Toward Leader Democracy

Toward Leader Democracy

by Jan Pakulski, Andras Korosenyi


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‘Toward Leader Democracy’ investigates how today’s liberal democratic regimes are increasingly moving toward a pronounced focus on political leaders and their image, and explores the mechanics, evolution and implications of this phenomenon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783080649
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 12/01/2013
Series: Key Issues in Modern Sociology Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 194
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jan Pakulski is Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

András Körösényi is Professor of Political Science at Corvinus University in Budapest, and is Director of the Institute for Political Science at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Read an Excerpt

Toward Leader Democracy

By Jan Pakulski, András Körösényi

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Jan Pakulski and András Körösényi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-771-5



Let us start with three vignettes from three key political events on three continents: the French presidential elections of 2007, the 2007 Australian federal elections, and the American presidential elections of 2008.

The May 2007 presidential elections in France broke a number of new grounds. First, both major contenders were selected – intentionally and openly – on the grounds of their popularity and mass appeal. Nicolas Sarkozy, a son of Hungarian migrants, was selected by the Gaullists for his personal appeal and his combative populist style. He was initially adored (together with his ex-model celebrity partner Carla Bruni) by the mass media. Ségolène Royal, the Socialist contender, was described as 'the sexiest political candidate' and 'conviction politician' with strong popular support, especially among women. The electoral campaign was dominated by TV debates accompanied by websites and blogs, talkbacks and ubiquitous 'hand shaking and baby kissing'. As never before, these public appearances shaped candidates' images as popular leaders. The prolonged 'American- style' personality-focused campaign attracted a record number of voters (84 per cent turnout), with Nicolas Sarkozy winning 53 per cent of votes in the second round. Sarkozy's success was widely attributed to four factors: the strength of his personality, skillfully projected through the media; the celebrity style of presentation enhanced by his flamboyant manners and glamorous wife; his capacity to transcend ideological and party divisions, combined with an emphasis on 'a new start'; and his image as a 'strong leader', 'man of action' and self-made politician who came from outside the political establishment. Sarkozy extolled the virtues of commitment, equality of opportunity and national solidarity. He overshadowed Ségolène Royal mainly by force of personality, by transcending the ideological and partisan agenda and stressing pragmatic egalitarianism. Following the election, Sarkozy enjoyed a nearly yearlong honeymoon of high popularity. But his shine started to fade in 2008. Three years on, he has lost most of the initial public support and trails in public opinion polls well behind the new opposition candidate.

In November 2007, Australian voters elected a new federal political leader – Kevin Rudd – after an 18-month-long 'marathon campaign' that focused almost entirely on the characters of the leadership contenders. His rival was a long-term incumbent and leader of the conservative Coalition, John Howard. Rudd promised a change not so much in policy directions as in leadership style. The campaign was conducted under the slogan of 'good leadership' (incumbent Howard) versus 'new leadership' (challenger Rudd), experience versus innovation, tough stance versus pragmatic flexibility. Rudd emerged as a winner by projecting an image of himself as an innovative, energetic and forceful – but also inclusive and pragmatic – technocrat. He promised to reform the Australian economy and society, promote reconciliation with indigenous Australians, and – thanks to his widely publicised expertise in Mandarin –develop Australia's regional links. John Howard was beaten badly, losing not only the majority in Parliament, but also his seat. His refusal to make space for his loyal successor (Peter Costello) made him look arrogant, and his support for the unpopular policies of American president George W. Bush was seen as out of step with the public. By contrast, Kevin Rudd enjoyed a honeymoon of popularity unparalleled in its strength, and he wrestled from his party the right to appoint all cabinet ministers. But his popularity faded rapidly and dramatically after some policy blunders and, a few months before the 2010 poll, the panic-stricken Labor Party engineered a leadership replacement by his deputy, Julia Gillard. From the very start, Gillard became the object of intense and almost exclusive media attention. She won the 2010 election by the narrowest possible margin and was forced into a coalition with independents and Greens. Her 'weak leadership' was widely criticised, and her policy initiatives were greeted with cynicism by the opposition. Gillard's approval rating subsequently declined to record lows.

