Leadership in Liberal Democracies I – In Shambles

Israel’s governing coalition collapsed yesterday – primarily though not exclusively because of corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This means that on March 23rd Israelis will have no less than their fourth national election in two years.

Great Britain meanwhile is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Though he is to blame only in part, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not exactly distinguished himself during his eighteen months in office. Bad luck to have to manage a once-in-a-century pandemic. More bad luck to have to manage a once-in-a-century self-inflicted wound – Brexit. Still, Johnson’s leadership has been pockmarked by vacillation and vainglory. Notwithstanding the 11th hour deal on Brexit between the United Kingdom and the European Union, Johnson remains under assault.

France is another liberal democracy in which the leader has struggled. In this case President Emmanuel Macron, who only a few years ago was hailed as a leader for our times: young and attractive, whip smart and broadly educated, widely experienced and, especially, a bridge-builder between the deeply entrenched French left and the hardcore French right. But the system has chewed him up too. Among his many headaches his battle against Islamic extremism: it has pushed him further to the right than anyone, likely including Macron himself, anticipated.        

Germany has been, under the near-exemplary 15-year leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, an exception to the general rule. It has been a bastion of good leadership in a liberal democracy during an era in which such a feat was becoming alarmingly anomalous. However, in less than a year she will have vacated her post. And even she will bestow on her successor a major problem: a resurgence of far-right extremism that is “horrifying a country” that has prided itself on dealing honestly with its murderous past.*

About the United States under President Donald Trump there is little that has not already been said – including by me. Suffice to say here that his leadership continues even during his waning days in office to be catastrophically bad. The likelihood that he will have survived four full years in the White House is testimony then not only to the fact that leadership in liberal democracies is under stress – but also to the fact that we have no idea whatsoever what to do about it.

Bad leadership and followership remain a social disease for which we have no cure. Good leadership and followership in liberal democracies remain a challenge the mid-twentieth-first century has yet to meet.

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*New York Times, December 21, 2020

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