Where Have All the Leaders Gone?
The 20th century is long over and the rules of political culture have changed.
Cultural and political paradigm shifts do not occur very often. But a series of political earthquakes and aftershocks in the past few weeks in Europe and North America confirm that the landscape has been altered. Here’s an incomplete list of the major shocks that have been felt across three different fault lines spanning two continents:
1) Brexit, aka the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union, and the cascade of unintended consequences
2) The release of the long-awaited Chilcot Report, cementing Tony Blair’s reputation as a historical villain
3) The testimony of James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), concerning Hillary Clinton’s emails and exonerating her while highlighting the unambiguous illegality of her actions
4) The ongoing rumbling of the surreal presidential campaigns of the Democrats and Republicans, including serious evidence of election fraud in the primaries
These are apparently unrelated, but can we detect a common thread? Actually there are three. First, all of them involve exposing serious lies or distortions of meaning that have had an impact on millions of peoples’ lives. Second, all of them reflect an accelerating loss of confidence and trust in political leadership. Finally, the traditionally resilient parties in the US and Britain—Democratic/Republican and Conservative/Labour—have been shaken.
The fact that these events concern two English-speaking nations, the United States and the United Kingdom, may not be a coincidence. But the crisis concerns the whole of Western culture. Events elsewhere in Europe and as far away as Australia point in the same direction. A notable example would be the French government’s forced adoption without a vote of President Francois Hollande’s controversial labor reform, a law bitterly contested within his own majority over the past six months.
Western democracies are facing more than a crisis of leadership. The political infrastructure has seen its invisible foundation—its general credibility and party loyalty—irreparably cracked down the middle. In the immediate aftermath of Brexit, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s admission of the £350 million lie destroyed not only their credibility, but the idea that there may be a politician who doesn’t lie. The Chilcot Report confirmed that this has been the case for some time. Donald Trump is known for speech totally unrelated to any form of objective truth, whereas Hillary Clinton is perceived by the critics within her party as a calculating liar.
Hillary Clinton vs Bernie Sanders has proved to be much more than a rivalry between two personalities. It has revealed both an ideological and generational fissure within the Democratic constituency. And it will only grow unless Clinton proves herself to be a radical unifier. The David Cameron (Remain) vs Boris Johnson (Leave) rift has effectively gutted the leadership of the Tories, now divided into hostile camps, neither of them with a leader. The confusion was comically compounded by Michael Gove’s betrayal of Johnson in the days following Brexit.
The tragicomedy of the Labour Party is even more revealing, with a majority of party stalwarts, elected members of parliament—many of them Blair loyalists—pitched against what appears to be the clear majority of Labour voters, as they organize their junta to oust party leader Jeremy Corbyn for sinning against Cameron’s Remain campaign. Their reasoning, much like Clinton’s, is that political principles are secondary; the only thing that counts is winning elections.
In France, where the presidential election will take place in 2017, President Hollande—normally expected to exercise the privilege of automatic nomination for a second term—will be facing a crowd of undefined rivals in the socialist primaries. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel—in many ways the most consistently successful political leader—has now been invited by two-thirds of the German population not to run for office in 2017.
Thanks to the miraculous rise of Trump in the US and Cameron’s curious gamble with Brexit in the UK, 2016 had already been looking like the year of possible political surprises.
Trump’s successful primary campaign, begun in 2015, was the principal indicator. The political establishment and the media were incredulous, not because they didn’t think Trump could make an impact, but because the attempt itself was so contrary to normal practices of the “laws of politics.” It was so devoid of meaning that, like any spontaneous vacuum, as soon as it appeared to exist, pundits believed that it would be instantaneously filled by real matter. The incredulity is still there. In the run-up to the Republican convention, speculation of a last-minute coup to replace Trump with a respectable candidate is stilling running rife.
The FBI’s decision not to recommend the prosecution of Hillary Clinton brought comfort to the establishment and seemed to reaffirm the laws of traditional politics, matching most people’s expectations. But the improvised meeting that former President Bill Clinton engineered with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in an airport just a few days earlier created serious unease. This was quickly compounded by the details of James Comey’s report revealing that Hillary Clinton was probably guilty on several counts but wouldn’t be indicted.