The 2008 presidential campaign in the United States focused almost exclusively on the leadership contenders, Barack Obama and John McCain, and their relation to the 'Bush legacy'. After a record 22-month campaign focusing on the personalities of the main contenders, which cost a record $1.5 billion and secured near-record levels of voter turnout, Barack Obama emerged as the winner. In the final stage of the long and exhausting campaign, conducted under the shadow of the financial crisis (interpreted widely as a 'Bush legacy'), the contest moved to the digital domain, where personalised Facebook and Twitter appeals gave Obama a winning edge. In the final round, the American voters faced a choice of youthful vigour or maturity, intelligence or experience, stirring oratory or crafty argumentation, hope or fear. The image of a youthful committed reformer, a stirring orator, the first African American at the apex of political power appeared more powerful than the image of a 'safe-n-sure', 'tried but tired' heroic fighter. According to commentators, McCain's defeat resulted from his close ties to the 'Washington establishment', his age and health and, most importantly, his inability to inspire public trust. He was seen as tainted by the mistakes of the previous administration and unable to sever his links with Bush. Obama's victory was described as a triumph of a determined and charismatic leader. It generated an unprecedented sense of hope and very high, often unrealistic expectations of instantaneous change ('Yes, we can'). His political honeymoon lasted longer than the initial popularity of Sarkozy and Rudd. But three years into his first term, Obama's star has faded. A weak economy (high unemployment) and aggressive critique by the Republican opposition keep his approval ratings low. He has been accused of weakness in providing political leadership, confronting his opponents and promoting promised reforms.

* * *

These three vignettes illustrate the central theme of this book: a new and unexpected turn of 'new politics' in advanced democracies towards 'leader democracy', a type of politic, democratic regime and an elite configuration in which political leaders play a central role in providing a 'democratic linkage' between the rulers and citizenry. Leaders establish this 'linkage' by winning electoral contests in which they project a strong leadership image and prove successful in attracting mass confidence and votes. Contemporary democratic leaders win such electoral contests by appealing for support mainly through the mass media. They not only stand at the centre of public attention as personifications of democratic popular will, but also actively shape this will, mould the popular preferences, define national goals, and symbolise national aspirations. Armed with the authorisation of an electoral mandate, they also play an increasingly central role in integrating the political elite, reshaping the programmes of their parties, and redirecting national policies. If they fail to fulfil the widespread public expectation of firm leadership and determination, their popularity fades fast.

The diagnoses and anticipations of 'new politics' – variously described as 'life', 'movement', 'issue' and 'preoccupation' politics – were only partly accurate. They correctly highlighted the underlying party–voter dealignment, the waning of cleavage parties, declining ideology, and the appearance of the 'ideologically mixed categories', such as New Fiscal Populists, Progressivists, New Labourists, Neoliberals and Neoconservatives. However, they failed to identify another important 'novelty' – the ascendancy of political leaders/ reformers, celebrities and innovators as the key carriers of the new political idiom. These leaders were taking the political place of party directorates, and they declared if not a war, at least a clear dislike, towards the bureaucratic establishments.

Some elements of this trend are old and well known, some are new. Among the new is a combination of the centrality of political leaders – both as high- profile cultivators of the elite–mass linkage and as central elite figures – with a public expectation of such prominence and centrality. In order to cultivate the elite–mass linkage and to sustain public trust, successful democratic leaders have to lead, rather than merely head their governing teams. Public expectation of such firm leadership translates either into the popularity innovative leaders – those who have a strong image, 'clear vision', a reassuring plan of action and who display a will and determination to realise their plan – or popular disappointment with inadequate leadership. The latter results in a political backlash and swift withdrawal of mass support. If the elected leaders/heads start buckling under pressure, changing their minds, breaking their promises, pandering to sectional interests and following poll-driven agendas, they are dismissed as mere populists and 'weather vanes'.

When elected to the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama was hailed as a visionary reformist determined to confront the Washington 'establishment'. When his popularity waned three years later, he was accused of empty rhetoric, compromising too much and failing to fulfil the leadership expectations; as one critic put it: 'we need a good leader, not a good lawyer'. Similarly, in Australia Julia Gillard suffered a strong political backlash in 2010–11 because of what has been seen as her weak (or lacking) leadership. Her critics stress her lack of vision, lack of consistency and lack of determination.

