Staking Out the Past

There’s an interesting, and what could be considered nonpolitical, thing happening on the Republican side of the presidential campaign: the five front runners have all invoked the ghost of Ronald Reagan to promote the legitimacy of their campaigns. Why is this important? For now, ignore the contradiction of them claiming to be candidates of change and consider this: these presidential hopefuls are equating themselves to the past. What would happen if a business positioned itself as the standard bearer for a company long past its prime?

The past is where it’s at for a reason. Ideally, we learn from the past and make plans for the future that apply those lessons. However, I don’t think you’ve actually applied a lesson if you’re claiming to be the modern day incarnation of the past. The issues and problems of 20+ years ago are not the exact ones either a business or a country faces today. Any time I hear someone positioning him or herself in relation to the past, I start to wonder.

For example, what would you think of a company that claims the title of today’s Enron? Ludicrous, right? But that’s exactly what happens in politics. The politicians hope we forget Iran-Contra, the Bay of Pigs, the Gulf of Tonkin, and Watergate when they invoke political leaders from the past. It’s one of the few industries that subscribes to the ignorance theory: if I ignore it, maybe everyone else will, too.

In the business world, consumers and investors have longer memories. We’d never touch a company claiming to be the new Enron. In fact, companies associated with bad events or issues change their names (e.g., Arthur Anderson becomes Accenture, Amway becomes Quixtar, Philip Morris becomes Altria, etc.). We challenge this practice more in the business world (still not as much as I think we should), but we swoon for politicians when they throw out Kennedy, Reagan, et. al., as the leaders who molded their beliefs, as their modern-day heirs.

The next time you hear anyone—in business or in politics—lay claim to the past as some heir apparent, raise both eyebrows. I don’t want an immortal Regan as president nor do I want the next Ken Lay running the company where I own stock. I want individuals who are grounded in today’s world, students of the past, but with an understanding that the future will likely hold new challenges. Those leaders are the individuals of change we desperately need in this world—not the people busy trying to reclaim the past.



2 Responses to “Staking Out the Past”

  1. January 16, 2008 at 9:40 am

    According to one of my professors, humans do not have the capacity to remember pain. If we did, we would have been natural-selected out of existence because no woman would have had more than one child if she remembered the pain of childbirth.

    So we look to the past and remember the good things about our previous leaders. Their qualities (not their shortcomings), their big deeds (not their failures) and in Regan’s case “are you better off now than you were x years ago?”.

    And that is the rub – they are all looking to validate their potential against the known quantity of “that guy”.

    I would rather find the candidate (Dem or Rep) who has the guts to say “President X is what we needed then. I am the President this country needs now.”

    More honesty, less advertising. 🙂

  2. 2 Britt
    January 16, 2008 at 9:53 am

    @Sean: More honesty, less advertising would be wonderful for voters, much more painful for the politicians. I think you make a great connection with this idea that they want validation of their potential. It’s not enough for their individual pasts and actions to represent them. Instead, they must find a measuring stick to compare against, hoping that we are more fond of the good things about the stick than angry about the bad.

    And like labor, I think we do a good job of blocking out what happens from one campaign to the next. Otherwise, I’m not sure democracy would last.

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January 2008
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