For the public and the media, it was official proof that she had consistently lied. Lying was, of course, the sin that led Richard Nixon to resign (not Watergate itself) and was the cause for impeachment of Bill Clinton. George Washington “couldn’t tell a lie,” though the story of the cherry tree on which that claim was based turned out to be a historian’s lie. Still, it’s worth noting that whereas Americans expect politicians to lie about political issues, when they lie about their own actions they risk losing the trust of the people.
Once the Reagan-Thatcher tandem had set the tone and defined the rules, the 1990s saw the emergence of a Clinton-Blair duo that presented a more socially sensitive version of the same ideology.
The Brexit vote had such a powerful effect that Cameron immediately announced his resignation after which the “victorious” candidates expected to replace him (Johnson, Gove) retreated in shame, largely because they were seen to have lied to get their way. The tsunami of shame even drowned the otherwise shameless Nigel Farage, who announced his resignation from the leadership of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) days later.
The reasons for their retreat? Immediately exposed lies—in particular the £350 million a week for the National Health Service that evaporated in less than two hours—but also the fear of taking over the management of the unmanageable, and having to stand up regularly in public and account for the disappointment and hardship their campaign had denied could ever happen.
Haunted by history: the Chilcot Report
And then, after a seven-year wait, appeared the Chilcot Report, a document dealing with past history, which in its way summed up everything that is going on today, both in the US and the UK. At the same time, it has reminded us of the chain of political events in the Middle East that are responsible for the disastrous conditions that continue to seriously influence the voting and electoral trends in both Western countries: chaotic war, terrorism and massive migration.
Although not stated in those terms, the Chilcot Report revealed, publicly and officially, that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had lied or at the very least distorted the truth. The British public have been living for over a decade with the disastrous and ongoing consequences of those lies, including the refugee crisis that inflamed Brexit voters. Of course, Blair immediately proclaimed his good faith, insisting that his intelligence sources were the ones who had distorted the truth. He merely acted on their recommendations. Few commentators or ordinary citizens believed him. The report itself revealed in its details the pattern of decision-making that originated with Blair’s own ambitions or personal convictions.
Growing awareness of the loci of power
One thing has emerged from the fog of all the debates, discussions and reports surrounding this year’s elections in the US and referendum in the UK: That is a growing awareness on the part of the public that moneyed interests are more powerful than any of the actual political personalities or parties they are called to vote for. The identities and value systems of the traditional political parties, long considered the legitimate custodians of government, have morphed for a major segment of the voting population from “vaguely formulated but well intentioned” to hypocritical and insubstantial.
There is some deep irony here as the current failure of politics is the direct result of its former resounding success. The preachers of neoliberalism, who took front stage in the 1980s—the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan years—those who indirectly spawned Bill Clinton’s New Democrats and Tony Blair’s New Labour, have succeeded beyond their wildest ambitions in imposing the idea not only that business interests and making a profit are the unique motor of human and technological progress, but that they are also the unique source of political power.
So unique that no party seriously seeking an electoral advantage can contest their stranglehold nor indeed survive without their support. The world of corporate finance operating within the military-industrial complex had thus been identified as the lifeblood of the system. But the successful political game, for the right and the new left, has consistently been to affirm the principle while hiding the mechanics of it.
Once the Reagan-Thatcher tandem had set the tone and defined the rules, the 1990s saw the emergence of a Clinton-Blair duo that presented a more socially sensitive version of the same ideology. Their capitulation was complete; their new left-of-center worldview was built on two principles: respecting the economic and financial status quo and improvising new ways of globalizing it, particularly with the aid of media and technology. The fact that they, as tenors of the left, didn’t have to pretend to cite traditional conservative wisdom (prudence, caution, good husbandry*) led to a resolutely bubble-based approach to economic growth that accepted the neoliberal principle of trickle down but sought to make it look like flow forward as—even to the surprise of Alan Greenspan at the US Federal Reserve—the stock markets exploded, creating the illusion and then the deep-seated belief that it would go on forever.
In two decades, the global economy had moved away from the military-industrial complex model of a nation-state—a model that had dominated for more than 30 years after World War II—to the global military-financial model that now occupies the central position.
The perception of leadership
If we let our memories drift back to the 1990s, we can recapture the feeling that politics in the US, the UK and elsewhere was focused on assertive public personalities, men and some women perceived as active leaders, conductors of the political orchestra. Clinton and Blair, of course, both of them expert communicators, but also Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Helmut Schmidt and even Silvio Berlusconi—all of them perceived as individuals who understood all the nuts and bolts of the system, rather than being seen as the system’s marionettes.