Such disaffection is perhaps inevitable. All political leaders, especially those in democratic polities, start on a high note and end as disappointments, if not failures. Max Weber attributed this waning of mass popularity to the inevitable decline of charisma – mass devotion to leaders based on recognition of their 'gift of grace', their exceptional and highly cherished qualities. Charismatic domination is fickle and difficult to sustain. The modern 'oratory charisma' is no exception to this rule as it does not last long. Weber blamed the need for continuous 'proving' of the 'gift of grace' as the main reason for this fragility. Joseph Schumpeter attributed it to the very nature of entrepreneurial innovation – it soon 'self-exhausts' by becoming a standard expectation and 'routine'. This is why mass confidence, charismatic legitimacy and the accompanied broad support acquired during the electoral contest inevitably weaken.

This inevitable decline of public trust in leaders afflicts both democratic and nondemocratic leadership. Both are vulnerable to decline and both fall victims of opportunism, patronage and corruption. But democracy allows for regular renewals in the form of competitive electoral tests. Such tests allow for a prompt removal of leaders whose performance weakens and whose charisma wanes. Failing leaders are 'recalled' and replaced by more trusted ones, thus replenishing mass confidence and consent. This is why both Weber and Schumpeter placed their faith not only in able leaders, but also in electoral selection and in competitive pressures inherent in modern democratic procedures. This is also why they feared 'leaderless' democracy – a democracy that is 'administered' or 'headed', rather than 'led'.

This fact alone should place the 'leadership proper' firmly within the democratic theory. Yet, as we note throughout, it seldom does. Leaders – including democratically elected and 'mandated' leaders – are looked at with suspicion by most contemporary democratic theorists and many political commentators. While good leaders are highly praised, leadership is looked upon with suspicion (as a threat to democracy, rather than its essential ingredient) and is considered as a 'blind spot' in democratic theory (Kane and Patapan 2008; Kane et al. 2009), in spite of the old tradition of democratic leadership studies (Weber 1919; Bryce 1921; Schumpeter 1943; Blondel 1987).

There seems to be some good and bad reasoning behind this suspicion. The good – or at least understandable – reasons have to do with a residual fear of autocratic leaders, such as Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, who presided over the destruction of democratic (or democratising) regimes in the first half of the twentieth century. Such antidemocratic leadership left a deep legacy of fear and suspicion among theorists and lay public alike. This suspicion seems reinforced by two popular confusions: one between democratic and nondemocratic leadership; another between 'good' or successful leadership on the one hand, and solely prominent or strong leadership on the other. The first distinction seems more obvious: democratic leadership is based on mass trust acquired through open electoral competition and victory; nondemocratic leadership is not. Democratic leaders are subject to public critiques and electoral 'recalls'; nondemocratic leaders are not. Consequently, it is hard to confuse Mandela with Mugabe, or Sarkozy with Gaddafi. The second distinction is less obvious, and therefore more vulnerable to confusion. Prominent leaders – who, as argued here, are increasingly appearing in liberal- democratic regimes, and who are increasingly welcomed by the public – are not necessary 'good' or 'successful' in the sense of devising effective and successful policies and outcomes. They often fail to bring good governance (honest, transparent, effective etc.) and deliver the expected mass prosperity, political stability, national pride and individual dignity. For example, Silvio Berlusconi and George W. Bush were prominent but unsuccessful democratic leaders – and both faced the consequences of their leadership failures. But this does not mean that they failed to lead or that they ever ceased to act as prominent (even narcissistic) media performers and top executives of the state. By contrast, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Gerhard Schröder, Nelson Mandela, Bob Hawke and Lee Kuan Yew are widely regarded as examples of both prominent and successful leaders, who not only maintained a strong elite–mass linkage, but also performed well. Their policies left their nations more prosperous, stable and stronger, with enhanced senses of dignity and pride. The point we make is that 'leader democracy' can spawn prominent and successful ('good') leaders, as well as prominent and unsuccessful ('poor') leaders. It paves the way for political leadership success, as well as political leadership failures. In that respect, 'leader democracy' does not differ from other forms of democracy.

