London, June 2017. A leadership crisis is upon us. Having cheerfully followed my lead as we clambered over the remnants of ancient Roman civilisation at the beginning of my first Quarterly Essay, Great Expectations, and contemplated Tacitus and the fall of the Roman Empire at the beginning of my second, Political Amnesia, Tosca Ramsey, my daughter, my diva filia, has had enough as we travel on perhaps our last Excellent Girls’ Adventure abroad together. Now almost nineteen, Tosca has perfected the teenage eye-roll and barely disguised contempt. “Oh. My. God,” Tosca says, as I prod helplessly at a ticket machine in the vast concourse of Waterloo Station. “I can’t believe you just did that.” She strides off to sort out our ticket purchases, gloriously unaware of the young men walking into poles and garbage bins as she passes by. Although oblivious to the path of male destruction she leaves in her wake, she is more than aware of the effect she is having on her mother: the assertion of independence; of greater knowledge of the world and what is needed to operate in it; of greater competence and capacity to lead us on the next stage of our journey. Happy to follow along on our past adventures, in this one my girl has nicked the field marshal’s baton from my knapsack and made a charge for the front.
Leadership, it turns out, is a two-way thing. Leaders kid themselves that they are setting the terms of play, even running the world. And we write and think about them in those terms. But in fact true leaders only get to lead if they have followers whom they can persuade to follow. So often it is what followers want that determines whether leaders get to emerge at all. And as we have seen in Australia in recent years, it is followers in the party – and what they think followers outside the party – want that determines whether they stay there.
I didn’t yet realise, when I was being bathed in scorn at Waterloo Station, that there was an obvious final instalment, a trilogy to complete, in the consideration of Australian expectations of government, and our failing institutional memory, that I began in 2012. That final instalment concerns political leadership in the modern world. For whatever our expectations of government, whatever the state of our institutions and institutional memory, it is leadership that helps both to settle those things, and change them.
We don’t much discuss our expectations of government, or consider the changing nature of the institutions that hold our society together, and so often we have faulty memories of what has gone before. But we do increasingly focus our frustration with our society and our politics on the human form of our leaders. We bemoan a lack of leadership. Some yearn for the good old days when we had it. Yet when we get it, we sometimes don’t recognise it, and even if we do, we seldom reward it.
People always grumble about political leaders. But there is a deeper malaise afoot now. Zoom out from the daily inanity of the domestic news cycle. Zoom out even further from the point where you shake your head in disbelief at Trumpian political developments around the world or local Liberal Party madness. Consider something a little unlikely as a sign of our leadership discontents.
Young people’s fiction these days comes in ever faster waves of franchises seeking to ride particular crazes: for wizards, zombies, vampires or the post-apocalyptic. In many of these books, TV series and films, the same themes recur: societies in which the rules have broken down, in which there are no people in positions of authority, or even formal leadership structures. These are stories built on disillusionment and a suspicion of social structure – which often acts as a threat to our heroes, who invariably are just average kids. Rugged individuals must make do, striving to stay alive, at least until the end of the book or episode.
Our young people absorb, but are also attracted to, these worlds with their broken-down societies or absent leaders. This might be no more than a reflection of the slightly maudlin phase many of us go through as teenagers. At first glance, an obsession with the post-apocalyptic would seem more understandable in those of us who grew up during the Cold War, rather than the second decade of the twenty-first century. But the disillusionment reflected in fictional domains coincides with the global return of the strongman to politics. And with these two conflicting trends comes a belated alarm that the world is not naturally tending to the Western democratic model that many of us smugly assumed had triumphed and become irresistible at the end of the Cold War.
This is an extract from Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY