How much does leadership matter in a democracy? And if you had the chance, would you go back and kill Hitler?

If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you do it? This is a question that I looked at recently while teaching a unit on legal and ethical issues. The point was to illustrate that sometimes people may disagree on what is ethically the right thing to do. Of course, the more interesting question is this – if you did go back in time and kill Hitler, how would this have changed history? Hitler was an undeniably strong leader with beliefs and ideas that lead to the Holocaust and World War 2. However, his leadership and ideas were only able to succeed because of the political and social climate in Germany. (If you are in any way a history nerd like me, you can read more about this here or here.)

Another interesting question is this: If you could go back in time and stop Donald Trump’s presidency in some way, would you do it? Of course, it now seems very apparent that the Russians had a hand in getting Trump elected, but there is no doubt that he had a huge groundswell of public support, much larger than most political commentators expected. In order for a man with a documented string of affairs, divorces, scandals and bankruptcies like Trump to be elected in the USA, there had to be a very specific political and social climate in place. It seems as though the huge middle class in America, suffering though job losses and economic downturns, fearing immigration and terrorism, and sick to death of ‘business as usual’ in Washington, were willing to take a risk on this very dark horse. While Trump’s leadership skills certainly are questionable, he has undoubtedly got a knack for tapping into public feeling, and the bluster and arrogance to forge ahead in the face of opposition. If Trump hadn’t run, then what would have happened to this huge wave of dissatisfaction with the direction that the government was heading in? It’s very interesting to note that Bernie Sanders came close to beating Hillary Clinton in the primaries, as he was also a very different politician to the ‘business as usual’ type that Hillary personified. While it must be disappointing for Trump’s disaffected supporters to realise that he is certainly not ‘draining the swamp’ in Washington, but rather filling it up with Russians, hopefully his presidency will do some good. Perhaps it will cause the shake-up that Washington and the Republican party both desperately need. Fortunately, the structures in place in America’s long standing Parliamentary Democracy have served to keep Trump in check. Germany, at the time that Hitler rose to power, had recently undergone huge political changes (many of which were very unpopular), and so they did not have these time tested checks to prevent a dictator like Hitler from seizing power.

Often it seems that in periods where people are strongly unhappy with how things are going in a nation, strong leadership will rise up to bring about change. If we were successfully able to go back in time and get rid of Hitler and Trump, perhaps other leaders would have taken their places. It is likely that the groundswell of dissatisfaction in both post World War 1 Germany and pre-Trump USA would have eventually led to some kind of change.

So what does this mean for Australian politics? We are, in this lucky country, fairly comfortable. We are certainly lacking in the leadership department. Many people hoped that Malcolm Turnbull would be a strong leader, giving us some relief from Tony Abbott’s antics (knighthood for Prince Philip, anyone?). While Turnbull has brought about a fair bit of stability for his own party, his leadership has been wishy-washy at best. He is likeable, for sure – he doesn’t eat onions in public, or get around in his speedos, he doesn’t post unhinged tweets, he gives a lot of money to charity. But as a leader, Turnbull has walked a safe middle line, catering to the conservative elements in his own party, weak on climate change, giving cuts to big businesses and doing nothing to support the low and middle classes of Australia, and giving us no new ideas or directions. (Ok, you may argue that I’m wrong on this one, but can you name a single strong decision or direction that the Turnbull government has taken? And don’t say Marriage Equality. That was a social change with such a surge of support that the Libs were powerless to stop it, despite the best efforts of the party’s conservative elements.) Equally, no one is arguing that Bill Shorten is a strong, innovative leader. I would argue that Julia Gillard had strong leadership ability (her government passed over 500 pieces of legislation through Parliament, despite being a minority government). Maybe she was before her time though, and since then, we have not seen much strong leadership. Perhaps this is what we want in Australia? Sedate leadership that doesn’t rock the boat too much?

I think that things are starting to change, and I hope this will be the start of a rise in public opinion that demands some strong leadership on certain issues. We in Australia want strong action on climate change (and no, granting millions of dollars to some unknown and untested Barrier Reef foundation does not count, Malcolm), we want more housing affordability, and better accountability for big corporations. I may be naive on this one, but I also think there is a growing call for us to do something about the ongoing humanitarian crisis that is our treatment of Asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. A wise government would be taking a good look at the disenfranchised and angry members of our society and looking to address their concerns now, before their discontent grows. The stability of our future may just depend on it.

2 thoughts on “How much does leadership matter in a democracy? And if you had the chance, would you go back and kill Hitler?

  1. Very good analysis, Karli. So many people blame the individual leader (like Hitler) and forget the society that enabled him to do what he did. Someone once said, we get the leaders we deserve, so I really hope our society – and that starts with the individual – responds to our sad lack of leadership you have highlighted. Shout your message from the rooftops, you are not naive, you are needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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