Pop­u­lar fal­la­cies about lead­ers and elites

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY GE­ORGE PAGOULATOS *

Two pop­u­lar fal­la­cies are thriv­ing in a Europe of pop­ulism and di­min­ished ex­pec­ta­tions. Many ar­gue that Europe’s prob­lem is a prob­lem of lead­er­ship. Miss­ing are states­men with the stature of Hel­mut Kohl, Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand or Jac­ques Delors. His­tor­i­cal dis­tance tends to el­e­vate and ide­al­ize lead­ers of the past. In their time, crit­ics de­nounced Kohl’s provin­cial­ism, Mit­ter­rand’s fi­nan­cial il­lit­er­acy and Delors’s timid­ity. This fal­lacy ig­nores the un­der­ly­ing causes of the prob­lem. A more deeply united Eu­ro­pean Union of 28 mem­bers is also one that is more deeply split. The quiet con­sen­sus of the past has been re­placed by the noisy dis­putes of the present. Gov­er­nance to­day is con­stant cri­sis man­age­ment with broad, painful com­pro­mises. Kohl would have man­aged no bet­ter than Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel. Fo­cus­ing on the per­son­al­i­ties pre­vents the de­bate from be­ing fo­cused where it should be – on di­verg­ing na­tional in­ter­ests, grow­ing in­equal­ity and ris­ing disparity – when what is needed is greater in­te­gra­tion, bold com­pro­mises and broad, EU-wide so­lu­tions. The se­cond fal­lacy is even more preva­lent. As Stathis Ka­ly­vas re­cently wrote (Kathimerini, 16.12.2018), “un­for­tu­nately, the nar­ra­tive of a dis­en­gaged and ar­ro­gant elite dom­i­nates in Europe to­day, of­ten even within the elite, mainly be­cause of in­tel­lec­tual lazi­ness and lead­ing to the adop­tion of all kinds of cliches.” The cliche of the dis­con­nected elites, apart from be­ing pop­ulist, is also to a sig­nif­i­cant ex­tent un­true. Never be­fore have demo­crat­i­cally elected lead­ers kept such a care­ful eye on pub­lic per­cep­tion and mood. Never be­fore have the elites of west­ern lib­eral democ­ra­cies been so ex­posed to scru­tiny and dis­parag­ing crit­i­cism, not just from a clutch of crit­i­cal me­dia but from the mil­lions of snipers on the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia. Rarely be­fore have lead­ers been forced to rit­ual de­mon­stra­tions of

new mu­ral by the artist Pas­cal Bo­yart, aka PBOY, pay­ing homage to the Yel­low Vests move­ment and in­spired by the fa­mous paint­ing ‘Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple’ by Eu­gene Delacroix, on a wall in Paris, on Mon­day. Crit­ics of the elites are re­minded that to­day the rai­son d’etat, pol­i­tics of na­tional in­ter­est, has given way to vox pop­uli. hu­mil­ity like to­day – a wel­come de­vel­op­ment in it­self. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron rushed to ad­mit his “mea culpa” when faced with the “Yel­low Vests” – does any­one re­mem­ber Charles de Gaulle, Valery Gis­card d’Es­taing or Mit­ter­rand tak­ing the blame with such alacrity? The only lead­ers pro­fusely lack­ing any shred of hu­mil­ity are pre­cisely those who have built their po­lit­i­cal ca­reers cas­ti­gat­ing the main­stream elites: the Trumps and Or­bans of our time. Iso­la­tion of the elites? Tra­di­tion­ally, lead­ers have shaped high pol­i­tics in a tight cir­cle. Lyn­don John­son sent mil­lions of young Amer­i­cans to an un­pop­u­lar war in the jun­gles of Viet­nam – hun­dreds of thou­sands re­turned in body bags or crip­pled for life. To­day, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ex­e­cutes na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy through tweets, pick­ing up “Likes” and blow­ing up al­liances go­ing back decades, de­fy­ing the opin­ion of ex­perts; mainly guided by his po­lit­i­cal in­stinct and the need to main­tain his elec­toral base. The rai­son d’etat, pol­i­tics of na­tional in­ter­est, has given way to vox pop­uli, as demon­strated by the slow-mo­tion ship­wreck of the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. This holds true for se­ri­ous gov­ern­ments, even where the de­fense min­is­ter does not dress up in a com­mando’s uni­form to at­tract the so-called pa­tri­otic vote, as in the Greek case. There are no politi­cians to­day who do not con­sult poll­sters and fo­cus groups be­fore mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant move. The oft-cited sur­vey ques­tion of voter ex­pec­ta­tions – “who do you ex­pect to win” – be­comes a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy, where the un­de­cided voter just goes with the main­stream. The in­flu­ence of polls does not al­ways lead to na­tion­ally ben­e­fi­cial so­lu­tions, but politi­cians to­day have less power to re­sist. Some­times the elites need to keep a cer­tain dis­tance from pub­lic sen­ti­ment. The fight against global warm­ing would have had no chance of be­com­ing a pop­u­lar cause as long as in­di­vid­u­als were forced to dis­card easy habits and pay when they pol­luted. Elite sci­en­tists sounded the alarm, elite jour­nal­ists picked up the story, elite politi­cians worked to­gether and ne­go­ti­ated, and elite pro­gres­sive, en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ments sup­ported them to yield the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment. In con­trast, the Yel­low Vests re­belled against the gaso­line and diesel tax, to the ap­plause of pop­ulists around the world. In the US, SUV driv­ers are hap­pily roused by Trump and the oil com­pa­nies to deny the ir­refutable find­ings of science. Other lib­eral elites shielded refugees from the blind rage of “en­dan­gered ma­jori­ties” (Ivan Krastev). They put in place con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tions against the tyranny of the ma­jor­ity and the ar­bi­trari­ness of unchecked power. Mi­nori­ties, the weak, the planet, owe a lot to pro­gres­sive elites and lib­eral in­sti­tu­tions, which did not wait for pop­u­lar sup­port to act. Of course there are ar­ro­gant, self­serv­ing elites, de­tached from so­ci­ety. But po­lit­i­cal con­flict built on this premise nur­tures po­lit­i­cal can­ni­bal­ism and false di­chotomies of “the elite ver­sus the peo­ple,” where dem­a­gogues carry the day. Pol­i­tics is thus re­duced to a prim­i­tive, au­thor­i­tar­ian-prone zero sum con­flict of “us ver­sus them.” The is­sue is not the elites. The is­sue is for the elites to be se­lected on merit, to have a so­cial con­science, to serve the pub­lic in­ter­est and to op­er­ate with demo­cratic checks and bal­ances. * Ge­orge Pagoulatos is pro­fes­sor of Eu­ro­pean pol­i­tics and eco­nomics at the Athens Univer­sity of Eco­nomics and Busi­ness, and vice pres­i­dent of the Hellenic Foun­da­tion for Eu­ro­pean and For­eign Pol­icy (ELIAMEP).

A passerby looks at a

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