A conversation with Lubbers and Machiavelli.

Summary of a talk on May 12, 2016, The Hague


1. During a private conversation in the nineties the then Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers once asked the then director of the social and cultural planning office (Adriaan van der Staay): what is the role of a politician?

The answer given was: the role of the politician is to bridge a gap between decision-making and the people.

The question concerned the Netherlands. In this context the majority of the voters are positive about democracy as a system, but tend to be negative about politicians. This makes the role of the politician in democracy into an issue.

The term democratic leadership should not obscure an underlying tension. Even in a democracy the positions of the politician and the people, the elected and the voters, are different. They are not only extensions of each other but also opposing poles. It is therefore more realistic to think about a democratic leadership as having to maintain its working relationship with the citizens. This is not purely a question of public relations .

This working relationship in a democracy presupposes that the politician has the task to solve certain problems for the people. Therefore the people and the politicians may be said to own certain problems together for which the solution is not evident.

This sequence of citizen-problem-politician creates a triangular relationship in which the politicians and the citizens share an empty space, which is the absence of a solution. This triangular common public space is the field of politics.

The problem to be solved tests the politician’s ability to find a solution and to convince public opinion of this.

Many problems allow for relatively simple solutions. But certain political questions are difficult and urgent at the same time. They specifically ask for political leadership.

The specific questions the prime minister and the planning official discussed were real, systemic, structural, strategic, permanent. There existed no easy solutions.

The examples discussed were:

What causes modern unemployment? Is capitalism the answer? Should one invest in people or in machines?

Should compulsory military conscription be continued, now that it seemed dysfunctional to the army?

Both specific questions posed general political dilemmas. Is profit more important than employment, is military efficiency more important than popular support? This shows the question of democratic leadership in all its clarity: it has to provide new and extraordinary solutions through a political act of vision.

The definition of a political class as one that shares problems with the people and functions by solving them differs from the usual.

Politics is usually seen as making compromises between the interests of different groups represented by political parties.

But if this system proves inadequate, more political leadership is required.


2. It is here that we can turn to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) to reflect on his concepts of leadership.

He basically assumed that man’s nature does not change, only circumstances do. Therefore the past can inform the present. For him much instruction comes from the political history of Rome, Greece, Persia, and Israel. His other source was Florentine politics, in which he was strongly involved for 14 years.

As to leadership Machiavelli describes it as the outcome of actions. For the solution of a collective problem, like defense, individual strength is not enough. Among the people some are more capable in providing public solutions than others. He assumes these virtuous people are at the same time more prudent and more to the point. Communities will start to listen to these wise people and they will be entrusted with political leadership.

Machiavelli opposes the permanent precariousness of life with the human capacity to create a better life by civic order. In a republic he thinks this civic order is created by the interaction of citizens and leaders, and by following laws and rules. This civic order must be defended constantly. People can become lazy or corrupt or situations may change for the worse. Thus also a republic calls for strong leadership. Machiavelli pleads for a common duty towards the freedom of a society while tolerating individual frivolity when it does not impinge on it.

In this view without leadership the people on their own have little capacity to come to a solution.

Machiavelli remains impressed by the Roman acceptance of the division between the people (populus) and the leaders (senatus) who yet formed a common system (senatus populusque romanum). In this system the tribune of the people (tribunus plebis) formed a hinge. This official could overrule a decision of the senate in the name of the people.

Turning away from the past we may say that in modern democracy this hinge is formed by the political party and a system by which through elections the trust between the people and the government can be restored.

But if in the long run politicians do not solve a public problem, the tribunal function reappears: the populist leader. Populist politicians will not solve but exaggerate the problems that are not solved by the politicians in power.


3. The Roman tribune was a formal answer; modern populism is an informal answer to an inadequate problem solution by the political class.

In a well-functioning system of democratic leadership the dissidence of the people by populism will not be seen as an all-out attack on the system, but as putting an issue on the agenda for consideration.

The protest movement of Occupy Wall Street may be considered in this light. This secessionist movement of relatively well educated youngsters never intended to take power. They protested against growing inequality. The politicians expected them to become a political party and so did little understand this agenda-setting function. Yet today inequality has become an issue under consideration in the whole of the Western World. And subsequently has led to populism and new parties in many countries.

The same agenda-setting seems at work about the difficulties of integrating the theocratic aspect of Islam into the fundamentally un-theocratic system of democracy.

Both inequality and theocracy are now urgently up for solution.

A political problem may attract attention by informal movements and be put on the political agenda for urgent consideration, yet this is not enough. It needs more: a political decision.

If this political act is not forthcoming, public discussion will only lead to more insecurity and even in absence of a solution may lead to civil war and dictatorship. In this way the call for political leadership becomes manifest and unavoidable.

Leadership is highly dependent on the character and personal endeavors of politicians. It is possible to sketch a profile of this type of leadership by turning to modern history.

One example is associated with the defense of monarchy, the other with the defense of democracy.

Bismarck stabilized the monarchical system in Germany, made the population accept this for half a century and by the way made Germany externally one and safe.

From its beginning his leadership is characterized by courage and independent thinking. Whenever he feels the Prussian State is failing, he turns himself into a kind of one-man opposition against collective failure. He may be wrong at times, but he never fails to act.

The democratic example could come from Churchill. He was a risk-taker. He always had a ready vision, especially when not shared by others. He was ready to take responsibility, where others declined. He was the man of the moment when he went to war not peace.

In other words, these examples teach us that politics is not just about parties and compromises. Great political leadership does hardly follow the beaten path.


4. To return to Machiavelli, it should be recognized that his main inspiration was to solve the divisions of Italy. Machiavelli saw overcoming this fragmentation as the greatest challenge to Italian leadership. Though a republican, he was ready to turn to monarchy as a solution. It made him write Il Principe. Still, Italy would have to wait more than three centuries before it was finally liberated and united.

His political vision of republican leadership has some relevance for Europe today. The peoples of Europe are asking for a leadership in specific questions. This void in decision making indicates a lack of European leadership.

These specific questions have lead to populist movements of the Left or the Right all over Europe.

They put on the political agenda the problem of inequality, not only of income, but also in employment and in social status. The fear of migrants is largely fed by the fear of social decline for the masses.

The second political problem is that of inadequate security, and especially the lack of a strong defense against foreign aggression from theocratic or autocratic regimes.

These problems will not be solved by the technocracy of Europe, but will demand a republican leadership on the European level. It puts democratic leadership to the test of vision and political will, and asks for uncommon characters.