Recent events bring to mind a phenomenon we witness once in a while: a national leader dies and many citizens of that country - particularly the poor - grieve on an operatic scale. They mass onto the streets and weep openly and uncontrollably. They will not be consoled. It is a though the bottom had fallen out of their lives totally and completely.
To outsiders, these are moving scenes. No matter your views about the leader that has just died you cannot but be struck by the vastness and genuineness of the reaction of the masses of the people. The departed leader must surely have done something to earn such adoration. But you also wonder if the weeping masses believe the leader is irreplaceable; that what he contributed to their lives cannot be done by anybody else; that, above all, he was a fluke, an accident. Do they ask: who is going to look after us now? You even hear some of them say: We have lost our father.
These scenes of monumental grieving remind me of the famous scene in the Bertolt Brecht play 'The Life of Galileo'. Here is the key exchange:
Andrea: 'Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.'
Galileo: 'No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.'
Brecht can be interpreted here to be making a point about the nature of governance via the voice of his 'Galileo'. The question is this: Leaders who help the poor are to be admired and are certainly preferable to the alternative, but should ordinary citizens feel that their well-being depends solely on one leader no matter how benevolent? Or is it a comment on the state of the governance system that ordinary citizens do not feel able to protect their own interests and everything depends on one heroic, Robin Hood figure?
Now, the kind of political practice that produces heroic leaders adored inordinately by vast multitudes is often known as 'populism'. As you can imagine, recent events have led political scientists to discuss this in the blogosphere and in newspapers and magazines. My favorite political science blog is The Monkey Cage and it recently hosted a discussion of populism. One of the correspondents quoted the following definition of populism that I really like, attributing it to Kurt Weyland in a 1999 article in Comparative Politics:
"I therefore describe populism as a political strategy with three characteristics. A personal leader appeals to a heterogenous mass of followers who feel left out and are available for mobilization; the leader reaches the followers in a direct, quasi-personal manner that bypasses established intermediary organizations, especially parties; if the leader builds a new or revives an old populist party, it remains a personal vehicle with a low level of institutionalization."
I like that definition of populism because it focuses on institutionalization or its absence. Leaders serving the masses and becoming hugely popular is fine; but what matters is whether or not they build strong institutions. The reason is simple: strong institutions are what will really protect those masses long after the Dear Leader is dead and gone. Otherwise, what is being celebrated is not a strength of a system of governance but a pathology.
As always, the judgment is on a case by case basis.
Photo Credit: AleksGrynis