Where have all the leaders gone?

Democracy and leadership are incompatible. The “democratic process” does not give value to leadership, only to popularity. 

By definition a “full” democracy would have all the electorate determining every little decision by a majority vote. Such a “full” democracy can never work. That would be closer to anarchy than anything else. In practice, therefore, most “democratic” states use the democratic process sparingly and primarily at the time of elections. The elections are meant to choose leaders who will then lead during their term in office. In between elections, decisions are generally to be taken by the anointed leaders in a limited but semi-autocratic fashion. Presidents and Prime Ministers become temporary, limited dictators or kings. But the more “democracy” that is applied, whether through parliamentary limitations or by passing the buck in a referendum, the more heads of government follow the wishes of the majority rather than lead. Street demonstrations, opinion polls, popularity polls, on-line polls, parliamentary votes and referenda are all supposed to be, and taken to be, expressions of the democratic will of the people. Increasingly heads of government are forced to “follow” the wishes of the masses rather than even trying to “lead”. The “democratic process” does not give value to leadership, only to popularity. 

Political wolves who once led the human flock have been turned into sheep.

I suspect this is because democracy and leadership are fundamentally incompatible. The greater the level of democracy that is applied, the more a titular leader is required to follow rather than to lead. Corporations know this very well. Shareholders apply democracy only at shareholder meetings. And here they choose their leaders who become dictators for a time. Operations are autocratic and are only democratic as an “act of benevolence”. When the shareholders are not satisfied, they change the dictator but they rarely interfere with the exercise of his authority.

Looking at the titular leaders of the democratic countries today, there is not a leader of any stature anywhere in sight. I take a political leader to be someone with a vision of where he wants to take his country and his people, and who creates the path for doing so. Countries with proportional representation are – inherently – no longer capable of producing a leader of that school. They throw up administrators and conciliators who can compromise between different factions but whose time horizon is only up to the next election. They are congenitally incapable of leading, of creating a path to a new condition that they can envision and communicate. Most European countries now fall into this category. Countries with two party systems can, in theory, produce a political leader who can be a king for his term. In practice they too are constrained by their parliaments and “popularity ratings”.

Among the current bunch the closest to being a leader is Angela Merkel. There is not another “leader” in all of Europe. The democratic limitations have been further compounded by the extra layers of bureaucracy in Brussels, the European Parliament and the European Courts. The EU is not a place to look for leaders any more. Barack Obama could have been a leader but he has been too risk-averse (a euphemism for scared) to lead. Hillary Clinton is an administrator who would not recognise a vision if it was handed to her. Donald Trump is a maverick and there is just a faint chance that he could turn into a leader, though it is highly unlikely. Trudeau in Canada has just won a popularity contest and will not challenge the conventional wisdom of the masses. China has a head of political party who seems to be losing control of even his own party. Narendra Modi in India is too busy with collecting frequent flyer points and PR to have time to lead. I don’t count Putin who is a straight dictator without too much pretense of being democratic. (But he is allowed to, and he does lead.)

Democracy is fundamentally incompatible with leadership. A “full” democracy needs no leaders to make any decisions – only followers to do as they are told to by the majority. My thesis is that there is a balance to be found between democratic principles and operational authoritarianism.  You can well apply democratic principles when choosing heads of government. But democracy has to be suspended when providing authority to such heads of government; at least during their time in office and perhaps with some other safeguards. But these chosen heads have to be given the room to become, or grow to become, leaders – if they can.  Right now the authority of the chosen heads is so curtailed that they have little chance to be leaders.

I suspect we do need leaders. But they will not appear until the balance is redressed and we recreate the space within which political leaders can exist and operate.



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