Where have all the leaders gone? No matter where you search, left or right, public or private, they have vanished.
Unsurprisingly, politics is the most glaring example. If it is any indication, leadership has devolved into little more than an endless series of backroom power struggles. In the 21st century, power is its own reward. It has little purpose beyond itself and the ego and greed of those who hold it. They, of course, will do anything to gain and keep power. Clearly, power is the goal not the means. This is the antithesis of leadership.
Whether national, regional or civic, the absence of public leadership has become critical. What motivates the men who run Canada, Ontario, and Toronto? Why are they the ones in power? What is their agenda? What do they hope to achieve? Do we know? Do we care? Does it even matter?
The point is not that these politicians are necessarily harmful or malevolent (though Ontario Premier Doug Ford comes awfully close and our wimpy PM Justin Trudeau is fast running out of good will), but that none has a higher objective than to hang on to power.
At the same time, Ford and Trudeau could have lost their elections as easily as they won them. Given the vagaries of circumstance, timing and voting system, outcomes could have been wildly different. They are dependant on democratic systems so flawed they are almost meaningless. Another failed leader, Andrew Scheer, led a Conservative Party that actually received more votes than Trudeau’s Liberals. As for Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, they enjoy a large majority in the Ontario Legislature though 60 percent of electors voted for other parties.
As a result, the sort of bold leadership so desperately needed has become risky and even dangerous. Better for aspiring politicians to play it safe and adhere limpet-like to the usual clichés of lower taxes, deregulation, privatization and so on. In a culture as polarized as ours, strong leadership alienates as many as it attracts. Better to stick to obfuscation and prevarication or, if you’re Donald Trump, exaggeration and fabrication. Fact-checkers notwithstanding, lies succeed where the truth cannot. According to the Washington Post, as of the end of January, 2020, Trump has told 16,241 lies since his election.
The US president’s behaviour is the most outrageous example of how democracy and its processes can be distorted to the point where they bear no resemblance to reality let alone the will of the people. And though Trump is far and away the worst and most worrisome president in US history, we also have the prime ministers of Australia and the UK, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson respectively, to consider. And let’s not forget the men – it’s always men – who run countries in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, South America and Eastern Europe. No nation has a monopoly on leaderlessness.
It’s tempting to blame this lack of leadership on the rise in right-wing populism, but isn’t that more a result than a cause? Clearly, the reasons run deeper. Growing inequality, wage stagnation, precarious employment and the like have led to deep disillusionment with politics and, by extension, politicians and the very idea of government and leadership. Politicians from Trump to the Fords have based their careers on the notion that government is no longer the solution; it’s the problem. Trump, who calls Washington a “swamp,” is flagrantly contemptuous of the whole apparatus of US federal administration. For the Fords, Rob and Doug, government is a gravy train and those on the inside are on the take.
Before the Fords, let’s not forget, there was Mike Harris, Premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002. He made the same argument about government, bureaucracy and indirectly, democracy, which as we all know is slow, messy and expensive. Harris’s response was to dismantle everything he could get his hands on. Water inspectors? Who needs water inspectors? Health officials? Who needs health officials? The result can be summed up in one word – Walkerton, the small town where seven people died in 2000 and 2,300 were made ill by tainted water.
Harris wasn’t the first to gain power by simplistic government bashing. Before him there was US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, revered and loathed in equal measure. Both were free-market apostles, regulation killers and workfare pushers who tapped into public angst and used it to their own advantage
Among the saddest of ironies is that those politicians who capitalize on a zeitgeist of rising resentment and fear do nothing to solve the problems that underlie it. If anything, the Reagans, Thatchers, Trumps and Fords leave the poor and middle class worse off then ever. The terrible rise of so-called “deaths of despair” – opioid addiction, alcoholism, suicide – over the last 10 or 15 years is the price of shrinking government and the safety net it once provided.
Clearly, the democratic processes that have enabled leadership are failing. Though no one would suggest democracy has run its course, it does need fixing. But where is the leadership that can get us there?