The death of Nelson Mandela is the perfect occasion to clear up some myths about the Great Leader Theory of democratization. Mandela has become almost the archetype of a great man and a great leader, and deservedly so. He was certainly instrumental and some would say essential in the democratization of South Africa. But what can we say in general about the role of leaders? That’s a lot harder and I’m afraid the answers will reveal some of our deep seated biases.
When countries turn to democracy, to what extent does it help to have a charismatic leader leading the process? Either an insider leading the old system to a new one, such as Gorbachev who in a sense started a top-down transformation. Or outsiders such as Wałęsa, Mandela and perhaps also Aung San Suu Kyi leading a popular opposition movement against those in power, overthrowing the old leaders, taking over from them and riding on a wave op popular support towards a new democracy. The opposite theory is also common: the Great Dictator who almost single handedly destroys democratic forces at home and wards off supposedly overwhelming international pressure. Castro comes to mind here.
Political science has shown that there are many causes of democratization, and that several causes are effective simultaneously, with different weights for each effective cause in each particular case. I hope my blog series on democratization has left no doubts about that. This reality is often obscured by the temptation to give undue weight to the “Great Leader” factor, because that is a cause that can be readily observed, as opposed to many other causes such as internal friction within elites, the economy, outside pressure etc. The appeal of the “Great Leader” theory hinges on the mysterious talent or faculty of charisma: no one knows what it means, what it does or how it does it, but it’s widely believed that charisma yields great power and influence. Combined with a view of the “populace” as dimwitted sheeple easily impressed – for good or for bad – by this mysterious faculty of charisma, it becomes almost self-evident that great leaders must have an overriding effect on regime change (or regime continuation as the case may be). It’s obvious that there are some biases at work here: we give more weight to what we can easily observe and ignore deeper causes that often need both detailed knowledge of specific circumstances and statistical or scientific analysis.
Note that I don’t claim leaders have no role to play. On the contrary. Mandela is a great historical figure – as are the others I’ve cited – precisely because he had an effect. All I’m saying is that we should be aware of our biases. The Great Leader Theory becomes all the more suspect when we look at the long term survival and flourishing of democracy – as opposed to the democratic revolution itself. It’s clear that leaders by themselves play only a limited role in the long term prospects of democracy: institutional development, economic prosperity, rule of law, the diminishing role of violence and of the military, bureaucratic development and other indispensable building bricks of democracy can never result from the actions of a single person. I’m afraid this is all too obvious when we look at Mandela’s country, or many other democracies for that matter.