There’s no more predictable trope of political punditry than the loud, extended complaint about the quality of contemporary leadership. To every generation of commentators the current crop of statesmen are always a shadow of those who went before. Supposedly dispassionate observations about our fallen state are all tinted by an unwitting nostalgia, the tendency to view the past in sepia, the present in garish Technicolor.
But it really is worse now:
The inadequacy of the men and women at the top of the big democracies is global. The landscape of western leadership is not even like Disraeli’s famous range of exhausted volcanoes. It is more like a flat field dotted with dull molehills of varying sizes.
Take the G7. The man who runs Germany looks and sounds like he’s trying a second career after peaking in a regional bank at middle-manager level. Canada is run by a man-child. Italy is once again looking for anyone to run it. Japan’s only seriously visionary leader of the past 50 years was just assassinated. France has a president elected twice only because the alternative was so frightening and who couldn’t even persuade the voters to give him a co-operative parliament.
Then of course there is the United States. Polling this week shows President Biden’s approval ratings have hit a new low for his presidency. Remarkably, he has dropped below the point that Donald Trump bumped along for much of his term.
That means we have had, back to back, the two American presidents with the most sustained popular disapproval numbers in history. …
A seasoned observer of Washington’s steadily degrading political class tells me the deterioration is bipartisan and makes even famously failed figures from the past seem like gods. “Walter Mondale could materialise in the White House today and be reasonably confused with Apollo.” What’s gone wrong? …
Why? No career before politics:
Much is made of politics today being a less appealing career for talented people. The relative financial attraction of private sector jobs has grown massively in 50 years and the cost of a political career is not just lost millions. The relentless scrutiny and intrusion of public life deter many who might have been motivated.
But I also think part of the problem is a particular generational one: the character formation of our current generation of leaders. As recently as the 1980s we were led by a class that had done extraordinary things before they went into politics.
Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet was peppered with winners of the Military Cross. Ronald Reagan’s featured men like George Shultz who had already had multiple careers and spent the Second World War in the US Marine Corps, or George H W Bush, shot down by Japanese fighters over the Pacific.
This is emphatically not to say that military service is essential to being a successful statesman. Thatcher herself proved that. But experiences like these, real experiences, outside the self-actualising bubble of media and political unreality, imbue men and women with a completely different understanding of the needs and nature of public service.
We are led today instead by the members of a self-serving political class whose greatest hardship was the fear of getting caught with a twist of cocaine in their pocket on their way to a party at Oxford, or pulling a series of all-nighters to pass their bar exams.
We need to train the public not to elect these inexperienced nincompoops, who have so little understanding of the real world.
But what can you do when the main parties select candidates who have gone straight from law school to a union, politician’s office, or NGO, then stand for office? Bright and shiny young things with no idea of how the world works.
For example, Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese have had no professional life outside of politics.