One of the universal laws of political life seems to be that, the more successful the leader, the less capable he is of know- ing when it’s time to quit. Obviously, the example of Jean Chrétien comes to mind. But the trait is widely shared. It’s difficult to think of many political leaders who have had the sense to get out while the going was good. (It may be no accident that politicians who are assassinated tend to be the most fondly remembered.)
This pattern has been sufficiently common, throughout human history, that it has become something of a staple observation in political science. Perhaps politics is a process of selection, which weeds out all but those who suffer from a specific type of cognitive deficit. Sensible people, those who have the ability to tell when they’re not wanted, simply don’t make it to positions of great authority. They give up far too early.
Certainly people who are constant- ly looking at the big picture and always seeing both sides of every issue are handicapped when comes to politics. Having this perspective makes them less capable of pounding away at the same issues, day in day out. It makes them less wholehearted in their pursuit of a narrow, partisan agenda. Perhaps the singlemindedness that is required to be an effective advocate also makes the person unable to ascertain the true extent of his or her own abilities.
But regardless of the psychological underpinnings, there is no escaping the observation that political leaders tend to quit long after their marginal contribu- tion has fallen below zero.
There is considerable debate within political philosophy about the function of elections in a democracy. Roughly speaking, there are two schools of thought. The classical view holds that majority rule is a mechanism that aggre- gates the preferences of all citizens, in order to create a popular or general will. The more newfangled ”œdeliberative” view holds that, rather than aggregating interests, voting is more a mechanism through which citizens voice their opin- ion about where the common good lies. According to this perspective, voting has less to do with advancing one’s interests, and more with contributing to an ongoing conversation.
To the chagrin of populists every- where, the aggregative view has suf- fered a series of stunning theoretical set-backs in the past 40 years. A num- ber of models have shown that there is usually no way of aggregating individ- ual preferences into a coherent social preference ordering. This has prompt- ed a remarkable resurgence of interest in deliberative democracy.
Yet both the aggregative and the deliberative theories are extremely weak when it comes to explaining the role that leadership plays in the politi- cal process. By contrast, there is a some- what neglected tradition of democratic theory, founded by Joseph Schumpeter, that views competition for political leadership as the core feature of demo- cratic institutions. Democracy, in this view, is not about the popular will, or about an ongoing process of public deliberation. It is about imposing some checks on who gets to run things.
Citizens are, in Schumpeter’s view, ”œmembers of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation.” They are fully aware of this, which is why ”œthe typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which we would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.”
This creates a type of vacuum, which in turn generates the need for effec- tive leadership. Think of the typical situ- ation in which about a dozen people are trying to decide which restaurant to eat at. Everyone is hemming and hawing, voicing suggestions and complaints, but nothing is happening. Finally, one per- son simply announces a decision, saying ”œI’m going to restaurant X, anyone who wants to come with me is welcome.” The crowd falls into line, not because the decision is the perfect one, but simply because they’re hungry, and any decision is better than no decision.
Political leadership is grounded in essentially the same phenomenon. Democracy simply takes the informal mechanism that operates in small groups, and turns it into an explicit sys- tem of legally regulated procedures. The problem, however, is that in the case of political leadership, control of the state apparatus gives the leader the ability to entrench himself in power. Thus Schumpeter put particular emphasis on the mechanism that exists within dem- ocratic political systems to ”œevict” lead- ers who have outlasted their usefulness. This allows us to obtain the benefits of leadership, while minimizing the ability of leaders to ignore their own due date.
Whenever I come across portentous appraisals of the ”œstate of democracy” in Canada, I am struck by how often they presuppose the discredited aggregative theory of democracy. Would free votes in Parliament or proportional represen- tation really make our country more democratic? Depends on what we mean by ”œdemocracy.” To my mind, Chrétien’s resignation shows that ”œSchumpeterian democracy” remains in good health in this country, having just survived a very important test.