to be doing this thing in a public place, like at a hospital,” Abdullahi says. But between the walls of their own houses, with women from their own community, she says it’s a different story. “You can be frank with people. You can laugh with them and chat with them, and they begin to trust you.”

Ryan Lenora Brown/Christian Science Monitor
Aishatu Abdullahi, who works as an "MS Lady" selling birth control door-to-door, explains the available options to prospective customers at their house in Rano, in Kano State, Nigeria.

Health care at home

Marie Stopes began the program, called the MS Ladies, in 2009 with a pilot program in Madagascar. In 2015, it expanded into several other countries, and now has more than 730 women working in 15 countries, most of them scattered across Africa. And like the Avon Ladies, or the Tupperware party hostesses of yore, they work on commission, turning a small profit for every contraceptive they provide.

“That makes it more sustainable for us because there are no salary costs,” says Effiom Effiom, the country director for Marie Stopes Nigeria. Instead, Marie Stopes provides the supplies to its saleswomen – all of them trained health professionals – at a steep discount. The cost is about 60 cents for a three-year birth control implant, for instance, and about 8 cents for a monthly supply of pills, so that providers can sell them cheaply to their clients but also still make a bit of cash. And if a customer can’t pay, Marie Stopes does.

Most of the MS Ladies have day jobs as nurses or community health-care workers, so the money isn’t the main reason for their work. Still, it doesn’t hurt.

“Every month, I buy my mother a chicken,” says Rakiyya Adamu, an MS Lady working on the outskirts of Kano, who says she makes between $10 to $20 a month selling birth control. “It’s money I can spend without asking anyone’s permission.”

And for women here, the birth control she sells buys an even greater freedom. Whether or not she gets pregnant, after all, often dictates if a young, newly married woman is able to finish school or not. Space between babies, meanwhile, can allow women to work outside the home, or simply focus on the children they already have. 

“I just want a rest for now,” says Sakina Abubakar, a 33-year-old mother of seven boys, with a tinkling laugh that fills her small bedroom. She had her first son at 15, and since then, she has thrown herself headlong into the chaos of raising “my small army.” She wouldn’t change it, she says, but she’d like to hit pause, at least for a while. 

Behind her, Mrs. Adamu is smoothing a brown tarp onto the floor and laying out rows of sterile steel instruments in neat, glinting rows. She slips off her blue hijab, which is emblazoned with the words CHILD SPACING SAVES LIVES, and balls it up in the corner. Then she motions for Mrs. Abubakar to lie down.

“I used to think there’s some hidden agenda with this birth control thing,” Abubakar says. “I thought maybe it’s something that came from Europe to stop African women from having children.” But Adamu was a woman she had seen at the mosque, in the market, walking with her children to school. If she believed in this, Abubakar thought, maybe it was all right.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Aishatu Abdullahi, who sells birth control door-to-door, prepares to visit customers in her neighborhood in Kano, Nigeria. The program is run by the family-planning NGO Marie Stopes International.

‘For the sake of my family’

Abubakar’s husband knows she’s having a three-year birth control implant inserted. They talked about it, and he likes the idea. But that isn’t always the case. 

An hour outside Kano, in a town called Rano, Abdullahi is paying a house call to a slight woman in her early 30s named Samira. She has instructed the MS Lady to come now because her husband isn’t home, and she doesn’t want him to know what she’s about to do.

“My husband is a difficult man. He doesn’t work – he just goes away all day and leaves me with the kids,” she says, her voice sharpening. “So I decided to take this choice for the sake of my family. I prefer not to involve him.” And if he finds out? It’ll be better, she says, to ask his forgiveness than his permission. 

Samira has six kids, including twins born a month ago. Her eldest daughter, Rabi, who is 19, gave birth to her second child the following week. [Editor’s note: Samira's and Rabi's last names have been omitted for their privacy.]

Now, both women sit rapt as Abdullahi cycles through their options – daily pills, quarterly injections, three-year implants.

Like many of Abdullahi’s clients, these women spend most of their days behind the four walls of their family compound, pounding yams, jiggling babies, and doing battle with the massive heaps of tiny clothes piled in the corner. So she’s learned to hustle her products at the few public events that bring women together, like weddings and baby-naming ceremonies, where she often sidles up to women she doesn’t know and asks them, quietly, if they know about child spacing.

That’s the way she phrases it, she says, because the idea isn’t to wag a finger at women who want big families. Abdullahi herself has seven kids, and says her only goal is to give women control over when they get pregnant. 

That choice has proved powerful. Local women now pass her number furtively among themselves, so that Abdullahi’s phone is constantly lighting up with unknown numbers. Can you come to my house tonight? Can I have it done at your place? I can’t pay, can you help?

Marie Stopes currently has 115 Ladies in Nigeria, a number that’s set to double this year. Last year, they made about 37,000 house visits across the country. And worldwide, the 730 women in the program made nearly 800,000. But the need remains vast.

“We could train a thousand of these women [in Nigeria] and it still wouldn’t be enough,” Mr. Effiom says. That, indeed, is the program’s biggest limitation: Its highly personalized nature means it can’t expand access to contraceptives as quickly as programs that target hospitals or the public health system. Currently, MS Ladies account for a tiny sliver of the 27 million people around the world whom Marie Stopes provided with contraceptives in 2017.

In Rano, Rabi sits in the courtyard shushing her newborn daughter as she examines the implant’s tiny puncture marks on her upper arm.

“I don’t want my daughters to suffer like I did,” she says. “They will finish school. And when they are married, I will tell them about this family planning.”

Inside, Abdullahi is gathering up her supplies, getting ready to leave for the next house. Just then, a woman in a floral pink hijab pokes her head into the room. She’s wondering, she says, if the nurse has a few more minutes? 

She’d like to talk, too.

shadow

5. When transfer students knock, more colleges are opening the door

More community college students are making their way to four-year universities – and helping schools meet enrollment and diversity goals. What might that mean for college affordability?

Noelle

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Today, Kolby Hunter is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But like more students today, he didn’t start there as a freshman: He transferred from Alamance Community College. Mr. Hunter spent a year at ACC in 2006 before dropping out and working at a cigar warehouse. He re-enrolled in 2013 and transferred in 2017.

College students who need to save money are more willing to attend more than one school. Universities are increasingly enrolling students who transfer in from two-year institutions and are working to make the move easier. In doing so, four-year schools are paving a more affordable road to a bachelor’s degree.

Given the uncertain future of affirmative action, this cohort of nontraditional students could help bolster campus diversity. Community college students, says Heather Adams, transfer student program director at the University of California, Los Angeles, “are bringing a richness of experience, of point of view, of thought that every university should be exploring if they’re not.”

That’s been true for Mr. Hunter. “You have your teenagers and you have your 25-year-olds and you have some 40-year-olds,” he says. “A program that doesn’t look at age – that’s wonderful.”

Collapse

When transfer students knock, more colleges are opening the door

As a kid, Janina Millis would sit at the foot of her grandfather’s chair watching Carolina basketball games and cheer at every basket. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was a dream school for her, but as a first-generation student without career plans, she never thought she’d make it there. Instead, she enrolled at Carteret Community College in Morehead City, N.C.

But thanks to the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP) Ms. Millis didn’t stay long. She transferred to UNC last fall and plans on pursuing a dual-degree master’s program in mass communications starting next year.

Millis’ path isn’t uncommon – and it’s growing more popular across the country. Universities are increasingly enrolling students who transfer from two-year institutions and are working to make the move easier. In doing so, four-year schools are paving a more affordable road to a bachelor’s degree. And given the uncertain future of race-conscious admissions, this cohort of nontraditional students could help bolster campus diversity outside of affirmative action.

