With Brexit, the rejection-by-referendum of the Columbian peace accord with FARC, the Trump win and the troubling popularity of ethno-nationalism in Europe, it is clear that liberal democracy as we have experienced it in the post-war era is facing unprecedented challenge.
In a time of 140 character policy pronouncements and of real-time reaction by anyone with a mobile device and a few seconds on their hands, the grand debates to inform the best of our societies have been marked by appeals to extremist entrenchment instead of centrist collaboration. And where the citizenry does get engaged, the troubling propensity is to do that anonymously, reactively, reflexively on-line – assuming that a ‘like’ on Facebook or a Twitter re-tweet is the fullest expression of their democratic franchise. Having stood on the digital ‘speakers box’, but without the responsibility to show their face to their peers, the engaged citizen then offers themselves self-congratulations for a job well done. This trend of substituting a ‘like’ for a thoughtful vote is what I think of as ‘drive-by democracy’.
We have allowed for the fiction that solutions are obvious, simple and plentiful – and that the challenge of democracy is to speak one’s mind, rather than to shape it. If we are, as many have observed, witnessing the failure of existing post-war elite structures, then the failure in part has been to feed and give voice to that dangerous fiction – that sense of articulated aggrievement. Instead, leaders need to demonstrate by their example that there is no absolute, single answer to anything, and that the solutions to our opportunities are as nuanced as the challenges that precede them.
We can’t look to the leadership structures that were defined by the command and control systems of European empires and two world wars, or to the 62 individuals whose net worth equals the bottom 50% of humanity. Instead, we must mobilize the ‘militant middle’ – those who do not want others to speak for them, and who, because of their accomplishment understand that their collective voice could provide the example of leadership that is today being sought by so many.
Many years ago my first year political science professor observed “for the most part and in the long run, people get the governments that they deserve”. Is that true for leadership as a whole – that we get the leaders we deserve? If thats true, what are you going to do about it?