Sunday, June 7, 2020

charisma and men of destiny

One of the consequence of democracy and mass media is that you often end up with charismatic political leaders - leaders whose success in gaining and retaining power is based almost entirely on their charisma. Mass media is probably the main factor here - in the 20th century both democratic leaders and dictators tended to be charismatic. In fact in the 20th century if you wanted to be a dictator if was fairly essential to have an ability to make use of, and to manipulate, mass media.

Whether charismatic political leaders are a good thing is another matter. We’ve had our share in Australia. Whitlam, Hawke and Keating come to mind. They’re leaders who have their admirers but on balance as leaders they were mixed blessings to say the least.

In Britain Wilson, Thatcher, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson seem like obvious examples. Again in practice they’ve been leaders whose legacies have been a mixed bag (of course we don’t yet know what Boris Johnson’s political legacy will be). In the US JFK, Reagan, Bill Clinton, Obama and Trump have had plenty of charisma.

A side-effect of all this is that you’re likely to get leaders who either see themselves or are seen by others as Men of Destiny. Charismatic leaders and Men of Destiny are not necessarily one and the same thing (I don’t think anyone would describe Bill Clinton as a Man of Destiny) but there is a substantial overlap.

Looking at the track record of Men of Destiny over the past hundred years I’m not at all sure that I want any more of that particular breed. I think there’s a lot to be said for having quietly competent leaders although I must admit I can’t think of too many examples of recent western political leaders who could be described as competent, quiet or otherwise.

Democracy produces leaders who are good at getting elected rather than being good at governing.

Maybe the 21st century will produce a bumper crop of both charismatic leaders and Men of Destiny. I certainly hope not, but I fear that it will be so.

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