The Connections Between Democratic Theory and Leadership

Why Democratic Theory Is Essential For Leadership Theory

Debates about the current condition of democracy skim over the question of leadership. We hear a great deal about the lack of civility in public discourse, the decline of trust in institutions and public officials, the pursuit of self-interest by citizens and their representatives, the apparent incapacity of the political system to address long-range problems, and the futility of any form of political engagement. Civil society appears to be anything but civil, and public deliberation as a means of resolving differences seems a hopeless ideal, nice in theory but wholly unachievable in practice. Democracy, in the words of one insightful critic, is on trial, challenged by “deepening cynicism; the growth of corrosive forms of isolation, boredom, and despair; the weakening, in other words, of the world known as democratic civil society, a world of groups and associations and ties that bind.”

The matter of leadership is implicit in these discussions, or when it is made explicit it comes in one of two forms: either platitudinous observations about the need for integrity, boldness and vision; or crass, simplistic misappropriations of complex and sophisticated political theories. When Jonathan Rauch’s otherwise shrewd critique of politics as systematically driven by organized groups ends with a plea for “that most personal and fickle of counterforces: political leadership,” we sense that his analytical powers and rhetorical skills have exhausted themselves. The very premise of his argument is that everyone, citizens and leaders alike, is inescapably complicit in the problem of “demosclerosis.” When Dick Morris, President Bill Clinton’s erstwhile advisor, tries to justify his view of politics as merely a modern version of Machiavelli’s The Prince, he reveals not only his perverse notion of ethics but also his tendency to mangle political philosophy in service of his cause.

Although it may seem self-evident that theories of leadership are embedded within theories of democracy, modern discussions of leadership proceed otherwise, as if untethered to political philosophy. One consequence is that while we aggressively debate timeless questions of democratic theory, such as the terms of engagement in the public sphere and the condition of civil society, we root around aimlessly when discussing leadership, unaware that disputes in democratic theory inevitably lead to disputes about the nature of leadership. The effect is not unlike one of the characters described in a Richard Russo novel as “not profoundly stupid” but missing “his fair share of nuances.” That fits the state of our theories on political leadership – not completely off the mark but lacking appreciation for subtlety and complexity.

We root around aimlessly when discussing leadership, unaware that disputes in democratic theory inevitably lead to disputes about the nature of leadership

For example, when someone claims that democracy requires civility, what additional claims about democratic leadership are also being made? Stephen Carter’s provocative book, Civility, provides some clues. We must first accept that there will be continuous disagreement in a democracy, constant dialogue instead of final consensus, a form of politics marked by commitment to principles, to be sure, but also a willingness to learn from others. “Civil listening” is one of Carter’s ideals. “The function of debate in a truly civil society is not only to prevail; the function is to allow the best idea to win out. Therefore,” he concludes, “no matter how certain I may be that I am right, unless I give you a genuine and open opportunity to persuade me of my errors, I cannot seriously expect you to give me a genuine and open opportunity to persuade you of yours.” Leaders presumably should model this public etiquette while creating conditions that enable and encourage citizens to act in the same manner.

Perhaps. But to one of Carter’s critics, the answer is not so clear. Civility is only one of many virtues, and when virtues come into conflict we have to assign priority to one over another. In the private realm of family and friends, civility may frequently if not always take precedence. In the public world of argument and debate, however, fighting injustice and standing for principle may at times trump civility. Sometimes we show respect for others by attacking the insufficiency of their ideas. While Carter’s critic would not dismiss the benefit of civility, he does help us understand that our vision of democratic politics – what we imagine its purposes to be – inevitably leads to discussion of how we wish leaders to behave. The leadership behavior we endorse depends, that is, on the kind of democracy we want.

Another example raises a related but somewhat different question. A few years ago, when the budget deficit framed virtually all political debate and elected officials seemed incapable of making hard choices, a soon-to-be-retired senator rose to address his colleagues. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, was dismayed over his colleague’s refusal to rein in entitlement spending. Fearing the fiscal burden that would eventually be placed on future generations and judging that to be a classic case of injustice, the senator blamed the inaction on the electoral imperative – the overriding impulse to placate short-term demands from constituents at the cost of long-term benefits. Speaking extemporaneously and indignantly with a passion that revealed his frustration, he continued:

Deep down in our hearts we know that we have bankrupted America and that we have given our children a legacy of bankruptcy. We have been so intent on getting ourselves elected that year after year we have told the people that they get their choice between more benefits and lower taxes….The problem is that we have hurt America – quite intentionally we have hurt America, for the purposes of getting ourselves elected. We have told Americans that they should feel sorry for themselves. We have told them we can give them something for nothing. We have told them we can reduce taxes and we can increase benefits, and the numbers do not add up, and people want to believe that this is not a problem.

