Like a snuff video, footage of Moammar Gadhafi's final moments saturated our screens last week. Despite revulsion for Libya's depraved and ruthless despot, I cringed at the ingloriousness of a once-powerful man holed up in a drainage pipe begging for mercy. The cowardly dictator screamed "don't shoot" and ironically asked the rebels if they knew right from wrong, before a bullet to the temple ended his 42-year reign.
As thousands filed past his corpse wearing masks to avoid the stench of death, I wondered why Gadhafi hadn't fled with his $200 billion stash. Then again, "absolute power corrupts absolutely," which is why tyrants like Hitler, Hussein and Gadhafi cling to authority - because they can. Never mind the devastation they leave in their wake.
In democracies, power is no less an aphrodisiac, though acquiring it requires winning votes, not gun battles. Too often, a politician's success depends on what he can get voters to believe, whether or not it bears any resemblance to reality. By engaging in negativity and demagoguery, either through false narratives or by denigrating opponents, politicians cause destructive wakes, including a misinformed and demoralized electorate.
Governing elites who exploit the politics of division to pick winners and losers and to determine our destinies are "governing-class warriors." When such unscrupulous tactics are deployed, Americans must Think Again - something politicians hope we never do.
Simply follow the trend lines in Michele Bachman and Rick Perry's poll numbers after employing shameless demagoguery. When Bachman raised previously discredited fears about vaccinations while attacking Perry for mandating that girls get HPV inoculations, she undermined her credibility. Similarly, Perry damaged his standing when counter-punching Mitt Romney on illegal immigration, resurrecting the already scrutinized 2006 story about Romney's lawn service employing illegals.
Most unseemly is demagoguery that transcends mere political one-upmanship, transforming opponents into the moral equivalent of wife-beaters and worse. Consider former presidential contender Howard Dean's character assassination: "In contradistinction to Republicans, Democrats don't want children to go to bed hungry at night." Or Congressman Andre Carson's smear that "some of them in Congress right now of this tea party movement would love to see you and me ... hanging on a tree."
It packs a punch, especially considering the ease with which smears take root and propagate, as when Piers Morgan blithely asked Herman Cain, "You know there are elements in the tea party who are racist; I don't think it's a trade secret. How do you deal with that as a black man?"
Cain's response was clarifying, and disinfecting: "My experience has been, there is no more a racist element in the tea party than there is in the general population. I have spoken at hundreds of them and they're not racist. To think so, you must never have been." No wonder Cain is topping the polls. Though the least likely to emerge, Cain's solutions - orientation and optimism - appeal to voters who want to be persuaded by can-do leaders, not alienated by negativity.
Americans crave competent leadership as new polls show a sweeping lack of faith in what we've got: CBS/NYT finds 89 percent don't trust the government to do what is right, while The Hill shows 69 percent of voters believe America is in decline.
Americans' pessimism is understandable. Having suffered a historic U.S. credit downgrade with more possible, the powerful Supercommittee is reportedly struggling to agree on $1.2 trillion (only 3 percent) of deficit cuts over a 10-year period. Americans will recoil at their failure's fall-out, especially if leaders resort to the politics of division to evade responsibility and to advance narrow political interests.
Business leaders are already recoiling as entrepreneurs like Steve Wynn, Bernie Marcus, Mort Zuckerman and Steve Jobs have articulated concerns that Washington is a massive wet blanket to the economy and job creation. We believe them because we know they have lived it.
When Wynn conveyed his concerns to good friend Harry Reid, Reid hung up on him. Reid disagrees with Wynn saying this week, "It's very clear that private-sector jobs are doing just fine. It's public-sector jobs where we've lost huge numbers." Wynn no longer speaks to Congresswoman Shelly Berkley, now a Senate candidate. He recounts her shameful admission: "Steve, I know Obamacare is terrible. My husband is a doctor and he hates it too. But if I don't vote for it, Pelosi will punish me."
Wynn, whose candor and moral clarity defies his Las Vegas roots, pleads "if any businessman or working person doesn't understand that this is a tipping point in American history, then I'm afraid we're going to get what we deserve."
Unlike Libya, America's exceptional values and culture of opportunity position us well. We just need governing-class warriors to Think Again - Americans want to be persuaded to affirm our leaders, not so alienated that we reject them all.