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.”