In praise of weak leadership

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Maclean's began its issue on "The Leaders" with: "That every federal election is about leadership is axiomatic." Well, axioms are worth challenging — parallel lines never intersect, the free-market is self-correcting, etc. It's how people progress to new systems and visions. I'd like to know how they know that, and if it's even true.

Take John McCain's move this week to "suspend" his campaign in order to save the U.S. economy. Everyone realizes it's not a genuine action; it's a gesture, a sign, meant to "show" leadership. He "is hoping that his abrupt decision will be seen as the kind of ... leadership he believes Americans want." (Washington Post). It's like he's auditioning for the part of Decisive Leader in a movie. Then it gets offset by another gesture: shots of him on Katie Couric's news set while David Letterman plotzes on his own set because the candidate cancelled on him! Same stuff up here. Jack Layton has a sign on his podium reading Strong Leader. They could just superimpose a caption with an arrow: Strong head of strong leader, pointing at him, buffed and bulked up for the part. When asked if he "fears" a Harper majority, he recoils as if programmed to never use that word, because he's Strong.

This is politics as culture, as entertainment. The Leader is just one member of an ensemble. Elections as shows can be riveting — like the Barack and Hillary show. What may occasionally interrupt them is a genuine, personal threat such as an economic crisis — it's like a fire breaking out in the theatre. Suddenly, people aren't preoccupied with being entertained but with being saved. What do they care then who gives the best performance as leader?

Stéphane Dion is an odd case. He keeps yapping about his green plan even as party hotshots tell him the story line has changed, we're off that stuff. Could he think it isn't a show — that the planet really is in danger? Would that count as real leadership rather than the acted kind? Poor Stéphane. Could he ever play a leader? Doubtful, although if he got elected somehow, and everyone onstage — journalists, MPs — treated him as a leader, he might start feeling, and acting it. Ah, the magic of theatre.

Is strong leadership even desirable? FDR, whom people think of in harsh economic times, wasn't elected as a strong leader. Once in office, he did things that made people think of him that way. Self-proclaimed strong leaders tend to come from the populist tradition — Huey Long, Maurice Duplessis — or totalitarian leadership cults. I wonder if Jack Layton ever cringes at the label. Before you can say it, I'll mention Churchill, a strong leader all his life but given the top job only when his country was already at war and a real bastard was needed. Even before war's end, the voters kicked him out in favour of a weaker leader whose policies they liked.

Why hasn't Harper the Strong pulled away from the field? Why is the Layton NDP stuck? How has the weak, frail Dion hung in — as if voters are seeking something outside the strong leadership box? Such as — weak leadership. Isn't that what real democracy would be about? It would disperse leadership among its citizens. In ancient Athens, they chose most leaders by lot, after policies were established in public debate. They made an exception only for leaders chosen in wartime.

So maybe the leadership axiom isn't so axiomatic. An Ipsos Reid poll this week found 62 per cent of Canadians say they're most "swayed" by party stances on key issues versus 21 per cent by leaders. Pollster Darrell Bricker was so stunned, and so committed to official theology, that he insulted voters by saying he didn't know if they meant it or were just trying to give "the right answer." To gain what, his approval? Maybe someone should poll the pollsters on whether they think Canadian voters have any brains.

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