Leadership, politics & the centre

Some years ago, before joining academic life,  I was speaking with a colleague about a TD (member of the Irish parliament) who had been re-elected despite his private financial dealings being revealed as being suspect.  The former colleague, who hailed from the TD’s constituency was disgusted, but offered an explanation for why.  This reason has stayed with me.

Some weeks before the election there had been a tragedy in the constituency that had received scant coverage in national media  outlets.  My colleague explained that readers and viewers in the constituency turned on their televisions and radios and opened their newspapers to see articles and listen to news items that appeared trivial when compared to the traumatic events of the local news items.

The people in that constituency were not stupid and were as aware as anyone that TD could reasonably have been investigated for corruption, but yet voted him back into office.  When a group of people receive a message that the ‘centre’ doesn’t care about them, they will send a message back to the centre. The sad and traumatic event reinforced a message (whether true or not) had been in the atmosphere in that constituency for some time.

I was reminded of this when reading a commentary in the Financial Times  (1st February 2016) titled ‘Trump’s middle-finger appeal’, where Edward Luce articulates how support for ‘The Donald’ is an expression of the distaste of some groups in the US for what is perceived (or presented) as an aloof, disconnected, political class who don’t care about middle or working class people.

When individuals find themselves (or believe themselves to be) at the margins, rather than the centre of things they feel disempowered and undervalued.  Having received a message that they are being treated with contempt, they will hold a mirror up to the ‘centre’ and reflect this contempt right back at it.  Social theorists discuss this in relation to marginalizing people in relation to their ability to consume or fulfill themselves in the employment market.  Stakeholder theory has an apt term for groups of stakeholders tho are powerful and possess stakes which are urgent, but are not perceived by the centre as possessing legitimacy: dangerous stakeholders.

When candidates for positions of political leadership rise,  we need to understand what this tells us about their followers.  If the candidate is someone as polarizing as Donald Trump, it provides an opportunity to understand the concerns of the individuals who have a stake in his election.  Trump’s supporters have often been satirized and mocked in a cartoonish way, but this mockery will add another layer of contempt that will reinforce his standing amongst his followers.

Candidates for political leadership don’t have to be prototypical of  their followers.  The fact that they may have benefited from advantages that are structurally denied to their followers doesn’t matter to them.  When a candidate expresses disrespect for the values of a group that they present as an privileged elite to their followers, they are giving voice (even creating) a disdain for this group.  When they ignore the ‘rules of the game’ and make up their own truths the appeal deepens.

It’s true, of course, that candidates for political office sometimes create this sense of being an ‘out-group’ amongst their electorates.   The real challenge for leaders is how to bring the disenfranchised into the process and think of the collective good.

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