“We have seen a growth in the number of students following that transfer path. The interest among students ... has a lot to do with economics,” says Melissa Clinedinst, associate director of research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

“It’s also a way for colleges to reach a more diverse prospective student pool. It’s in some sense a win-win for the students and the institutions,” she continues.

A financially feasible path

Research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, examining the class entering college in 2011, shows the university transfer rate has continued to climb, now at 38 percent from about 37 percent last year.

This shift may have begun with the recession, which pushed students to avoid the full cost of a four-year degree.

“Since 2008 people are going ‘Well wait, hold on,’ ” says Heather Adams, transfer student program director at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is a financially feasible route whether you’re a nontraditional student who needs the flexibility of community college or you’re a student whose family doesn’t have the money to send you to a four-year university.”

C-STEP, in North Carolina, was founded in 2006 with a goal of boosting transfer enrollment. In the past three years, it has given every community college student in the state access to an online library of programs and course prerequisites at UNC.

“They’re not wasting time or money in preparation for a particular degree,” says Rebecca Egbert, senior assistant director of admissions and C-STEP program director at UNC, who has seen steady growth in transfer enrollment.

The University of California and California State University systems, which have networked with community colleges since 1960, share this approach. The UC systems’ Center for Community College Partnerships hosts summer intensive programs and campus visits to help transfer students – who make up about 40 percent of most incoming classes at the UC schools – see themselves at a four-year university.

Efforts to simplify the process have picked up across the country. The Interstate Passport, a three-year-old initiative, links 28 two- and four-year colleges in 10 states with general education curricula whose credit transfers easily between schools.

More universities might make similar agreements depending on the results of two lawsuits at Harvard University and UNC over race-conscious admissions. UNC presents C-STEP as one example of a race-neutral diversity initiative it already uses, but if courts ultimately block affirmative action, experts say, it may rely on the program more heavily.

Already, 88.7 percent of colleges say transfer students are considerably or moderately important to fulfilling enrollment goals, according to NACAC. And about 36 percent of students in public two-year institutions are African-American or Latino, compared with 24 percent and 20 percent at public and private nonprofit universities respectively, according to the College Board.

‘A richness of experience’

But diversity in community college goes beyond race. The average age is 28. Parents, and students who are military veterans, enroll in higher proportions.

Community college students, “are bringing a richness of experience, of point of view, of thought that every university should be exploring if they’re not,” Ms. Adams says. She herself transferred to UCLA from Santa Monica College, a community college, after working as an actress for 17 years.

That has certainly been true for Kolby Hunter, a senior who came to UNC from Alamance Community College in Graham, N.C. He spent a year at ACC in 2006 before dropping out and working for nine years at a cigar warehouse. He re-enrolled in 2013 and transferred in 2017.

“You have your teenagers and you have your 25-year-olds and you have some 40-year-olds,” he says. “A program that doesn’t look at age, that’s wonderful.”

But only 14 percent of students who aim to transfer to a four-year university from community college actually make it. And while these transfers have increased significantly for less selective schools, they’ve decreased slightly for the most selective universities, according to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. UNC and UCLA, selective schools with strong transfer enrollment, remain exceptions – though that might be changing.

Even so, the steady increase in community college transfers is progress to Millis. Now, the dreams she had as a kid are starting to feel real.

“I really feel like now I’m able to wear my Carolina blue with pride,” she says.

shadow

The Monitor's View

Helping minority youths dream beyond sports

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

Success in professional sports continues to be a way – however rare – for young men from minority groups to gain fame and fortune. But as Martellus Bennett, a 2017 Super Bowl winner as a tight end for the New England Patriots, pointed out in a recent essay, overemphasis on this narrow definition of success sends a limiting message. 

Mr. Bennett, an African-American, urges those with influence to do more to broaden their vision. “The NFL is nearly 70 percent black, so we knew we belonged there,” he wrote in The Washington Post, recalling his own upbringing. “But the tech industry is less than 8 percent black, so we didn’t really feel like that was for us.” Undeniable progress for minorities has been made. Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, for example, will include two films nominated for best picture directed by African-American men. 

