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Should Businessmen Run Democratic Governments?

24/08/2017 17:36
JillianCain via Getty Images

One of the most pronounced aspect of the populist wave which has swept over parts of the West has been the emergence of businessmen - always men - as alleged standard-bearers of "the people". Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson in the U.S. have their counterparts in Britain's Brexit movement, many of whom claimed that their business experience gave them insight into how best to steer the country's future. Mark Zuckerberg is even rumored to fancy his chances at the presidency in 2020. For the plutocrats, involvement in politics usually means a substantial pay cut, but in compensation it feeds the ego. It also offers the opportunity to implement pro-business policies. But what's in it for "the people" who support them?

The appeal of businessmen in politics is certainly not based on the historical score card. Since Herbert Hoover, the four presidents with successful backgrounds in business - both Bushes, Carter and Hoover himself - oversaw the worst GDP performances of all modern presidents. Hoover and another businessman-turned-president, Warren Harding, are frequently considered two of the worst U.S. presidents in history. By contrast, Harry Truman - who ran a Kansas City haberdashery shop into the ground in the recession following World War I - oversaw substantial economic growth. There is no evidence for a link between business acumen and economic stewardship.

Nor, in theory, is there any reason to expect that the skillsets required to be a successful entrepreneur or corporate leader would translate well into democratic politics. In the U.S., the president is often idealised as the "commander-in-chief" or, as George W. Bush put it, "the decider". But the position as head of a democratic government is best understood as that of arbiter-in-chief. Democratic politics appears slow, messy and indecisive because it requires balancing the legitimate claims of seemingly endless constituencies. Its checks and balances are designed to avoid sudden ruptures with the old ways until the consequences for each group in society can be calculated, debated, and hedged against. Silicon Valley "disruptors" and authoritarian CEOs might find their services more useful elsewhere.

The need to arbitrate between the needs of so many different groups requires a fundamentally different mindset to that required to pander to the needs of the one group that looms largest for most chief execs: the shareholders. It requires creativity, determination and smarts to make a success of a large enterprise in the cutthroat world of global capitalism. But it also means being able to embrace a relatively narrow set of goals, and impatience with "externalities" such as the environmental damage caused by business which negatively impact the rest of society. It's no surprise that when businessmen get the reins of political power, one of their first instincts is to make it easier for their brethren to pursue the bottom line - and ignore social goods - by abolishing regulation.

Why, then, have businessmen been so adept at positioning themselves as tribunes of "the people" during the populist wave? One reason is impatience with traditional elites in Western democracies - the lobbyists, party hacks and journalists who shape public debate and influence policy. People who believe that democratic politicians have delivered them neither dignity or economic security see appeal in manly deciders who will move boldly and "drain the swamp" of the dithering establishment. No matter that the precise content of the decisions to be made is often obscure - the very readiness to break taboos and sweep aside the establishment gives them credentials. It is a form of worship of the will, the impulse to act, which we are familiar with from the history of European fascism.

The road to power for the plutocrats is also paved with gold. In a society which views wealth as the main marker of worldly success, the businessman establishes his credibility by having amassed so much of it. For many people, mastery of the intricate rituals of diplomacy or the democratic decision-making process is remote from their daily lives. To achieve it does not command respect. But making your first billion is not only a relatable desire but also seems to denote a mastery of the "real world" of deals and practical striving. Never mind that the sort of knowledge required to run a real estate empire hardly translates into the expert knowledge needed to broker a multilateral trade deal. As British populist politician Michael Gove remarked, "the people" have had enough of "experts" they cannot relate to.

Businessmen might be able to achieve power in democracies by playing to these strengths. But as Donald Trump's presidency and the bumpy road to Brexit are showing, their lack of understanding of the "real world" of democratic politics is holding them back from delivering results. Eventually, their constituents will wise up to it. The factors that drive their appeal - a disgust with democratic compromise, a pure worship of wealth, money and power for their own sake, and a glorification of the unvarnished will - may fuel even darker political movements once the businessmen have failed. Pragmatic deciders may give way to ideological ones. In this respect, businessmen in politics are also canaries in the democratic coal mine - when they're gone, we should worry about what comes next.

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