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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Notes on populists and political leaders

A number of forces have combined to open up a gap in political representation which populist parties are vying to fill. A more constructive response to this problem requires a reconceptualisation of political leadership.

Contemporary political leaders are under sustained pressure across advanced democracies. They are attacked as 'out of touch' elites, inauthentic centrists who are 'all the same', or ineffectual cyphers for global forces beyond their control. Populist parties with charismatic leaders increasingly claim the mantra of authenticity and popular representation, eschewing responsible government. The era of the 'transformative leader', if it ever existed, looks long gone.

What accounts for these pressures on contemporary political leaders? Are we witnessing an 'end to power', as Moises Naim argued in a recent book? Is it simply harder to govern and lead in an age of wealthier, demanding, and instantaneously networked populations? Or has democratic power become harder to exercise because financialisation and globalisation have deprived nation states of the ability to improve the living standards and welfare of their voters, while enabling economic elites to colonise political power – or indeed because welfare capitalism and democracy are increasingly incompatible, as Wolfgang Streeck has argued? Have we entered a post-democratic age in which politicians are simply left 'ruling the void'?

In a recent lecture on Max Weber's famous lecture 'Politics as a Vocation', I traced some of the forces at work here. The decline of mass political parties and the weakening of social class as an organising principle in politics has fragmented electorates, making it harder for political leaders to form stable governments. Elected politicians' room for manoeuvre has also declined, as fiscal constraints and inherited spending commitments, combined with the mobility of capital, make tax and spending options more limited. Supranational obligations – to regional units like the EU and international bodies like the WTO – have also multiplied, further constraining the space for discretionary action, while the financial markets loom over everything. Responsible politicians increasingly 'represent government to the people' rather than the other way round, as the late Peter Mair put it.* Populists then step into the representative gap.

Different responses to these trends can be discerned. One is for political leaders to embrace populist sentiment, and draw populist forces into governing coalitions or to govern in a populist register from a core base. This can be seen in different ways in North America, in the ideological right-wing populism of Stephen Harper's government and the influence of the Tea Party on Republican congressional leaders, to the authoritarian nationalism seen in some EU countries such as Hungary. A more subtle variant of this response is to intensify ideological leadership in key areas of policy, cutting out traditional models of civil service policy advice and implementation in favour of conviction-led, inner-circle policymaking. 

Another is for political leaders to seek to reinvent political parties and forms of mass engagement in political processes, through methods such as primaries, community organising and semi-permanent grassroots campaigns. Here the strategy is to restore the organic authenticity of political leaders and collapse the distance between elites and electorates. Centre-left parties have typically chosen this path in recent years, leavening it with elements of anti-banker, anti-big-business populist rhetoric. At its most expansive and Gramscian, this approach tries to engage in cultural, as well as political, hegemony, by developing discourses and practices than engage with the formation of national identities and common cultures. But this is also terrain into which the left has historically feared to tread, and where its political instincts and armoury are weakest.

A third response is to try to insulate policy from short-term populist pressures by depoliticising government and policymaking – particularly by shifting power in key areas like monetary policy, competition and takeover law or climate change target-stetting to technocratic expert bodies or committees. In crisis mode, this may also involve wholesale shifts in power to supranational forms of governance, such as the Troika in the Eurozone. Here, governing capabilities are preserved at the expense of democracy. 

A final response is to disperse power and reconfigure the state: empowering city leaders and others at a sub-national level in order to overcome gridlock and incapacity in national government; drawing civil society movements into new articulations of shared power with political leaders; and shifting away from centralised, new public management 'delivery state' models and towards more participatory and relational forms of public service administration. These are relatively new developments, although they often involve the rediscovery of older democratic political traditions.

Each of these responses points towards different ways in which political leadership is being reconceptualised. Do they offer plausible strategies for overcoming the crises of political leadership in contemporary democracies? Or is more fundamental economic and societal transformation required? How these questions are answered will be just as important to the fate of populist parties like Ukip as their own electoral and political strategies.


* Jan-Werner Muller captures very well the sophistication and originality in Mair's thinking in this new piece for the LRBhttp://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n10/jan-werner-muller/the-partys-over [^back]