What People Get Wrong About ‘Political Will’

It’s not some innate quality -- good leaders must create it.

At a recent Governing roundtable, I heard once again that the failure to act on a serious public problem was due to a lack of “political will.” Hearing this from people who are wise and good public officials always leaves me a little annoyed. I agree with David Roberts of Vox, who wrote, “To me, it has always sounded like the political equivalent of the Force in the Star Wars movies. It explains everything and nothing.”

When you hear a public official or pundit say that the reason this or that desirable thing cannot be done is because of a lack of political will, what you are actually hearing is that person blaming other people’s moral failings. This is born of a lack of insight and analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines political will as “the firm intention or commitment of a government to carry through a policy, especially one that is not immediately successful or popular.” Political will is not some kind of immutable and innate personal quality. It is not the same as political courage or conviction. It is a deliberate social construct, and every positive advance of public policy rests upon its successful creation.

As the Oxford definition suggests, issues that require political will are ones that are not easily resolved. What is required for success is the creation of ever-broader coalitions. There will be opposition and conflict. The status quo is what it is because of powerful interests, and, as Frederick Douglass said, change always requires struggle because “power concedes nothing without a demand.” The best way to manage that conflict is, paradoxically, to stop fighting. That is, to stop responding to and vilifying the intransigents on the other side. Instead, build a narrative that embraces the values of the majority of folks who are not unalterably committed to either side. What is needed is not moderation or even necessarily compromise, but effective stories that appeal to widely held beliefs about ourselves. Despite the terrible rhetoric we hear all the time, we have far more in common than is widely believed.

Few people in public life have been better at creating political will than President Lyndon B. Johnson. Notice how, in his address to Congress advocating passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he focused on our interconnectedness. While his objective was to secure the voting rights of African-Americans, he did not frame the problem that way. What he said was, “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans -- not as Democrats or Republicans -- we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

Rather than expressing dismay or scorn or outrage over the way the political system works, people who actually want to effect change need to learn how to use that system. As LBJ understood so well, they need to learn to create political will.

Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City
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