The election of George W. Bush in 2000 helped change that image of the head of state as the chief operator of a complex system. From the start, President Bush was perceived—and perhaps sought to be perceived—as incapable of understanding the political system; although unlike former US presidents (with the exception of his father), he was fully immersed in—even born into—the dominant financial-industrial-political networks of influence.
To some extent, the electorates in Western countries have woken up. Nearly everyone perceives global capitalism as a well-organized system of control and no longer as the invisible hand promised by Adam Smith.
Everyone assumed for a long time, and many still do, that it was Vice President Dick Cheney who ran the show. In terms of pure political operations, that was most likely true. But both Bush and Cheney were acting as agents to further the transfer of political power to the anonymous presences who finance politics while avoiding the public spotlight. Not just the Koch brothers, who do accept on occasion to stand at the back of the stage, but all the interests represented by an army of lobbyists—some of them designated officially as such, others occupying ministerial and administrative positions within the executive branch of government.
Bush and his administration were not being hypocritical about it, either. It was their stated ideology, formulated in terms of reducing the weight of government, which chimed with traditional Republican (Goldwater) philosophy. What they were really doing, while carefully hiding it from sight, was adding the tremendous weight of undefinable financial and industrial interests to the system of government, which many Republicans applauded and Clintonian New Democrats accepted as a natural trend.
The current state of the paradigm shift
So, fast-forwarding to today’s current events mentioned above and we find a new configuration, where the parties are still expected to provide the basis for stabilizing the democratic veneer of our democracies. But having lost any truly political role in the management of power, they have gone completely adrift. This is true in the US, the UK, France, Australia, Greece and Austria, just to cite the obvious cases. As a result, elections are increasingly seen as meaningless pretexts for validating flawed political decisions.
What has happened in the past few weeks highlights a true paradigm shift that confirms the evolution of the past 40 years. A quick review shows us that in the US—the unique superpower expected to set the tone for world government—the two most unpopular, least respected and unrepresentative candidates in history are vying for the role of the national and international leadership. Does anyone imagine that, once elected, either of them will be in a position to lead in the traditional sense, which implies inspiring and promoting social cohesion and trust in the institutions?
Donald Trump will be the nominee because enough voters believe he is outside the system—not contaminated by it—to prefer him to anyone, Republican or Democrat, who appears to belong to an establishment in which they no longer place any trust. Hillary Clinton is playing by the old rules, relying on the traditional political system to validate her leadership. She has simply failed to notice that her Democratic Party, no less than the Republican, has lost its ability to convince the population that it can provide credible solutions for government. It’s not a question of Wall Street or Main Street. It’s a question at a much deeper level of democratic legitimacy that involves belief and trust, a certain form of public optimism.
To some extent, the electorates in Western countries have woken up. Nearly everyone perceives global capitalism as a well-organized system of control and no longer as the invisible hand promised by Adam Smith. This translates as a profound skepticism concerning the capacity of political parties to govern.
It also explains why, for the first time in nearly a century, it was possible for Bernie Sanders, a politician claiming to be a “socialist”—a formerly anathema epithet—to challenge, very nearly successfully, the Democratic Party’s master plan of crowning Clinton as the chosen heir to the throne.
Socialist? As recently as 10 years ago, you may as well have claimed to be the agent of Lucifer—so strong was the belief that capitalism was a book of the Bible, never to be doubted, never to be questioned. Bush and Blair’s “shock and awe,” their perpetual and futile wars, followed by the financial implosion of 2008 succeeded in undermining that secular faith.
In spite of what may be described as “bad press,” the parties haven’t changed, haven’t found a way of taking that into account. Possibly because they can’t change. They depend on the persistence of that faith. Consequently, the parties themselves are now perceived either as platforms for prevarication or as lobbies themselves, instruments for harmonizing the avarice of the anonymous capitalists who finance everything and are accountable to no one. The Republicans in the US have set the example for this lack of awareness of the disaffection of the public by passionately defending rationally untenable positions on everything—from massive military spending to gun rights and climate change.
The mainstream media refrain from analyzing these trends. They are an integral part of the system, but their very culture blinds them, preventing them from recognizing anything that calls into question their spectators’ consecrated set of values.
