Democratic Leadership

Democratic Leadership

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Democratic Leadership

The cruel irony of democracy is it allows people to select undemocratic political leaders. Far too often citizens assume any elected leader in a democracy is ipso facto democratic. They assume the political system defines the leader. Of course, this belief has some truth. Some dictators do redefine their political approach after a country’s democratization. However, even these leaders are indifferent democrats at best. Indeed, institutions can provide safeguards to constrain autocratic tendencies. Still, democratic breakdown often begins at the ballot box with the elections of an aspiring autocrat. Executive takeovers are widely recognized as “the most common form of democratic breakdown.”

At the same time, political leaders demonstrate their affinity or distaste for democracy long before a complete breakdown occurs. Moreover, some undemocratic leaders may not desire a complete breakdown of constitutional governance. Instead, they may simply weaken democratic institutions and the rule of law. Boris Johnson is an example of an undemocratic leader who did not pursue a breakdown of democracy in the United Kingdom. But he routinely set himself above the law and sought to override institutional restraints through a personalistic form of governance. Donald Trump, on the other hand, pursued a more blatant effort to overturn a free and fair election.

Democratic leaders do more than simply govern a democracy. They reinforce democratic institutions. Moreover, they continue to reform institutions as part of an ongoing process of democratization. Established democracies may survive for long periods of time under the guidance of indifferent democrats. However, democracies in hard places rely on political leaders to empower institutions even when it constrains their authority. Democratic leadership becomes extraordinarily important. As Scott Mainwaring and and Emilia Simison write, “If political actors value the rights and procedures that are defining features of democracy, democracy is more likely to survive.”

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Scott Mainwaring on Argentina and a Final Reflection on Democracy in Hard Places

Lucan Way on Ukraine. Democracy in Hard Places.

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4 thoughts on “Democratic Leadership

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  1. I’d like to hear an episode on interest groups politics, about lobbying and democracy. Since we are talking about democracy in hard places, how about asking some scholar about interest groups in developing democracies? It seems that neopluralist have a say here… I love the show!!

    1. Thanks so much! Let me see what I can do to bring that topic into the show. It’s a fascinating idea!

  2. So when is a country a democracy? Is it enough to just hold elections? Or must a democracy be responsive to the will and/or the needs of the voters? I think the latter is closer to what most people mean by a democracy.

    The way we vote with plurality voting, effectively guarantees the establishment and persistance of a two-party duopoly, only a slight improvement over a one-party monopoly. There are better alternatives, such as the system of voting used by Latvia. Adopting that system would end the two-party limitation and move us toward a real democracy.

    1. Thanks for commenting Paul. So, when is a country a democracy? That’s actually a pretty complex question that I’ve touched on in numerous blogs and expect to return to in plenty more. I will admit that it’s not enough to just have elections. But we have to be careful about linking majoritarian sentiment to democracy. Russia and China have widespread support for their leaders. Neither is a democracy. It’s not enough to do what the people want if they are not involved in the decision making process.

      I’m open to voting reforms, but way too often they focus on the symptoms rather than the deeper problems in democracy. I don’t view any single reform as a “magic bullet.”

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