Summary: New leaders emerge amidst the economic and social stress since the crash, charismatic leaders offering hope and promising change — winning elections. They have everything but the key element necessary for political change. Their experience shows what we’re missing, what we need to make reform possible.
“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
— John Maynard Keynes, chapter 24 of the General Theory, pg. 383 (1936)
“Mark this well, you proud men of action: You are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who often, in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.”
— Heinrich Heine, History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, Vol. III (1834)
A new breed of politicians has come to the western nations. Charismatic, media-savvy, creating expectations of hope and change. Leaders such as Obama in America, Beppe Grillo of Italy’s Five Star Movement, and Jón Gnarr of Iceland’s Best Party. They achieve fame and fortune by bringing new excitement to Republics whose political systems have grown stale. Bold leaders with excited followers, marshaling vast resources (e.g., money, technology, publicity) in great causes.
Here we discuss why they have produced such small results. This article describes one story, typical of the rest: “The World According to Gnarr“, Aaron Bastani, London Review of Books, 1 September 2014 — Excerpt:
Lady Gaga once said that ‘more mayors in the world should be like Jón Gnarr.’ In June, Gnarr left office after serving a full four-year term as mayor of Reykjavík. His memoir, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, will be published in Britain this week.
Gnarr and his Best Party had promised to do politics ‘differently’. Such a pledge is the bread and butter of modern electioneering, but no one else, from Barack Obama to Matteo Renzi, has made it while gleefully describing their campaign as ‘anarcho-surrealist’.
… Four years later, and that initial success remains unique in Europe. The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has led to the flourishing of populist, xenophobic parties on the right as well as reinvigorating a popular politics to the left of ‘third way’ social democracy; but Gnarr, even now, seems to be a genuinely new kind of political actor. While the likes of Nigel Farage or Beppe Grillo lay the blame for various problems on specific institutions and interests, Gnarr blames institutional politics itself.
In spite of that originality, however, Gnarr’s tenure as mayor didn’t deliver much more than an orderly, if at times colourful, managerialism. His disdain for ideas meant that most policies came from his partners in the Social Democratic Alliance, whose leader, Dagur Eggertsson, has now replaced him as mayor of Reykjavík.
We’ve seen the same from Obama in American and Grillo in Italy. Hope burns bright, then exhausts itself from lack of results (see Obama’s popularity polls). We have reformers with people and resources, but no ideas. We misunderstood the insight of the late John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF):
“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!” (attributed)
All three elements are needed for victory over the established system. Two are insufficient, even when combined with hope and charisma. There can be no change without ideas about alternatives to the present.
Perhaps that is the missing element that I have sought for so long, which explains why reform programs in America are a series of damp squibs. Political reformers tend to offer either big but ungrounded ideas — miracle cures, such as a constitutional convention — or a laundry list of reforms (usually crafted to appeal to special interest groups). Neither leads to the kind of deep political reform America needs.
So what might catch the attention of a broad coalition of Americans and lead to effective reform? Nothing comes to my mind. I suggest listening to political scientists, or even philosophers. Or look to the fringes, from where new ideas often emerge. Post your ideas in the comments. More on this on another day.
“It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
— John Maynard Keynes in his General Theory (1936)
For More Information
(a) See all posts about our political problems, and possible solutions:
- Posts about politics in America
- How can we stop the quiet coup now in progress?
- Posts about seeing America clearly, in the mirror
- Reforming America: steps to political change.
(b) Operational issues in the project to reform America:
- The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy, 27 June 2013
- Why the 1% is winning, and we are not, 26 July 2013
- How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?, 20 December 2013
- Is grassroots organizing a snare or magic bullet for the reform of America?, 26 December 2013
- Should we risk using anger to arouse America?, 16 January 2014
- Why don’t political protests work? What are the larger lessons from our repeated failures?, 10 April 2014