Thinking the Unthinkable

Presidential candidates find their past comments and subject for review and discussion.

One quote likely to raise eyebrows came from Rick Perry when he quipped that Texans were “thinking about secession.” For many people, the idea of electing a person who has even joked about such a thing is unthinkable. That is a reasonable argument. Why would we want someone as President who is not serious about keeping the U.S. united?

But there could be another way of looking at it. Is it wise to have as President someone who considers secession or even revolution unthinkable?

History has shown that revolutions are unthinkable the day before they happen. Afterwards they are seen as inevitable.

A few months ago, a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating was unthinkable. Continuous nightly riots in the U.K. were unthinkable and the Euro was assumed to be stable. We live in an age where the unthinkable happens all too frequently.

In a recent article at, George Friedman talks about the concurrent financial and political crises facing leaders around the world. These joint crises are happening in the United States, Europe and even in China.

The U.S. subprime crisis started as an economic problem. The public saw the leadership in Washington and Wall Street protecting each other. None of the guilty, in either location, has been punished. This has added to a political crisis which has been forming for decades.

Starting in 1950, the United States and Europe have experienced a remarkable period of financial growth. Flush with cash, political leaders could make ever expanding promises. But for years, there have been warnings of excess. During the 1970’s Congress was regularly increasing Social Security benefits without charging the extra rates needed to pay for it.

The political leadership of the United States has increasingly adopted the view that they could lead the public where it didn’t necessarily want to go and the public would eventually follow. We’ve had vast social revolutions.

Many voters have wondered about the wisdom of some of these policies. Their concerns could be easily disregarded because, as long as the economy was doing well, there was a willingness to go along despite the doubts.

Now everything is in question. With their finances and livelihood at risk, people are ready and willing to be more critical of their leaders. The public is looking for answers and realizing that the people who have been trusted, or allowed, to give the answers have put us in a financial and political jam.

The increasing disconnect between the leaders and the public is shown in all types of recent polls. The President’s approval is down and Congressional approval is at record lows. Consumer confidence is remarkably low and “right track-wrong track” numbers are incredibly bad. Former Jimmy Carter pollster Pat Cadell has been saying since before the 2010 elections that the mood of the public is “pre-revolutionary.”

The economy can no longer support our promises and commitments. Some look to cut back on the role and cost of the military. Others want to cut safety-net or entitlement programs. Any broken promise will cause harm and upset. The recent problems in the debt-limit controversy are only the beginning.

In periods like this, effective leadership requires a clear understanding of the risks and the serious negative possibilities.  Secession may not be the worst possible outcome. A peaceful secession might be better than a bloody revolution.

It is generally conceded that President Obama lacks President Clinton’s ability to show that he can “feel our pain.” The President may well understand the anger and the risks. It is reasonable for a sitting President to avoid speaking of “revolution” or “secession.” On the other hand, there has been no noticeable change in direction or emphasis on his part, no apparent urgency in his efforts to turn things around.

How many more “unthinkable” things are going to happen? We don’t need leaders who tell us all their “unthinkable” scenarios, but it would be reassuring to know that they are considering, and working to prevent, those things we don’t want to think about.

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