Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Personalisation of Democratic Leadership? Evidence from Small States

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Personalisation of Democratic Leadership? Evidence from Small States

Article excerpt


The personalisation of politics is said to be on the rise, with the victory of Donald Trump emblematic of this broad shift across large, wealthy Western democracies. The success of anti-establishment or 'populist' leaders are said to be a symptom of a decline in traditional, party-based political representation. Across Europe and America voter turnout is decreasing, political parties are struggling to retain members, and professional politicians are increasingly despised (Stoker 2006; Hay 2007; Flinders 2012; Boswell and Corbett 2015). Combined, these trends are said to herald a new era of democratic government in these states, one in which, for better or worse, leaders matter more than ever.

The question for scholars is what the impact of this shift will be on the form and function of democratic government. Can democracy survive this onslaught of charismatic, anti-establishment individuals? And, if so, what might hyper-personalised democracy look like? Speculation and conjecture abound. One common assumption is that this new era is unprecedented. To be sure, democracy has survived without bureaucratised parties and professional politicians in the past. But that was before television, let alone the internet and a relentless 24-hour news cycle. Contemporary democracies appear to be trapped in a cycle (or spiral?) in which they place more and more stock in their leaders while at the same time making it harder and harder for them to do their job well (Runciman 2013).

The problem with these assumptions is that they have been barely tested empirically. Obviously, large, wealthy Western democracies are not alone in the democratic universe. Democracy can and does exist in other parts of the world, and often without the bureaucratised parties and professional politicians that are said to be ubiquitous features of modern government. Conventionally, democratic practice in other parts of the world is largely ignored because it is defined by its deficits; it is a poor, incomplete imitation of the real thing. This is no longer (and probably never was) true. If we want to provide a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges and opportunities presented by recent changes then , more than ever, we now need to pay attention and learn from the full spectrum of democratic experience. And while non-Western democracies are often implicitly or explicitly regarded as lagging behind the West in terms of democratic development, perhaps they could also be seen as frontrunners or prototypical cases, in the sense that they are already experiencing the phenomena that Western democracies are now starting to face.

In this article we attempt such a move. If the personalisation of politics is the defining feature of this new democratic age then we have the most to learn from those democratic states which experience highly personalised politics. The cases we choose are extreme examples: the world's smallest states (in total 39 countries that have populations of 1 million or less). These states are the archetypal 'face-to-face' societies, in which politics has always been (and probably always will be) hyper-personalised. What's more, small states are, statistically speaking, much more likely to be stable and long lasting democracies than their larger states, at least according to Freedom House and the World Governance Indicator for political stability (Anckar 2002). But, while this fact alone might assuage many fears and even prompt some to laud the merits of devolution, decentralisation and subsidiarity, we also sound a note of caution: hyper-personalised democracies work differently to larger mass-party democracies. Small tends to be democratic, but often in a markedly illiberal way (Baldacchino 2012; Erk and Veenendaal 2014).

This equivocal relationship between state size, democracy and liberalism has been central to a long tradition of democratic thought. Plato believed that the ideal size of a republic was 5,040 citizens, a figure reached by an exacting set of calculations. …

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