But acknowledging and applauding such success isn’t at odds with also seeing a need for more progress. Since leaving football, Bennett has claimed a broader identity, listing his occupations as children’s book author, film director, illustrator, app developer, and more. He’s showing how much young African-Americans can dream and achieve.

Collapse

Helping minority youths dream beyond sports

On Tuesday Manny Machado, a baseball player from the Dominican Republic, signed a $300 million contract to play for the San Diego Padres. It was the biggest free-agent deal in the history of Major League Baseball. 

In the National Basketball Association, players – most of whom are African-American – brag when they succeed in earning a “max contract,” the highest salary allowed.

Success in professional sports continues to be a way – however low the odds – for young men from minority groups to gain fame and fortune. But as Martellus Bennett, a 2017 Super Bowl winner as a tight end for the New England Patriots, pointed out in a recent essay, overemphasis on this narrow definition of success sends a limiting message to the next generation. 

Only eight of 10,000 high school football players will ever get drafted by a National Football League team, he notes. At 65 universities in the top college conferences, black men represent only 2.4 percent of undergraduate students but make up more than half the players on their football and basketball teams.

Mr. Bennett, an African-American, urges those with influence on young black males to do more to broaden their vision of success.

“No one ever made us feel that we could achieve anything and everything we dreamed of,” he wrote in a Washington Post essay, recalling his own upbringing. “The NFL is nearly 70 percent black, so we knew we belonged there. But the tech industry is less than 8 percent black, so we didn’t really feel like that was for us. Only 6 percent of doctors are black. Only 2 percent of teachers are black men. There are only three black CEOs in the Fortune 500.”

When people look at African-American youths they should “see them as the future writers, composers, chefs, tech moguls, presidents, film directors, architects, illustrators or fashion designers that they are,” he says. “The world is more beautiful when we let black boys dream big.”

Undeniable progress for minorities has been made. But acknowledging and applauding that isn’t at odds with also seeing an urgent need for more progress. 

This year’s Oscars ceremony Sunday night will include two films nominated for best picture helmed by African-American men (“Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, and “BlacKkKlansman,” directed by Spike Lee). They feature mostly African-American casts. 

In 2018 Hollywood films put more women and people of color in prominent roles than ever before, according to statistics gathered by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Yet women and minorities are still underrepresented compared with their numbers in society.

Some viewed the 2008 election of President Barack Obama as reason to end the discussion about limits on what black men could achieve. But Mr. Obama himself has not agreed. In his post-presidential years he continues to urge African-American boys and teens to raise their sights beyond narrow dreams of wealth or fame that may be all they know.

Parents, teachers, religious leaders, all of society, have the responsibility to offer a different vision of success and fulfillment. Even if there are no young black men currently in people's lives they can help organizations such as Obama's My Brother’s Keeper, which, as its website says, provides the support these youths need "to think more broadly about their future." 

“We tend to rise to the expectations that are set for us,” Obama said. “Often times, historically, racism ... sends a message that you are less than and weak, so we feel like we’ve got to compensate by exaggerating certain stereotypical ways that men are supposed to act,” Obama said. “[W]e have to constantly lift up examples of the successful men who don’t take that approach.”

Since leaving professional football Bennett has claimed a much broader identity, listing his occupations as children’s book author, film director, painter, illustrator, entrepreneur, app developer, and more. He’s walking the walk, proving that young African-Americans can dream and achieve far beyond sports.

shadow

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Unexpected leaders

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 4 Min. )

Inspired by spiritual leaders with humble roots, today’s contributor explores the idea that each of us has a God-given ability to express leadership qualities such as humility, integrity, unselfishness, and compassion.

Collapse

Unexpected leaders

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

Sometimes leadership comes in surprising packages. There’s a best-selling book that chronicles many compelling case studies of ordinary people rising to do extraordinary things. For example, a refugee with a criminal background confronts a powerful and self-serving political leader and convinces him to act altruistically. A farmer rallies a few hundred people in his region to overthrow a brutal invading army. And a teen from a small rural town gives birth to a child who becomes an inspired teacher and activist whose work transforms the political and religious scene locally and globally.

