Two popular fallacies are thriving in a Europe of populism and diminished expectations. Many argue that Europe’s problem is a problem of leadership. Missing are statesmen with the stature of Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand or Jacques Delors. Historical distance tends to elevate and idealize leaders of the past. In their time, critics denounced Kohl’s provincialism, Mitterrand’s financial illiteracy and Delors’s timidity.
This fallacy ignores the underlying causes of the problem. A more deeply united European Union of 28 members is also one that is more deeply split. The quiet consensus of the past has been replaced by the noisy disputes of the present. Governance today is constant crisis management with broad, painful compromises. Kohl would have managed no better than German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Focusing on the personalities prevents the debate from being focused where it should be – on diverging national interests, growing inequality and rising disparity – when what is needed is greater integration, bold compromises and broad, EU-wide solutions.
The second fallacy is even more prevalent. As Stathis Kalyvas recently wrote (Kathimerini, 16.12.2018), “unfortunately, the narrative of a disengaged and arrogant elite dominates in Europe today, often even within the elite, mainly because of intellectual laziness and leading to the adoption of all kinds of cliches.”
The cliche of the disconnected elites, apart from being populist, is also to a significant extent untrue. Never before have democratically elected leaders kept such a careful eye on public perception and mood. Never before have the elites of western liberal democracies been so exposed to scrutiny and disparaging criticism, not just from a clutch of critical media but from the millions of snipers on the internet and social media.
Rarely before have leaders been forced to ritual demonstrations of humility like today – a welcome development in itself. French President Emmanuel Macron rushed to admit his “mea culpa” when faced with the “Yellow Vests” – does anyone remember Charles de Gaulle, Valery Giscard d’Estaing or Mitterrand taking the blame with such alacrity? The only leaders profusely lacking any shred of humility are precisely those who have built their political careers castigating the mainstream elites: the Trumps and Orbans of our time.
Isolation of the elites? Traditionally, leaders have shaped high politics in a tight circle. Lyndon Johnson sent millions of young Americans to an unpopular war in the jungles of Vietnam – hundreds of thousands returned in body bags or crippled for life. Today, US President Donald Trump executes national security policy through tweets, picking up “Likes” and blowing up alliances going back decades, defying the opinion of experts; mainly guided by his political instinct and the need to maintain his electoral base. The raison d’etat, politics of national interest, has given way to vox populi, as demonstrated by the slow-motion shipwreck of the Brexit referendum. This holds true for serious governments, even where the defense minister does not dress up in a commando’s uniform to attract the so-called patriotic vote, as in the Greek case.
There are no politicians today who do not consult pollsters and focus groups before making a significant move. The oft-cited survey question of voter expectations – “who do you expect to win” – becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the undecided voter just goes with the mainstream. The influence of polls does not always lead to nationally beneficial solutions, but politicians today have less power to resist.
Sometimes the elites need to keep a certain distance from public sentiment. The fight against global warming would have had no chance of becoming a popular cause as long as individuals were forced to discard easy habits and pay when they polluted. Elite scientists sounded the alarm, elite journalists picked up the story, elite politicians worked together and negotiated, and elite progressive, environmental movements supported them to yield the Paris Climate Agreement. In contrast, the Yellow Vests rebelled against the gasoline and diesel tax, to the applause of populists around the world. In the US, SUV drivers are happily roused by Trump and the oil companies to deny the irrefutable findings of science.
Other liberal elites shielded refugees from the blind rage of “endangered majorities” (Ivan Krastev). They put in place constitutional protections against the tyranny of the majority and the arbitrariness of unchecked power. Minorities, the weak, the planet, owe a lot to progressive elites and liberal institutions, which did not wait for popular support to act.
Of course there are arrogant, self-serving elites, detached from society. But political conflict built on this premise nurtures political cannibalism and false dichotomies of “the elite versus the people,” where demagogues carry the day. Politics is thus reduced to a primitive, authoritarian-prone zero sum conflict of “us versus them.”
The issue is not the elites. The issue is for the elites to be selected on merit, to have a social conscience, to serve the public interest and to operate with democratic checks and balances.