Why leadership matters

In order to avoid the anxiety of wondering about the 'what ifs' in life, humans have a tendency to think that things will carry on much as they did before. It’s what psychologists term 'continuity bias'. However, 2016 is testimony to the fact that this assumption is not always reflective of events. This year, ‘change’ was the watchword and changes in political leadership characterised 2016.

While there have been many unexpected departures such as the death of Fidel Castro, the resignation of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Park Geun-hye in South Korea. It is the anti-elite electoral tides that swept David Cameron and Italy’s Matteo Renzi from power and elected Donald Trump and rocked the political firmament.

What these events have in common is a popular revolt against 'business as usual' and a desire to reject not only incumbent leaders and parties, but the political system which they represent. The leaders of these popular revolts successfully exploited a sense of economic exclusion and political powerlessness among a section of the population and managed to direct their anger both at the incumbent elites and political ‘others’, be it minorities of race and religion, foreigners or global corporations.

Although David Cameron was the first victim of this process, his decision to hold the EU referendum was a calculated move to allow a voice to these grievances, in order to placate maverick tendencies in his own party, that spectacularly back fired. Having promised something that was difficult to provide in practice he resigned. His successor, Theresa May, has sought to ride this tide of Anti-European populist nationalism for her own political advantage, but in doing so has made the task of negotiating a divorce from the EU on good terms that much more difficult for the UK.

In turn, the Brexit vote inspired Trump to continue his populist, nativist rhetoric in what amounted to an insurgent campaign that first captured the Republican Party nomination and then, in winning the election, pulled off what amounts to a hostile takeover of the American political system. Even before he takes office in January, Trump has behaved in a way which indicates the difference in style and substance of his presidency than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Matteo Renzi’s failed referendum and subsequent resignation follows the same anti-elite and anti-incumbent pattern, as does the decision of French President Francois Hollande not to seek re-election next year. Whether 2017 provides further electoral shocks in France, the Netherlands and Germany remains to be seen. But even without any further surprises, it is worth noting that the spread of nationalist populism is not confined to Western democracies and has not only resulted in leadership changes. Indeed, Vladimir Putin has stoked nationalist, militarist populism in Russia since coming to power in 1999 and has used that as the basis for his popularity. Similarly, in China, Xi Jinping has amassed more powers and titles to his office and has used a military build-up and assertive territorial claims as a way of justifying continued one-party rule in China.

Taken together, what these trends demonstrate is not that 2016 has been characterised by an unusual amount of political turnover in governmental leaders. Instead, it shows that when the character of political leadership changes dramatically, the sense of discontinuity is rightly and justifiably heightened. Although 2016 was unusual for these changes, the processes set in motion by Brexit and the election of Trump will also dominate the years to come. Indeed, 2017 will inevitably demonstrate the new dynamics of leadership interactions as a result of the French Presidential elections and the ‘deal making’ approach to foreign policy promised by President Trump.

Professor David Hastings Dunn

Department of Political Science and International Studies