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Leadership, Green Lantern Theory, and Authoritarianism

Aaron David Miller discusses leadership [1]:

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 [2]. 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 [3] 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.

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5 Comments To "Leadership, Green Lantern Theory, and Authoritarianism"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On June 27, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

It is probable that the age of charismatic leaders is over. It was a pretty brief one, between the two world wars, but did not go beyond it.

#2 Comment By jamie On June 27, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

Use of the term “charismatic leader” is evidence of a lazy historian, nothing more. If you analyze the power base of a world-historic leader and find that “charisma” is a dominant contribution, you haven’t looked hard enough and you’re probably buying into the dead leader’s own propaganda.

#3 Comment By dSquib On June 27, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

Indeed “leadership” is the unimpeachable good that nation-building is seen as, regardless of who gets dragged under the steamroller of history.

Sometimes I think almost every pundit in America would settle for a “strong” leader with a singular vision, regardless of how wise his or her ideas.

#4 Comment By American but not Conservative On June 27, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

The president of the US remains its dominating political figure. S/he sets narratives and stands for principles. S/he also — remote though this may be from the perspective of us cynical political observers and wonks — a person many Americans look up to for inspiration, moral guidance, and civic education as well as action. In short, leadership. Which is something that affects more than just whether bills pass. It affects the way the whole country thinks about things.

Calls for more leadership are as varied in tone as the critics making them, and Aaron David Miller’s definition is hardly accurate for them all. Indeed, chiding calls for leadership is one method to excuse a president’s inaction and timidity.

One instance of a president leading is Obama’s decision to finally “come out” and support gay marriage. And no, it doesn’t have to result in instant legislation. Instead, it sets an example for the whole country to consider. It gives nervous gay kids a boost of reassurance, and makes gays like Andrew Sullivan do an about-face and suddenly feel the same. They know their president supports them.

There’s conflicting data about the decision’s short-term effects on Obama’s political prospects, but the below article explores the slower but major effect such leadership has.


#5 Comment By smartalek On August 1, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

I mean no disrespect to.either the blogger or to any commenter when I suggest that it’s curious that there’s been.no mention yet of the power of the mass media.
I trust it’s obvious that when the President’s stances are aligned with the majority of the media, there’ll be positive reinforcement, and.likely.greater persuasion of the populace, and its elected representatives. When the President.and the.media are opposed — out of phase — there’ll more likely be negative reinforcement, cancellation.
Recent examples include the amplified concerns over the federal deficit and “debt.crisis” (studies have shown clear and substantial swings in public opinion as a result of the sympathy between President and media on this), especially when compared with relative levels of.concerns about un- and under-employment; acceptance/rejection of belief.in anthropogenic climate change (aka “global warming”); and the stances on same-sex-marriage mentioned by the previous.commenter.
Between media and President, I wonder which, if either, is usually more important as a driver, or whether it varies by issue?