the myth of strong leadership



The ghosts of my tv watching youth drift through Youtube (downloaded by an ever nostalgic cohort of boomers) and are channeled through Adam’s video preferences. Thus, Charlie Brown tv specials have suddenly resurrected themselves in my life’s path, the catchy tune, the World War I flying ace, the security blanket, those voices – Lucy’s spectrum between cattily flirtatious to Charlie Brown’s clear as tapwater voice of reasoning and despair.
In one of these things, Charlie Brown goes to summer camp. He lists his hopes for summer camp, and they include “learning leadership skills”.

Ah, leadership! The ethos of my cub scout troop, the unexamined virtue we were all taught to revere: there was no merit badge for dissent, that’s for sure. Leadership skills were amply rewarded, or at least verbally praised.
In today’s Le Monde there is an interview with a political philosopher, who was asked to comment about a recent speech by Sarkozy in which he remarked that democracy destroys leadership. The response was along the lines of democracy is good! But – to quote a Flannery O’Connor character – that don’t satisfy me none. It is not that Sarkozy is making a deep point – he is a shallow man, and his points will always be shallow. This one just expresses that long longing for a strong tinpot dictator that has always moved the French right, whether for Boulanger in the 1880s or Poujade in the 1950s.
But the point can be deepened. The argument would go like this: when the foundations of democracy were laid, in the 18th century, the model was the ancient Roman Republic. That Republic was a colonialist, warmongering and slaveholding polity, and its most characteristic leaders were military men. This model of Republican virtue was translated into the early democratic view of leadership. The leader was strong. He – always he – unified the nation in the way a general unifies an army. In this view, then, the voice of the governed was really about finding that strong leader, and following.
Yet the idea that the governed rule, in some way, does come into conflict with the idea of the strong leader. There is a tension there that has not been resolved; instead, it has been sublimated or wished away. Meanwhile, the cultural life of this proto-fascist vision of leadership is all around us, from cub scouts to business inspirational meetings. Division and dissent is bad. Bipartisanship, meaning conformity to some leadership policy, is a virtue.
If one discards this model, what is left? What would a real democratic form of leadership look like?
This is a good question to ask now, as the democratic moment – which I would define as that moment that gathered force with women’s suffrage, pulsed through the fifties and sixties with various civil rights movements and class based organizations, and started going into decline in the 80s – wanes. I suspect the demi-democracies before the mid-twentieth century and the plutocracies that have been thrust on us now relied on a notion of leadership that was, really, counter to the democratic impulse – that was connected, very much, with the subordination of women, class hierarchy, racism, and homophobia. And in spite of the achievements of dismantling these counter-democratic patterns, we still have a Pavlovian response to “strong leadership”.
I never got a merit badge in leadership. But I was always a smartass, anyway.
In other words: learn to dissent, Charlie Brown!


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