Resist the Strongman’s Siren Call

America needs a national consensus for change, not a powerful individual to break the political deadlock.

Monument on Theodore Roosevelt Island in Washington DC, November 12, 2012
Monument on Theodore Roosevelt Island in Washington DC, November 12, 2012 (Laurabl)

Larry Summers, a top economic advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, tells Axios that today’s economic challenges — artificial intelligence, automation, globalization — require a leader on the scale of Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, England’s William Gladstone or Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt:

I think it would be a gross misreading of history to think that a laissez-faire, preserve-what-is and don’t-add-anything-new in terms of public institutions and public programs will be sufficient to enable our societies to deal with these trends, which are very much under way.

But that assumes transformational leadership is needed for transformational change, which is doubtful.

And Summers should be careful what he wishes for. Clamoring for a strongman can open the door to less benign figures. Just look at Donald “I-alone-can-fix-it” Trump.

The man and the moment

Bismarck, Gladstone and the younger Roosevelt didn’t singlehandedly solve the problems of industrialization. Nor did FDR end the Great Depression on his own. They were arguably the right men for the moment, but it’s not that difficult to imagine different leaders meeting the challenges of their time.

Faced with powerful corporations, inhumane labor conditions, including child labor, overcrowded cities and urban pollution, any capable politician should have been able to draw mass support for antitrust laws, labor reform and urban renewal around the turn of the century.

Faced with the worst economic crisis in American history and calls to imitate the command economies of Italy and the Soviet Union, any president in the 1930s would have felt compelled to try a more interventionist approach.

Perhaps less impressive men could not have overcome conservative forces cautioning against sweeping change.

But the story of Bismarck, Gladstone and the Roosevelts is as much the story of their time as it is a history of Great Men.

Imperfect

We may be living in such a moment again, when an authoritative figure is needed to lead a movement for change. France’s Emmanuel Macron looks like such a figure.

But for every Macron, there is a Rodrigo Duterte or a Vladimir Putin or an Abdul Fatah Sisi or indeed a Donald Trump, who uses people’s longing for security in uncertain times to his own advantage. History is littered with examples of Great Men we nowadays regard as tyrants.

Even the ones we still admire were imperfect.

Bismarck mistrusted democracy yet did little to wean Germans off the idea that leaders needed to wear a uniform. Theodore Roosevelt’s activism often bordered on recklessness. Franklin had so little patience with the restraints on his office, both constitutional and traditional, that his opponents only half-jokingly referred to him as a dictator.

Weak society

A desire for strongmen manifests itself when a people feel liberal democracy has failed them.

Strongmen flourish where civil societies are weak. They can only succeed when businesses, civil servants, judges and journalists refuse to stand in their way.

There are democracies in Asia and Europe that are coping with the economic challenges Summers describes. Not perfectly, but — through consensus-building and trial and error — they are trying.

Others, like the United States, are too polarized to attempt creative solutions.

What they need is not a powerful individual to break the deadlock, but rather a national consensus for change.

Leaders can help foster such a consensus, but be careful not to put the cart before the horse.