Imagine you are sat in a restaurant on a first date.
The person opposite you has just told you that they will guarantee you the best sex of your life, eternal happiness and your own private herd of unicorns to taxi you to and from work each day.
It’s at this point that you get up and leave the restaurant, safe in the knowledge that your date is either completely full of shit or marginally insane.
That’s because we naturally distrust people who promise us the world.
Yet imagine you are a democratic voter standing in the polling booth in 2008 with Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can!’ mantra ringing in your ears. The same could be said for Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ or Emmanuelle Macron’s ‘France, Together!’
Across all of these slogans, men who would cast themselves as great leaders are extending the promise of a golden future often far removed from the complex reality.
Of course, people need something in which to believe. Yet I also wonder whether there is another reason behind our attraction to leaders offering magically simple solutions, one which has its roots in the way in which masculinity has evolved over the years.
Have a quick glance back through history and amongst a few curvy nudes and the odd bit of theatre you will notice a striking amount of conflict. For the majority of our time on this earth, humanity has felt threatened with destruction. More likely than not, there was an army over the horizon waiting to take your land, wrestle away your prize-winning cabbage and bonk you over the head with something fairly sharp.
During this time, men with simple solutions were rather appropriate; you didn’t need a complex negotiation with the barbarian horde, you needed to stop them burning your village. This imperative meant that leaders weren’t obliged to offer an extensive policy agenda. If they kept their country’s land and got some more, they were doing well. If they let all of their people get slaughtered…not so well.
And since art spent hundreds of years being tied to patronage, we have hundreds of years of culture which reinforce this ideal; imagery which depicts leaders in simple terms. They are not complex characters, anguished by the weight of power and the decisions they must take, instead they are gloriously single-minded, confident, strong.
As we came to accept this definition of ‘good’ leadership we also developed a counter-narrative for anyone who didn’t embody these qualities. Someone who wanted to negotiate with the enemy rather than fight him (to compromise, let’s say) came to be seen as cowardly, underhand, even treacherous. To use a contemporary example: Neville Chamberlain is the villain for appeasing Hitler, Churchill the hero who opposed him.
Of course, due to the unfortunate fact that the majority of the world’s leaders over the last few thousand years have been male, these principles have slowly been inserted into our definition of masculinity. Whether we agree with it or not, most people would more readily associate ‘masculine’ with words like ‘strong’ or ‘decisive’ than they would with words like ‘sensitive’ or ‘empathetic.’
Therefore, people who rail against the paltry length of Boris Johnson’s most recent election manifesto, or who pick holes in Trump’s haphazard foreign policy, are missing the point. I believe that certain Western electorates are at a moment in time where the detail doesn’t matter. Instead, they are going all-in for leaders offering the simple promise of a glorious future because that is what history has taught them to crave when they feel threatened. (You only have to see Trump and Johnson referring to ‘traitors’ and ‘defeatists’ to see that the counter-narrative is also at play).
I think this also partly explains why male, as opposed to female leaders, appear to have had more success in the most recent elections in the UK and USA. We have had centuries looking for strong male leaders in times of danger, so even in the present day when the choice open to an electorate is far greater, there might be a cultural bias at play which incorrectly associates masculine characteristics with better leadership, and which more readily identifies men as ‘leaders.’
If that sounds ludicrous, consider the enormous attention that was dedicated to Theresa May’s cough during her party conference speech or to Hillary Clinton’s collapse following the 9/11 memorial. Rationally we know that these things aren’t at all important; we’re picking presidents or prime ministers, not generals. Yet there was nevertheless a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, suggestion that these events pointed to a physical inability to do the job. Why else did it help Thatcher to embrace her role as ‘The Iron Lady’? Why was Trump so keen to share his farcical medical reports with the world? Why does Emmanuel Macron like to abseil down onto nuclear submarines? Why do all politicians love to be photographed giving a rousing speech to soldiers? It is as if deep down our brains still think we are picking someone who will have to lead our troops into battle.
But why is this? Why, when the world is, in theory, safer than ever, do people still feel threatened?
After all, this pattern is playing out in countries that have traditionally been the strongest advocates for the national and international institutions which were designed to try to remove the fear of conflict. Living in a democratic society should mean we are free from the threat of tyranny at home, whilst global organisations like the UN, EU or WTO should provide a platform for the peaceful resolution of disputes internationally. In short, we should be able to go about our day knowing that no one is coming over the aforementioned horizon to fuck with us.
The answer lies in the effects of globalisation. Whilst Brits might no longer be worried about a Spanish Armada, and Americans can be sure the Brits won’t be burning down the White House again, certain communities in the West are now faced with an economic, rather than a physical, fear. It may not be a mortal danger, but the threat is felt in the same way: this time the barbarian horde is coming to steal peoples’ jobs, either by undercutting the local workforce or taking industries offshore.
Communities in Italy that have seen their textile trade decimated are voting for Matteo Salvini’s League. Towns in the North of England that have had their industrial heart ripped out opted for Johnson’s Brexit. The squeezed middle class of America thronged to support Obama.
As this phenomenon plays out, it presents a significant challenge: we have built a system that relies on compromise and negotiation, yet we have a global trend which is forcing people back into an emotional state which, for historical reasons, sets them against those very qualities.
The result is a dangerous negative feedback loop in which unrealistic expectations are continually disappointed. With each new disappointment, the disaffection grows, and we become ever more susceptible to wilder leaders, wilder promises and simpler solutions. This couldn’t be happening at a worse time, since solutions to the major problems of our century, like climate change, are anything but simple.
Yet the wonderful thing about this situation is that we have the power to change it. History may influence us, but it does not have to define us.
It starts with you, and the millions of men around the world who are already prodding, kicking and questioning what it means to be a man in the 21st century. If we can create a society in which it is highly desirable to be collaborative, in which negotiation and compromise are noble arts, then we can stop falling for the seductive wink of men who pretend to have all the answers.
When this happens, we’ll get leaders, both male and female, who are far better suited to the modern political systems we have created, and who can work with the opposition rather than merely against them to address the problems that we all face.
The days of absolute victory are long gone, and that’s actually rather fantastic.
Que viva el compromiso!