That is precisely what defines the paradigm of culture change: a radical shift in perceived or simply “felt” values. That deep shift is occurring now, but the language for describing it hasn’t yet emerged, at least not in the media. We are still focused on the logic of politics as a game of thrones, where dynasties compete and the best funded will always win. The dynasties have traditionally been capable of grooming and providing “leaders,” men and women who combined some sense of common purpose perceivable by the masses with management skills that allowed them to keep things under control. To which they were expected to add some form of charisma or at least personality.
For the first time in recent Western political history, we have no idea what will happen next or how things will evolve.
Unfortunately, the formula no longer works. The parties have collapsed into fragmented marketing units, and the candidates themselves no longer believe in that traditional notion of leadership. Or if they do believe—as Cameron apparently did—they are forced to give up once it becomes clear to the public that they have never actually had control.
Barack Obama, so exceptional on many grounds, followed a different track, sticking with his personal charisma and using it for his own branding purposes, while at the same time allowing the system to lead and impose its own decisions. His serial legislative defeats or capitulations (including Obamacare, disguised as victory) testify to this strategy.
It will be interesting to see how much President Obama accepts to reveal about the workings of the system after leaving office. His predictably phenomenal speaking fees will probably discourage him from doing the kind of mild muckraking Jimmy Carter has accepted to do in recent years and which Dwight Eisenhower took an hour of his time to do just before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. (Eisenhower’s message about the military-industrial complex had a strong and positive impact on Kennedy himself, but history and some clever assassins managed to close the book on that before he could act on it.)
Political leadership is not just the victim of the current crises. It is in a crisis itself. The internet may have contributed to it, but we need to acknowledge this fundamental truth: Our political culture has undergone a sea-change in which the old formulas of leadership no longer hold.
Chaos today, a new order tomorrow?
As we have seen recently, the most formerly trusted leaders of our recent past, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, have been seriously exposed, their image of leaders undermined. Blair received the mortal blow from the incisive Chilcot Report. Clinton, more trivially, for his impromptu meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch that preceded the “liberation” of Hillary.
But it isn’t just these two highly visible personalities. The idea of political leadership itself has taken a hit. In the Brexit tsunami, Cameron, Johnson and Farage voluntarily retreated to the wings, if not the back alley of politics while, just to cite two random examples, in Australia the (possibly) victorious conservative party of Malcolm Turnbull remains seriously divided before even forming a government.
And in France, it’s anyone’s guess who the two major parties will nominate for the 2017 presidential election—the only certainty being that Marine Le Pen will play the role of Donald Trump, but within her own still fringe party, the Front National. It’s interesting to note the curious parallel that the daughter of a former political celebrity, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who came close to being elected, and the wife of a former US president have managed to mobilize the branding power of their names and male counterparts to be seen as credible in a presidential election. Personalities have been superseded by brands, which is consistent with the shift of power from people to money.
Brexit was perceived by the City of London to be a risk, which is why London and the City in particular voted for Remain. Trump is perceived by Wall Street as unpredictable, and in spite of being traditionally aligned with the Republican Party, its luminaries have pretty much unanimously endorsed or approved Clinton over Trump.
According to its self-promoted myth, capitalism loves and thrives on risk, but in reality, our neoliberal financial managers consistently bet on the tried and true, reinforcing the pillars of the system rather than supporting disruptive innovation. They have been surprised in recent months by their inability to ensure that risk in politics is avoided.
What is risk after all? The impossibility of predicting not only a specific outcome, but the conditions for a series of outcomes.
For the first time in recent Western political history, we have no idea what will happen next or how things will evolve. Brexit has left everyone guessing and speculating. Because it is not just an intention, but a resolution and commitment to act within a legal framework—it goes beyond the usual political hypothesizing. The Republican and Democratic Party conventions are about to take place. Will they be shaken by the paradigm shift taking place around them? Or will they weather the storm, remain more or less intact, and postpone the drama till November’s election? Or, depending on the result, until the new administration—Clinton’s or Trump’s, or someone else’s—sets up in January with its plan to govern with the intention of either repairing the cracks or pretending they don’t exist.
Scientists tell us we have entered a phase in which the poles of the Earth are about to be reversed. It is a process, not a simple event that takes place at a single moment. What effect it will have on our environment we don’t know. So too it is in political culture. The complete paradigm shift may take place within our lifetime, but there is never a precise moment when the old is overtaken by the new. And, as with the inversion of the poles, we have no idea what effect it will have on our lives.
*Did the fact that Bill Clinton clearly wasn’t a “good husband” correlate with this in any way?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Creisinger