Leadership in an age of populism…

I have to check myself when I think about our current political discourse, lest I sink into despair.

The problem is that this kind of thinking might just play right into the hands of the populists.

We are living in a time when we seem to be surrounded by complex insurmountable problems that traditional politics offers little obvious hope of solving.

Some of these problems are real (climate change, mass extinction of species and rampant inequality both within and between countries) but these tend to be minimised in the media because dealing with them means confronting the most powerful vested interests and lobby organisations on the planet. If you try to take on this kind of power, it can get ugly very quickly.

You could argue that the powerful were in trouble for a moment or two; the global economic downturn lifted the curtain on the operation of international capital. There might have been a whiff of revolution in the air, if not for the fact that the narrative was so effectively managed and austerity was applied brutally, in a way that punished none of the excesses of the rich, but made victims of the feckless poor.

Two tactics have been long been used by those in power to manage those of us who form the masses; distraction and fear. It is hardly surprising then to know that millions have been spent over the past decades to achieve both. Follow the money pouring in to think tanks and right wing media outlets and ask again whose needs are being served. Except you will struggle, because these same organisations go to extraordinary lengths to stop us finding out. Check out this article for example.

Deliberately or not, this too plays right into the hands of the populists.

What is needed, we start to think, is a STRONG leader. Someone who can shake things up. Someone who can drain the swamp. Even if that leader is impetuous, quick to anger, thin skinned, constantly lying, brazen, vulgar and with an almost unbelievably grandiose sense of self and his own accomplishments because at least he is STRONG.

What is needed, we start to think, is a leader of character. Someone who can tell it like it is, who has no truck with slick, well spun political correctness. It helps of course that our politics has been successfully detached from ethics, or from objective truth or scientific research. This leaves room for loud opinions of the sort that might once have been heard in the corner of the pubs we no longer go to (because we are busy watching 24 hour ‘news’ channels.) We hold our leaders to account for their entertainment value, not their policies.

What is needed, we start to think, is someone who is from our tribe- someone who will fight for us, who will make US great again. Someone who will drive away the others- those who are massing at our borders trying to take away what is ours.So our whole politics becomes tribal- we stick with what we know through think and thin, because that is what tribes do. Those from other tribe are the enemy, after all.

How do you combat this kind of leadership?

Cas Mudde, writing in the Guardian, suggested 4 ways for liberal parties to respond to populism;

  1. A return to inclusive, not exclusive policies- ways of delivering benefits to all, not just the few.
  2. People’s forums, citizens assemblies etc. whould be embedded into the decision making process
  3. Social media outlets should be regulated and held accountable for misinformation, and the ‘megaphone’ they give populists.
  4. Unity of centrists- establishing and maintaining the politics of common good. Avoiding the division that so often hands power to the loudest voice.

But- what about leadership? If we don’t want the Trump or the Farage, what DO we want? What do we need?

Corbyn in the UK has flirted with a kind of populism. He too has a power base in the grass roots of his party, and his message has flourished through social media, but has been largely shunned by the main media outlets. It seems however that whatever momentum he was gathering has stalled for now at least, derailed by the binary economics of Brexit. Perhaps it is time for him to consider a new kind of…

…O sod it all. I don’t care about strategy. Show me a leader with integrity. I want my leader to believe in something, I want him/her to start for a position of integrity. I want my leader to be brave in his or her pursuit of social justice and peace. I want them to care deeply about things much more than their own political success.

Sure leadership has to be about communicating those ideas, but I refuse to believe that the selling is more important than the product.

But then again, I am no leader.

1 thought on “Leadership in an age of populism…

  1. Pingback: Klopp, the ‘normal’ leader… | this fragile tent

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