Iron in the soul

Strong leaders often pose a danger precisely when they are doing or saying the right thing. Strong leaders often pose a danger precisely when they are doing or saying the right thing.

A strong leader’s capacity to tolerate dissent is more crucial than his beliefs.

In the blame game over Vladimir Putin’s actions in the US, there is a reminder going around that George Bush once claimed to have seen inside Putin’s soul and found someone he could do business with. Bush may not have been the wisest judge of character. But there is, nevertheless, an interesting question of how to form expectations of strong leaders. Strong leaders pose a special problem for political judgement.

By definition, they direct more than they are directed; they control institutions rather than being controlled by them. That is their appeal. So in addition to the normal checks and balances, cutting strong leaders slack requires trusting their sense of self-restraint. The only force that can, in the final analysis, restrain them is themselves.

So a judgement of the personality of strong leaders matters even more. In a democracy, when such leaders come to power, they often ride two contradictory waves. Some vote for them because of who they project themselves to be: strong, decisive, ruthless, capable of even nasty decisions. Others vote for them for different reasons. There is a genuine recognition of the fears a leader may pose. But there is also great confidence in the protean side of leaders.

In this view, leaders are characterised by a capacity to change. They may have posed risks in the past, but one of their qualities is the ability to sense a political occasion and live up to it. If the context is right, they can change and do the right thing.

In a way, much of the Narendra Modi surge has elements of both of these impulses. There is a yearning for authority. But there is also often the faith that democracy has in its own power and experience. After all, the canonical view of politicians in a democracy is just that they are all too amenable to change. This might be seen as opportunism.

But this is also the great faith a democracy has in itself: its ability to transform devils, to change opinions, to mould its leaders as much as it is moulded by them. Democracy takes risks not because it condones authority, but because it believes in its own power to tame authority. Sometimes this belief works, sometimes it comes to grief.

But how much can politicians change? One measure of change is a change in beliefs or policies. This is often the easy part: even an artful demagogue can grasp the demands of the moment. They can skilfully meet an audience’s expectations, and appear to conform to their beliefs. But this genuine success in inducing change, making radicals moderate, only exacerbates the challenge of judgement. As an astute observer like Plutarch noted, character is much harder to …continued »