Through eight decades of work around the world, we at the Ford Foundation have seen how impunity—unjust action without consequence—erodes institutions, and permits and perpetuates corruption, all while exacerbating inequality. We’ve borne witness to the ways in which a lack of accountability undermines the rule of law.
For years, scholars and experts have warned that American institutions are not immune. Many have sounded—and are sounding—the alarm about the impunity with which norms have been pushed aside in the pursuit of unchecked power and the dangers of “democratic backsliding.”
To be sure, American history is rife with injustice. But I have always believed that we were pushing towards progress—however unevenly and incrementally. As an avowed optimist, I never quite grasped—until recently—what it could mean for extreme impunity to become a wrecking ball to the America I love. At the time, perhaps, it was my shortfall of empathy or imagination; now, to not recognize our vulnerability is simply delusion.
For when we look to our leaders in challenging times, we assume they will rise to those challenges. We expect that given the responsibility and opportunity, a person’s character and values prevail. We hope that some sense of common good or decency, honor or shame, might awake their better angels, compel them to look past their cynicism or self-interest, even shake them from their silence.
To me, that we have fallen this far points to a failure of moral leadership.
And by moral leadership, I do not mean the kind that moralizes; we don’t need self-righteousness, but selflessness. I don’t claim any special access to moral principles, nor mean to suggest the primacy of any kind or class of individual. I do believe, however, that in every theater of our lives, we need more people focused on the bigger, broader objective beyond the next earnings call or election: a long-term vision for a more just society. We need leaders who are motivated by values and incentives and outcomes that transcend those offered by the systems which, by design or neglect, have widened inequality to an untenable degree. We need new profiles in courage—more business leaders who serve the interests of all their stakeholders, not only their shareholders; more elected officials who serve a common good, not only the donors and partisans who comprise their base of support.
We need these leaders, not only for ourselves but for others. After all, right now, the world watches and wonders whether America can live up to its promise as a champion of human rights and a beacon of liberty and justice for all.
To be sure, America’s leadership crisis is far from new; like inequality, it has only been made excruciatingly plain during recent months and years. It is not even the first time I have spoken about moral leadership. It will likely not be the last because this crisis of moral leadership cuts across every issue.
Every one of our ongoing crises has been compounded by choices made and not made. Choices that deny humanity and dignity and justice to others on a daily basis, whether they take the form of active harm or passive neglect. Choices that, in an era of impunity and inequality, yield no consequences for the powerful, and too many for everyone else.