This book, if you haven’t already guessed, is the Bible, and these are the accounts of unexpected leaders such as Moses, Gideon, the Virgin Mary, and especially Jesus. None of them sought out the leadership roles they assumed, and perhaps this was the real secret to their success. They were humble, selfless, and willing to serve. And most importantly, they were spiritually minded. They looked to the divine Spirit for ideas and guidance and acted fearlessly on the inspiration they received. And they let God take the lead in their own hearts and minds first – like clear windowpanes allowing the light of divine wisdom and love to shine through.

“I ... frequently get out of God’s way” is how American religious thinker and church founder Mary Baker Eddy once described her own approach to life and leadership, according to someone who knew her well (“We Knew Mary Baker Eddy,” Expanded Edition, Vol. II, p. 531). She rose from farmer’s daughter to be an acclaimed author, publisher, and uniquely accomplished healer – using the method of Christian Science healing she had discovered – at a time when women had far fewer rights or opportunities than they do today. At almost every juncture of her life, she made decisions that went against the grain of popular practice and opinion, not because she was personally bold or ambitious but because she was consistently willing to pause and listen for the leadings of divine inspiration.

A great example of this occurred when she was in her mid-80s and the subject of a cruel smear campaign by a New York newspaper that was churning out headlines claiming she was senile or even dead. This would eventually lead to an ill-conceived lawsuit against her. A few days after the stories appeared she met briefly with a group of reporters in order to dispel these rumors by proving her physical and mental capacities.

As she prepared to enter the room to meet with the group, she paused for a long moment and then proceeded. When asked about this later by an observer, she explained that she was waiting for the Christ to go before her (see Robert Peel, “The Years of Authority,” p. 268).

Christ, in its original meaning, relates to the outpouring of inspiration from God directly to His children. So this pause was a way for Mrs. Eddy to acknowledge the presence of a communicator higher than herself, to let divine Truth lead her in the conversation and to know that it was also communicating to everyone present.

And so it proved. Her responses during the interview were clear and calm, and the lawsuit was unsuccessful. About two years later, in 1908, Mrs. Eddy established this newspaper to do something much needed in journalism. In her words, its mission was “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 353).

If we think of the Christ as a universal idea, revealing the higher nature in us all regardless of culture, race, or gender, we’ll appreciate it as the essence of inspired leadership. This divine anointing inspires in us qualities such as humility, compassion, integrity, unselfishness, and commitment – the same qualities so fully expressed by Jesus and included in our true nature, too. These qualities enable us to work together, to see past personality differences, to genuinely care for one other. After all, we are all members of God’s universal family, so we innately want as much good for others as we want for ourselves.

So how do we pause and let the Christ take the lead in our thoughts and lives on a daily basis? It happens naturally as we open our thoughts to expressing more of the divine nature reflected in us. As the offspring of a Father-Mother God who is infinite Love, it’s our nature to express love, goodness, grace, integrity, purity – all the spiritual qualities that Christ is constantly pouring out to us and through us.

We can practice receiving and expressing these qualities. Practice seeing them in others. And practice acknowledging that they are always present to inspire and lead today’s leaders.

shadow

Viewfinder

A secessionist resurgence

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Catalan police officers remove demonstrators blocking a road outside Barcelona during a general strike in the Catalonia region of Spain, Feb. 21. Strikers advocating for secession are blocking major highways, train lines, and roads. The once-independent northwestern region – which has held varying degrees of autonomy in different historical eras – is a heavy contributor to Spain’s economy.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( February 22nd, 2019 )

Noelle Swan
Science Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when we’ll offer a glimpse into the lives of Monitor staffers with an essay from three foreign correspondents who, over the course of 25 years, employed the same beloved nanny.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 21, 2019
Loading the player...

More issues

2019
February
21
Thursday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.