We have a natural constant craving for leadership. Democracy is always a fragile and imperfect achievement. Yet a distinct feeling of malaise in our political culture lingers. There is something missing from our public debates.
Even so, there is always a general desire for visionary reform and charismatic eloquence. The yearning is for what American political historian James McGregor Burns called the ‘transforming’ leader. Such a leader elevates the morality of their followers. They engage in some higher need existing within those they lead, and raise them to more principled levels of judgement. This kind of actor is different from the ‘transactional’ leader, who bargains with their followers on the basis of interest rather than values. Leadership of this kind involved the typical quid pro quo of exchanging promises of more jobs or lower taxes for votes.
There are many in public life who deserve only our praise and admiration. But there are too many who are products of a class that knows little other than spin and the machinations of politics. Little wonder that leadership of the transforming sort is so hard to come by. The danger is that this may be permanent. Where our best people shun politics because the profession isn’t honoured as it once was, this only serves to make the profession even less honoured.
Can a democracy sustain itself when almost half its citizens are prepared to entertain another mode of government? When they can’t seem to appreciate the self-evident virtue of democracy compared with authoritarian tyranny? The problem may go beyond the brutal politics of a hung parliament. Maybe it is because we are losing our very ability to talk about a common good.
I’m not so sure liberal democracy as we know it has reached its terminus. It’s clear though, that many have genuinely lost confidence in the Australian political class. One reason is that we like to place enormous burdens of expectations on modern political leaders. To be sure such expectations aren’t always honest. Just as we want better public services but object to paying the higher taxes that would make them possible, we often want leadership but only if there aren’t hard choices with real consequences.