Great Persons & Political Responsibility

When we are dissatisfied with the political status quo, there is a tendency to pin our hopes and desires for social change on a single great person. If this individual is a figurehead of a movement, they start to embody the promise of change and become a symbol for the movement itself. This is especially pronounced during presidential or prime ministerial elections— and if citizens have a desire to imagine a single individual as a harbinger of desired change, then political leaders have every incentive to accommodate that desire in order to win public office. The responsibility for bringing about social revolution is passed from the citizenry to political leadership.

Yet, all too often, desired changed rarely materializes and dissatisfaction sets in once more. The failure to move the needle in these cases is rarely a result of insufficient leadership or weak-willed politicians. It has entirely to do with structural conditions that constrain and shape the ability of political leaders to act—the interplay between mass patterns of human behavior on a large scale—and, as the psychology literature showcases, the more likely we are to imagine political change as being led by heroic individuals, the less likely we are to be engaged in our own private heroisms in everyday life.

The consistency of this pattern in contemporary political systems is remarkable. Currently, it is seen especially pronounced in Ukraine. The post-maidan period has seen leader and after leader disappoint; falling into the same clientelist pathologies as the previous regime. The current frontrunner, who largely relies on a vague aesthetic of decency at the expense of policy specificity seems poised to fall into the same trap—at what point do we recognize that this pattern does not reflect of the characteristics of these particular leaders but is instead a consequence of institutions.

As we begin the collective selection process for our political leadership, it is worth keeping this in mind. If you believe our nation faces and will face complex structural challenges (ahem, the changing nature of work, regional divergences in economic growth, social polarization, institutional inequities, a more dangerous international system, the threat of oligopolistic capture etc.)—then merely passing the buck to political leadership is guaranteed to disappoint and endanger.

Transformative leaders not only make wise and sound decisions on behalf of our country but also empower collective processes to do so as well: supporting institutions and creating a social environment that remove barriers to collective action and encourage public deliberation. So, this election cycle, beware of candidates who promise to deliver you from our current predicament; we ought to choose one who will empower us to deliver ourselves.

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