Political Change Takes More Than a Charismatic Leader

Paul Krugman, for once, is right when he cautions against putting too much faith in leaders.

Dilma Rousseff Barack Obama
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff welcomes her American counterpart, Barack Obama, and his family in Brasília, March 19, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Paul Krugman, who often conflates his political beliefs with economic theory, makes a good argument in The New York Times about political change.

There is a persistent delusion in the United States on both ends of the political spectrum, he writes, that a “hidden majority” of voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, “if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.”

No silent majority

This is most obvious on the right.

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued, contra the likes of Texas senator Ted Cruz, that raising evangelical turnout is not in fact the key to winning national elections. There is no “silent majority” of conservatives refusing to turn out because Republicans keep nominating relatively moderate presidential candidates. This is a myth.


Similarly, on the the left, “there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature,” according to Krugman, “and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.”

Many hoped Barack Obama would be that leader.

Yet rather than learning from his experience and recognizing that change happens slowly and takes compromise — “health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality” — starry-eyed leftists are hoping that this time, Bernie Sanders will be different.

The question they should ask themselves, writes Krugman, is, “When has their theory of change ever worked?”


Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most transformative presidents of the twentieth century, “had to be politically pragmatic,” he points out, “working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.”

Idealism matters. But it’s useless unless it goes along with a hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve one’s ends.

Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends.

For once, we agree.