Another corollary is that we focus on a descriptive-explanatory rather than a normative model of democracy. While normative approaches, like deliberative and neoclassical models, aim to set up substantive criteria for the normative justification of democracy, 'leader democracy', applying minimalist criteria and definitions of democracy, aims at improving our understanding how democratic politics actually works (Schumpeter 1942/1987, 150, 269; Przeworski 1999, 23). In other words, this model belongs to, and is deployed within, the Weberian–Schumpeterian tradition as an empirical-descriptive account of democratic politics. It does not advocate the ideal or best form of democracy, and does not even address the perfectibility of it. Unlike deliberative and neoclassical concepts, 'leader democracy' respects and accepts the forms of representative democracy that evolved historically in modern Western nation-states, and it is sceptical about the feasibility of democracy – applied at a national level – adopting direct forms, that is, operating as self-rule by the people. The model is also more realistic in its anthropological assumptions; it does not assume, for example, that citizens are autonomous and rational in their views – the assumptions shared by the deliberative and neoclassical rivals.

'Leader democracy' might be criticised for playing down the normative aspects of democracy. However, in our view, this is more a virtue than a vice. As a principally explanatory-analytical model, 'leader democracy' does not need more normative justification than Weber and Schumpeter provide, and that we reassert. As Adam Przeworski (1999, 23, 44) notes, Schumpeter's theory articulates, though often implicitly, a minimal normative backbone for the leader-centred competitive model of democracy by arguing that: (1) it gives a peaceful method for change in leadership; (2) it ensures a right to vote, and therefore rulers who are perceived as bad rulers can be easily ousted through competitive and open elections. In addition to these two normative elements, we highlight two other Weberian (in origin) relevant aspects: (3) the advantage of decisional rationality, due to the principle of 'small numbers'; and (4) accountability and responsibility. Thus while the rival neoclassical model aims at maximising the public responsiveness of leaders, 'leader democracy' aims at maximising the responsibility and autonomy of leaders. It highlights the importance of the trust-based electoral mandate understood as a broad authorisation to rule (see Chapters 3 and 4 for more details). However, this 'minimalist' normative backbone is played down in order to keep our arguments firmly on accurate identification of current trends. We argue that the model of 'leader democracy' should be judged, above all, in terms of how closely it 'approximates' current political configurations, or in terms of its accuracy in describing contemporary democratic politics and elite structure. It offers a description, a theoretical clarification and a defence of 'leader democracy', and not necessarily an advocacy of the leader-democratic model as superior or desirable in a normative sense. We try to steer away from premature evaluations and value judgements that are often woven into discussions of democracy (which is, after all, a dominant value and ideal).


Excerpted from Toward Leader Democracy by Jan Pakulski, András Körösényi. Copyright © 2013 Jan Pakulski and András Körösényi. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures; Preface; 1. The New ‘New Politics’; 2. Theoretical Anticipations; 3. The Leader-centric Trends; 4. ‘Leader Democracy’ and Its Rivals; 5. The Future of (Leader) Democracy; 6. The Democratic Cycles; References; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘Pakulski and Körösényi highlight the utter centrality but frequently evanescent fate of celebrity-like leaders in today’s democracies. By updating and applying the theory of leader democracy set forth by Weber and Schumpeter, the book is a lasting contribution to understanding, like it or not, democracy’s top-down character.’ —John Higley, Chair of the IPSA Research Committee on Political Elites

‘This volume criticises in lively fashion current theories of the decline of participatory democracy, as well as “post-democratic” interpretations of contemporary politics, and will be a useful, engaging, provocative and controversial addition to reading on democracy, elites and contemporary politics.’ —Dr David Lane, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

‘Skilfully combining empirical and normative analysis, Körösényi and Pakulski offer a lively and compelling defence of so-called leader democracy. Those who advocate other models of democracy (deliberative, participatory, pluralist) will not be able to ignore the bold challenge posed by “Toward Leader Democracy”.’ —Professor Joseph Femia, University of Liverpool

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