Danforth’s particular plaint about the budget is beside the point. What does matter is his accusation that public officials fail to sacrifice their own interest (in this case electoral success) in the name of what they determine to be in public interest. In addition, he suggests that officials have a responsibility to educate the public about their choices – to lead rather than mislead. His sentiments have an undeniable appeal, and I shall take them up later. Still, direct responsiveness to constituents should not be too quickly dismissed. After all, the justification for elections as a means of accountability is that officials will and should be influenced by the incentive to please those they represent. Even more to the point, can we realistically expect representatives to ignore their own basic self-interest in the name of some amorphously defined public good any more than we can expect citizens to override theirs? In the view of many democratic theorists, interests rather than ideas or principles drive politics.8Some go even farther by asserting that interests actually check the unbridled and impulsive passions. They should be not only tolerated but embraced. Constructing theories of leadership without a realistic appraisal of human nature is to create an untenable portrayal of the responsibilities of leaders. Of course the features of human nature, let alone their implications for politics, are very much open to debate, but that is precisely the point. Implicit in Danforth’s version of leadership is one view, a view with appeal but a contested one that must be defended.

A final example. In what is surely one of the most revealing portraits of modern-day, street-level, genuine retail politics. Buzz Bissinger writes of the tenure of Ed Rendell, mayor of Philadelphia in the mid-1990s. Rendell faced enormous constraints, including a rapidly deteriorating fiscal climate, exacerbated by self-reinforcing trends. The more people left the city because of crime, loss of jobs, and inferior education, the smaller the tax base, and the greater the inability to rectify the very problems that caused people to leave, thereby touching off still more departures. As industries historically important to the city’s economy closed or moved, Rendell tried to fill the void by attracting shoppers and tourists, only to be charged with ignoring the city’s traditional neighborhoods. The job became all consuming. His daily schedule was a series of events ranging from phone calls and meetings with the president and cabinet secretaries to appearances at funerals for slain policemen to dancing with mascots for companies who donated small change to minor civic events. His office became the repository for demands completely irreconcilable. Bissinger’s portrait is unabashedly sympathetic. Rendell “knew better than anyone else how politics worked, the persona and the aura of the job subsuming everything else. People saw him as the mayor, always the mayor, never as a man who might have brushes with insecurity and sadness and even frailty….He wondered whether the standards for politicians were just impossible to ever fully meet.”9 Bissinger continues:

He was the embodiment of a public man, utterly defined by his place in the public eye and the way in which the public reacted to him, and the private acts which define a life – family, friendships, religious faith – seemed of little sustaining moment to him. Whatever it was, wherever it was, he hated being outside the circle. But in the elusive definition of what it means to be a public servant, no one else came closer to the ideals that the concept represents. He gave of himself tirelessly, and his motive wasn’t pure self-aggrandizement or strokes of the ego, nor was it mere obligation. He was hardly a student of urban history and urban planning. He had no grand theory that could be explained on paper. But he understood exactly what a city was about – sounds and sights and smells, all the different senses, held together by the spontaneity of choreography, each day, each hour, each minute different from the previous one.

In the canonical literature on leadership, there is a distinction drawn between transactional and transformational leadership. The former refers to leadership based on transactions between leaders and followers, agreements or bargains which promise mutually beneficial results. If you vote for me, a politician will offer, I promise you this. I get a position; you have your interests fulfilled. By contrast, transformational leadership offers a new way of looking at the world. Leaders provide not bargains but ideas, hopes, and aspirations.11 The distinction (which I have unfairly simplified) is a useful one. It has contributed to our understanding. Yet one wonders whether it applies in any way to Rendell’s case. As he came to embody the city, to the point of losing any sense of a private life outside of his official role, as he worked tirelessly to overcome the constraints and usher in a new vision for the city, was he transformational? Or was his leadership better understood as an endless attempt to balance the demands of a heterogeneous group of constituents? Rendell was both transactional and transformational and therefore was neither. The demands of leadership in a democracy call for bargains and transactions – hard, cold tit-for-tat tradeoffs – but within a context of goals, purposes and objectives.


The purpose of this study is to mine contemporary democratic theory for insights into understanding the obligations and responsibilities of leaders, and their motivational speech. My premise is that assertions about leadership – such as normative claims about legitimacy and accountability or commitments to constituents and appropriate criteria for decision making – are inseparable from claims about preferred forms of democracy. It is impossible, in other words, to “do” leadership theory without also doing democratic theory. And yet the literature on political leadership in democracies only rarely draws from political philosophy in any systematic or explicit manner. That could very well be because democratic theorists only occasionally focus directly on leaders, per se, although much of what they say has enormous implications for how we enable officials to lead while constraining their discretion and scope of authority. Whatever the explanation, students of leadership typically overlook political philosophy.