Choosing Leaders and Personalized Politics
An Election of Global Importance
The election fever gripping the United States this month is only going to get hotter by the time the so-called "Super Tuesday" arrives on February 5. After that day, we will presumably know what more than half the country thinks about the presidential candidates running frantically for the White House and which ones will presumably get the nomination from their respective parties later in the summer. For all those non-American voters watching this political carnival unfold, the continuous speculation about what it might mean for them if Clinton, Obama, McCain, Giuliani, or anyone else who might still join this frenetic race, wins the ticket underscores the global impact of the choice Americans are about to make.
Whether one is in Germany or Ghana, China or Chile, the impact of an American president's decisions reverberates all over the world. The actions taken by an American president impact the global agenda of billions of others besides Americans. So the coverage of townspeople voting in Iowa and New Hampshire this week is front page news around the world. And yet the methods with which this most powerful person is selected leave many baffled. How many times did I hear friends in Europe in past decades comment about the emergence of a B-level Hollywood actor or a peanut farmer becoming President of the United States as evidence of a poor selection system, not even to start a discussion about the evolution of today's president from west Texas to Washington.
Yet the selection systems of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic tell us much about the evaluation of values and experience we all use in order to make a decision about who should be setting the agenda of the country.
Party Power in Parliamentary Systems
In parliamentary systems, the evolution of a party member from local to the federal levels is primarily determined by the political party apparatus and its decision-making. Side entrances are virtually impossible. You work your way through the system starting at a young age. The party system is the filtering device all along the way, and your future depends on maintaining a strong hold on it.
Each of the main parties chooses their leaders from its own ranks, and they don't look kindly on those choosing to enter from another area. In Germany, that is why you don't find too many people in the business sector taking a break from business to serve in government, somewhat like the current Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson did when he left Goldman Sachs to be in the cabinet of President Bush. In fact, the majority of members of the German Bundestag are drawn from the ranks of civil servants.
The parties emphasize their messages to their respective supporters and their leaders and choose someone who can embody that message to deliver it. Those leaders must have proven track records within the party, having served it in many capacities. Germans, along with most European parliamentary systems, lay great emphasis on the unity of the party around certain themes, all presented in a party platform. And while there are regional differences which the parties need to recognize when dealing with their supporters, every four years they must decide on a leader who will run to be Chancellor.
The Role of Individuals in the U.S.
In the U.S., while the two major parties do play a decisive role, there are a good deal more portals for people to enter a race at any level, including a run for the presidency. And there are far more portals for candidates to reach their potential supporters. The large number who started off on their quest toward November 2008 has thinned out quite a bit in the meantime, largely due to running out of the main source of energy besides the candidate him or herself - money. Yet, the major parties do not exert the same control over the candidates' decision to run for the gold as they do in Europe. Look at the cases of extreme outsiders in the current presidential race, Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich. With absolutely no chance of winning and no support from their respective party leaders, they continue to campaign as candidates for their parties. Look at the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who despite his denials remains a favorite topic to speculate about whether he might run for the White House. In this year's race the larger number of candidates on both sides of the political aisle made the race even more unpredictable with regard to the final winner of the Democratic or Republican nominations right from the start.
All of the candidates are products of the American political system. All of them are either veterans of Congress or Governor's mansions, both sources from which the last nine presidents have all emerged in the last half century. However, the initial decision to run for the White House is made by the individual, the inner-most circles, and their advisors. How far he or she gets after that depends on how much money and support can be generated through the primary period. The party leadership will be watching to see who comes out with the most delegates, the most money, and the most momentum toward election day.
Technology's Part in Deciding the Election
In the earlier periods of presidential politics in the U.S., if such competition continued to occur among multiple candidates right through to the nominating convention, the party leaderships would huddle in the backrooms and hammer out a deal to present to the party faithful. Yet in today's YouTube world and 24/7 media coverage of virtually every move made and every word said in the run-up to the elections, that kind of control over the process is less viable when the candidates can bypass the parties as filters of communication with the public.
In fact, technology has made it possible to be absorbing information continuously within increasingly accelerating news cycles. Early in her term, Chancellor Merkel recognized that option and began posting video podcast messages about her government's policies, a step ahead of every other head of state.
So how then do voters sort out in the information overload and find a candidate with whom they can identify and support?
In Germany, there remains a stronger inclination to identify with the party than in the United States. Even there, however, the party memberships for the larger parties have been declining for more than two decades and the party system is now marked by a number of splinter parties who may be attracting the disaffected on the left and the right. A pair of upcoming state or Land elections in Lower Saxony and Hesse this month will provide a chance to see how that trend is developing. Chancellor Merkel is enjoying high levels of popularity, but her party is seeing its popularity remain well below her own.
Looking for Inspiration, Not Partisanship
The American voters will be sorting out their choices in the coming weeks and months across a wide range of issues, be it the nervous state of the economy, immigration controversies, and the war in Iraq. The centrality of those issues will be different across the nation. Yet, with so many conflicting issues and policies in the debates, we will see the question of personal style and experience at the forefront of people's decisions about whom they will support. Americans are looking for a sense of inspiration from as well as confidence in a new leader after these past few years of so much rancor and anger. They do not look to the party, Republican or Democratic, to deliver that. They look to the individual candidates, their capabilities, experience, and their authenticity. This demand by U.S. voters creates an unavoidable necessity for the candidates to openly address personal values and much more. This is why Senator Clinton's emotional moment in New Hampshire has triggered such a tremendous media echo. And this is also why Senator Obama is riding a wave of sympathy, not necessarily built upon his policy ideas but by embodying hope and aspiration. This personal-politics has also caused an enormous increase in participation in these initial primaries, especially among younger people. This interest in political decision-making might seem to contradict the fact that both the Congress and the White House are seeing the lowest levels of popularity in decades. But there is clearly a widespread desire to seek inspiration among the candidates as they deliver their messages.
The battle shaping up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama captures this in a particularly dramatic way. The possibility of a first female or black president in the White House generates excitement among many. Just how many remains to be seen.
The Personalization of Politics
The willingness of a politician to grant the public access to the personal sphere seems a prerequisite to run for president in the United States. Across the Atlantic the political elite is still not as subject to public scrutiny as here in the U.S. Chancellor Merkel is the prime example of a political leader in Europe who knows to keep the private and the public separated and still enjoys popularity. Her counterpart in France is dealing with this issue radically differently. It remains to be seen if this is too radical for French political culture. Leadership is valued differently in Europe and the U.S., and the balancing act between the private and the public remains a challenge for every contender.
Does the process we are currently observing in the U.S. generate the talent and leadership both the United States and the world needs right now? There is no guarantee and that answer lies ahead for whoever wins. In any case, the next president will be challenged to inspire not only the country that elects him or her but also a world which is watching very closely and perhaps nervously as Americans make their choice.
This essay appeared in the January 10, 2008, AICGS Advisor.