Follow the Leader

Democracy and the rise of the strongman – a Quarterly Essay extract
Internationally, Donald Trump seems to embody our very conflicting expectations and frustrations when it comes to leaders. We are as alarmed by the apparent powerlessness of American institutions to contain or direct him as we are by the erratic ignorance and nastiness of his actions. Yet a grudging respect sometimes sneaks into discussion of his actions. “Look,” a political friend says one day in early 2018, when Trump has appeared to achieve a breakthrough on North Korea, but is also embroiled in a scandal about a payment to a porn star, “I abhor everything Trump stands for. He is an oaf. But you have to say this for him: when he is attacked, he doesn’t back down, he doubles down.” But leadership is, and should be seen as, more than simply a preparedness to “crash through or crash” or “not blink.” It should be defined as a capacity to lead a community to accept change – even if that change is not a change for the better.

Paul Keating is often cited as an example of a true leader because of his “crash or crash through” style, yet the former prime minister would always say, “You have to bring the mob with you.” He saw his job as setting the direction and then persuading enough people that he was right to enable him to follow that path.

Political leadership should be about building a consensus for change, giving people a map to follow, and bringing together different parties to achieve an outcome. Instead, discussion of leadership becomes about the machismo of individuals taking on the mob. There is something inherently undemocratic about this. It leads to a yearning for autocracy, and whether Americans realise or acknowledge it, they have given themselves someone who acts exactly like an autocrat whenever he is dealing with an issue on which he cannot be constrained by Congress.

The unresolved debate about leaders and the mob goes right back to Plato. But we don’t seem to recognise that right now we are at one of those points in the never-ending debate where the struggle is particularly confused. The push and pull factors seem out of balance. Voters are disillusioned with people in positions of political leadership because they don’t think they are being heard: disillusioned enough to become disengaged from politics or even to lose faith in democracy completely.

The result in democracies can vary. One outcome is a leader who relies almost solely on the good opinion of the people. That goodwill was once only tested at elections. Opinion polls have now made the test a continual one.

Another outcome is that leaders are marked down who are perceived to have failed to get past the institutions of democracy – Congress in the United States, the Senate here – to express the popular will; or alternatively, who win plaudits for bypassing or bludgeoning the system. Throughout his prime ministership, we saw Malcolm Turnbull regularly criticised for not taking on his own party, or the parliament, on policy from climate change to same-sex marriage. Yet bludgeoning the democratic institutions is exactly, in extremis, what leaders whom we might not rate highly have done. We are right to criticise Turnbull for failing to persuade his party or the parliament on an issue. But is it right to criticise him for failing to bypass them? I don’t think so.

The former Australian ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley correctly warned in mid 2016 – when not a lot of other people were doing so – that we should not complacently presume that Donald Trump would not win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, nor that he would not win the presidency. But Beazley’s most interesting observation was that no one should presume that the congressional block that had bedevilled previous presidencies would necessarily stand in the way of Trump. That was because Congress could only stop presidents doing things. When presidents were trying to undo things, Congress was next to powerless.

As Opposition leader in Australia, Abbott gave the “undoing” stream of politics a good run. But in our system, it turned out that undoing things is often harder than it seems to be in the United States.

These observations lead us inevitably to a third outcome of the system being out of balance: voters seek leaders who seem strong and who advance black-and-white propositions and have the will to pursue them, even though that means not listening to what voters are saying. The normal order of things in a democracy would see a leader strike out on a particular policy path, advocate for it, and – they hope – win sufficient acceptance that enough of the people will follow them.

In normal times, there was also sometimes a clear-eyed recognition that people weren’t following, or were rejecting where you were heading. One aspect of true leadership requires conceding that you were wrong to start with, or that circumstances have changed enough to make what was once a correct formula wrong. How often does that happen? Is that just because leaders won’t admit that they were wrong? Or because they feel this would be political suicide? What tolerance do we have for leaders who admit that they were wrong? What space do we give them?

The shallowness of a discussion that simply equates leadership with the assertive personalities of our political leaders is only further confused by a failure to distinguish between leadership and political success. Political success implies popularity, whereas leadership often involves doing things that are not popular. Think about the expectation that underlies this trend of personality: the implication is that the fate of the nation rests entirely in the hands of one individual. That implies that if you change the national leader, you change the country – itself a twisting of the old adage that if you change the government, you change the country. The link between leadership and political success reveals itself most regularly in our obsession with opinion polls: yet a leader’s rating is a measure of political success, not leadership. Edmund Burke famously said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Leadership often involves widely unpopular decisions. Sure, if the leader can’t eventually persuade people that the unpopular decisions are the right ones, he or she will suffer the electoral consequences. The eventual end of John Howard’s prime ministership is generally linked to his pushing industrial relations reform with the wildly unpopular WorkChoices.

But he had also made other decisions that were unpopular, including to send more troops to Iraq in 2005. The Abbott/Hockey Budget of 2014 contained an array of unpopular decisions, which were presented as acts of tough leadership. But they were decisions that either explicitly broke election promises or which had not been foreshadowed. They involved a significant rewriting of people’s understanding of the role of government: unemployment benefits would not be available to anyone until the age of twenty-five; a co-payment for visiting bulk-billing doctors shook the electorate’s faith in the Coalition’s support for Medicare; $80 billion was going to be slashed from health and education through cuts to the states. These are examples of decisions that might have involved the leadership quality of bravery, but not necessarily good political judgment, and certainly not the skills to bring people with you. They are not decisions that you would put in the category of great political success.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were able to push through a range of unpopular economic decisions, from removing tariffs that protected industry to restraining wages in a centralised arbitration system, despite resistance from some in their own party and from those who were affected by the decisions. They could do this because, in the first round of the debate, they found voices in support of the decisions within business and the media and, in the second round, they persuaded enough voters that the moves were in the long-term interest of the country, even if they came at a short-term cost.

Equally, a leader might enjoy great poll ratings – on the back of leadership cowardice in the form of policies that seek no greater outcome than to lock in the support of voters. This is where we enter the territory of populism.

There is also a swathe of policies, both good and bad, for which leaders often prefer not to take any “leadership” credit. Immigration is the classic, persistent example in Australia. Immigration has never stopped since white settlement and only escalated after World War Two. But it is not and has never been popular policy. Few political leaders today are prepared to champion the record-high levels of immigration of the past couple of decades, instead emphasising that these are driven heavily by markets and highlighting the areas where they themselves have stopped or slowed immigration. Other politicians have emerged to criticise immigration.

In January 2015, Turnbull, as communications minister, talked about policy leadership in a speech at the US–Australia dialogue.

Many would add it means taking unpopular decisions. I would rephrase that by saying it means taking decisions which may not be popular but will be accepted because the public understands why they have to be taken.

Leaders must be decision-makers, but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the government cannot solve every problem.

Later that same year, he gave two reasons why he should replace Tony Abbott as Liberal leader and prime minister. The first was that Abbott didn’t have, and wasn’t selling, a coherent strategy, particularly on economic matters. The second was that opinion polls relentlessly showed that Abbott had lost voters’ confidence. It says much that the second point is raised much more than the first in assessments of Turnbull’s time as prime minister.

The shortcomings of linking leadership and political success are ultimately exposed by the evidence that even four prime ministers in five years hasn’t wildly changed the nature of our country – except perhaps to make us feel less settled about its outlook. We find ourselves in a position where we look with horror at the rise of the strongman in other countries, yet were unhappy with a prime minister who would not take a stand at home.

We judge political leaders by their popularity rather than their ideas. And we seem to have little tolerance for the details of new policy – wherever they come from.