Lucas Morel on leadership through diction

In celebration of Black History Month, the Constitutional Studies Program hosted Lucas Morel, Professor of Politics and Head of the Politics Department at Washington and Lee University. An expert on Lincoln and black American politics, Morel gave a lecture entitled, “Words Fitly Spoken: Lincoln and Ellison as Writers of Social Responsibility,” in which he explored the ethical leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Ellison, especially through their diction. The Rover had the opportunity to interview Morel, further exploring the themes of his lecture and their relevance during this Black History Month.

You spoke of Lincoln and Ellison as masters of the English language—a great mark of their power and influence. At present our country is suffering from an apparent absence of great political orators and rhetoricians. Have our political and social leaders lost the knack for powerful oration?

Ellison once said, “Writers write from other writers.”  Name a great orator (e.g., Churchill) and he invariably is well read. The key question is, are folks with political ambitions reading much, let alone reading great writers?

One habit Lincoln had was to write notes to himself when he wanted to clarify an idea or some political problem. Writing is thinking.

Lincoln also had a habit of reading out loud, which led him to write for the ear, not the eye, as it were.  Poetry, therefore, would seem to be part of the remedy.  Lincoln’s favorite, far and away, was Shakespeare, then Robert Burns.

There is a certain irony to the term “ethical leadership,” which you use to describe the work of both Lincoln and Ellison. What is it that has precipitated the erosion of leadership in our nation to the point that it must be qualified?

One reason we speak of “ethical leadership” is because we somehow came to believe that one could be a good or even great leader of politics or business or technology (or fill in the blank) but personally possess horrible qualities, even vices. We thought that as long as some laudable goal was achieved through the ideas and work and motivation of a particular person, then perhaps a decent character was not necessary and therefore required.

There is much debate over the proper role of the Constitution in contemporary American life. Many criticize our founding documents for being out of date and failing to address issues of modern life. Both Ellison and Lincoln point to the Constitution as a timeless document containing enduring ideals. As a scholar of both Lincoln and Ellison, what do you consider to be the proper role of the Constitution today? 

The is no Constitution per se if it is not understood by the citizenry as something that is fixed in its aims and operation.  That is why it was designed to be so difficult to amend, requiring super majorities of both the bicameral Congress (2/3) and the state legislatures or conventions thereof (3/4).  Whereas ordinary legislation requires only a majority of both houses of Congress, the political structure intended to guide and superintend that process of governance (i.e., legislation, as well as its execution and court judgment over disputes) needs a stronger consensus of the American people to operate differently via amendments.  Over time, citizens can avail themselves of the experience and greater wisdom gained as they govern themselves, and therefore can amend their constitution to secure the rights and the common good more faithfully and prudently than their forebears. 

But until an amendment is ratified, the Constitution should operate in a fixed and generally understood manner.  Otherwise, the protection of one’s rights becomes unsettled and precarious—precisely the sort of thing a constitution is devised to protect against from the self-interested majorities that Madison called “factions” and that he warned against in Federalist No. 10. 

How safe are the rights of a numerical minority if their protection is left to the interpretive whim of a mere 5-4 majority of a Supreme Court that did not consider the meaning of the Constitution as fundamentally fixed? 

You mentioned Ellison’s belief that black Americans had the unique duty of reminding white Americans of our highest ideals by demanding a closer relationship between our assertions and our actions as a society. Is this duty still relevant today? If so, how? 

 In Ellison’s day, his remark reflected the historical role that blacks played in keeping American principles at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness in the struggle for social and political progress.  They were not alone in doing so, but had every reason to attend to this civic duty insofar as they had not yet received the full or equal protection of the law.  As Frederick Douglass once declared, “He who would be free must strike the first blow!”  If blacks did not fight for their rights, one would be hard pressed to expect anyone else to make this an urgent priority. 

If Ellison were alive today, I wonder if he would think that black Americans, either individually or collectively (e.g., the leadership of the NAACP), continued to play this role in the 21st century.  It would all depend on whether they continued to respect the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as containing, to borrow from Bill Clinton’s First Inaugural Address, all that was right in order to cure or fix what was wrong with America.  To the extent that blacks or anyone else believed that the founders’ ideals or political structures were deficient, e.g., simply beholden to perpetuating the claims of slaveholders, then it’s unlikely they would champion an adherence to the Constitution or the principles found in the Declaration to promote progress in the struggle for equal rights.

To take just one recent example, #blacklivesmatter seeks some laudable goals (like the elimination of police brutality, especially against black youth), but at times does so in a manner that undermines the very rule of law they claim to seek on behalf of black lives.  To disrupt the ordinary lives of everyday citizens by loudly marching through university libraries, physically barricading busy highways and downtown intersections, or rudely interrupting visiting college speakers (aka “the heckler’s veto”) undermines the orderly processes that typically lend themselves to a rational discussion of the best measures to pursue progress. 

Moreover, when a group like the BYP100 proclaims they are “unapologetically black,” they imply a racially-minded means to secure ends that are inconsistent with principles that inhere not in the race of individuals but their humanity.  In short, they appear to make race a more fundamental part of their identity than their humanity, i.e., what they share in common with all other individuals.  This likens to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which rejected the principles of the American founding.  Both Ellison and Douglass thought this way of thinking was the method of their white supremacist enemies (i.e., color prejudice), and therefore a non-starter in terms of promoting progress in a country founded on the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal.”

You briefly brought up Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream…” speech in which he famously remarks, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In our age of increased sensitivity to identity are we moving closer to this ideal or further from it?

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, King’s own rhetorical neglect of this aspect of his dream may have inadvertently led to the promotion of what today is termed “identity politics.”  Prof. William B. Allen (now emeritus dean of Michigan State University and Villanova University) has pointed out that in the later phase of King’s public career, he emphasized not the character of black Americans but their status as victims of white oppression as the lens through which to understand the prospects for progress.  It was as if King forgot the key to his own success as a black man in America. 

This emphasis upon black victimization not only reinforces the myth of white supremacy but also leads to the conclusion that such a profound disability among blacks in general can only be overcome by the radical and systematic restructuring of the economic and political systems in the U.S.  I would add, borrowing from Ralph Ellison, that is also leads people to privilege race over other aspects of one’s identity. 

Race is but one element of each person’s identity, and one that as far as we know contributes nothing to one’s ability to maximize one’s potential as a human being.  Has race been an impediment to the prosperity of some Americans, given the historic color line of America? To be sure.  However, to eliminate the color line from our political practice requires that we employ principles devoid of color prejudice, whether for or against.

 Lucas Morel is a professor of politics and head of the political science department at Washington and Lee University.