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Leadership, Green Lantern Theory, and Authoritarianism

Aaron David Miller discusses leadership:

Indeed, we have a cartoonish view of leadership in which presidents or prime ministers articulate a vision and then through sheer will persuade us to buy it. That’s not how it really works.

I’m not sure that “we” all have this same view of leadership. This is usually the understanding of leadership that ideological voters and activists promote whenever their preferred policy agenda is not making sufficient progress in Congress or with the public. “If only X got out there and started leading, people would respond favorably!” In the American context, this is connected to the fawning attention many of us give to the President and a related overestimation of the influence of the Presidency on public opinion. One hears this from hawkish Republicans about Obama’s lack of “leadership” on various international issues (especially the war in Afghanistan), and some progressives have made similar complaints on the domestic side. Over the last few years, this has just been another way of complaining that Obama isn’t making policy as the critics would like, and it is a way to avoid the unpleasant political reality that their preferred policy is unpopular and/or lacks support in Congress.

Many Americans are prone to falling into the trap of insisting that this or that crisis or problem would be mostly solved through the sufficient exercise of leadership accompanied by some hefty added doses of resolve and willpower. This is essentially what Yglesias originally dubbed the “Green Lantern theory” of geopolitics, which he has defined as “the conservative conceit that willpower is the crucial variable in making our national security policy work.” The emphasis on willpower isn’t unique to national security hawks. They just happen to rely on this claim more often than everyone else. What all the “Green Lantern” theoreticians have in common is their consistent refusal to acknowledge institutional and structural reasons for the apparent dearth of leaders and leadership.

The perceived dearth of leadership is the result of a broader distribution of power within and among nations. Give me a list of “transformational leaders who leave legacies that fundamentally alter their nation’s trajectories” and I’ll show you a list made up mostly of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian rulers. The democratically-elected leaders normally considered to be “great” are often extraordinary by the standards of their own countries, and they have tended to benefit from unusual periods of political consensus and/or one-party dominance. There is always the danger that their reputations have been inflated in the decades since they were in office by some combination of nostalgia, posthumous hagiography, and disappointment with contemporary politics. Considering that Miller’s first anecdote at the beginning of the article referenced Ataturk, a classic example of the authoritarian modernizer and state-builder, perhaps it is a good thing that we don’t have quite so many of these people running governments around the world.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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