Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Not leaders



As soon as I saw the Notre Dame graduates walking out of their own commencement ceremony as Vice President Mike Pence began to speak, I thought, "Oh no, here we go again." Sure, enough, the online comment sections erupted with the same types of criticism heard earlier this month when Bethune-Cookman graduates turned around and booed when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos began to speak: The students are disrespectful; their parents raised them wrong, they are special snowflakes who need a safe space; and even a few about the students needing a "whoopin'."

These commenters have it all wrong. This is not about respect and sensitivity and bad parenting. It is about young men and women standing up and speaking out. Pence and DeVos themselves support policies or have been complicit (there's the word of the year) while others support policies that directly harm those who traditionally have had little say in government. It is the same argument I made after Sen. Tom Cotton's town hall when people lost their minds that those in the audience would dare boo or question him. As many would like to argue, Cotton was not the guest. He and other elected officials who show up to meet with constituents aren't doing us a favor. We have to get that idea out of our heads. The quicker the better.

I saw a graphic online earlier this week that said something about elected officials not being our leaders. I couldn't agree more. Sure, we look to them to inspire us at times and take the lead in difficult situations. But they are not our leaders per se. They are elected to wield our power. Lately, it feels as if their power reigns supreme. The world is upside down.

I'm not sure how we got to this point. Is it because so many of us, especially in the South, were taught every Sunday that as Christ is the head of the church, man is the head of woman? Do we as a people collectively feel as if we need strong leaders? There was much talk of authoritarianism and voting patterns this past election. It seems odd that so many of those who have spent so much time preaching against big government now criticize young people, women, people of color, disability advocates, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants as disrespectful when they dare speak out. Would it be different if instead of actions or words, they spoke out with money?

Maybe. This week I took a look at some of the recent financial disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. I felt sick. Now, I'm just mad. I'm not naive. I know there is big money in politics, but to see that Reps. Steve Womack, Bruce Westerman and French Hill all received donations from Speaker Paul Ryan's Prosperity Action PAC in the same month as the first scheduled vote on Ryan's draconian health care bill just about sent me over the edge. Don't even get me started on the donors to Ryan's PAC (hint: They will likely benefit from the tax cuts and increased health care costs).

I don't know how to turn the world right side up. Maybe someday we will see our elected officials as the public servants they really are and begin to elect people who aren't just looking for power (hint: Cotton) and begin to consistently elect those who truly have a servant's heart. Then maybe they will listen to real voices and not just big donors.

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