The architects of political crisis

Laura Tedesco

It is now widely agreed that we are living through a moment of acute political crisis, spanning all regions of the world. But the meaning and implications of these crises will likely be more complex than meets the eye.

Today’s political debates are dominated by the analysis of crisis. The 2008 financial crisis engendered nationalism, social protests, polarization, democratic weakness and rising populism. Almost every day crises are played out to the global media – as the current examples in Bolivia, Catalunya, Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq and Lebanon illustrate.

The term crisis conjures up a multitude of negative connotations. It is associated with collapse, disruption, confusion and instability. Yet political crises can also be necessary and positive turning points.

Crises can in fact have either negative or more benign outcomes – or fluctuate between these two poles. In 1982, the military dictatorship in Argentina lost a war against the United Kingdom, and the ensuing national crisis opened the door for a transition to democracy.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had an initially positive outcome of political opening and independence for countries in eastern and central Europe, yet then led to conflict in the Balkans and instability in Russia.

Crises are both breakdown and restructuring. They present obvious problems but also generate opportunities.

Crisis must be understood as a historical, political process, that breaks the status quo. Crucially, the nature of political leadership plays a vital role in determining how crisis emerge and how countries emerge from crisis. Indeed, crises offer excellent opportunities to study the impact of political leaders because who leads the crisis matters so much.

Citizens expect more from their leaders in a moment of crisis. At critical moments, leaders become more powerful. They are often given more powers in the middle of crises, a move justified as a necessary crisis response mechanism. Some leaders take advantage of crises to disempower institutions and empower themselves.

The risk is that the prevalence of crisis deepens a trend towards the personalization of politics. When there is economic or political uncertainty citizens tend to look for strong leaders. Perhaps the best-known example is the Weimar Republic in Germany from 1919 to 1933: after hyperinflation, political violence and the exacerbation of nationalism, its legacy was the election of Adolf Hitler. Similar dynamics are a risk in the current period, even if in less dramatic form.

Currently, the democratic, liberal order is being challenged. The current crisis seems to mark the end of an era. Populist leaders are mushrooming. Populists polarize. Their strategy is to identify actors or issues responsible for the crisis -migrants, globalization and/or multiculturalism. They argue that decisions need to speed up and that democratic processes are slow. Accountability requires time which, sometimes -populists argue- can worsen a crisis. They insist that concentration of power secures political and economic stability. Therefore, they undermine democratic processes in order to solve political or economic crisis. Populists become autocrats, especially if state institutions are weak.

In short, political crises are turning points, involving breakdown, restructuring and decisive moments of truth. Political leaders become crucial. They can worsen a crisis like Matteo Salvini did with his policies towards the arrival of thousands of refugees, provoke a crisis like Alan Greenspan did by refusing to regulate the financial sector, solve a crisis like the Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonio Costa did, destroy a rich country like Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro did in Venezuela or make a country reunite like Nelson Mandela did.

Yet institutions and civil society must be strong enough to avoid crisis leading to a heavy personalization of leadership. Even where leaders are benign, a nation cannot rely too heavily on a single figure. Emerging from crisis in better shape for the long term requires political power to be dispersed and shared, not hoarded and narrowed. Strong leadership becomes too easily a pretext for ignoring checks and balances – what appears strong leadership today can in this way become ineffectual leadership tomorrow. The right kind of leader is essential in today’s era of crisis, but not a panacea.

Laura Tedesco is the associate dean of Arts and Sciences and a Professor of Political Science at Saint Louis University – Madrid campus.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

Laura Tedesco (2019), “The architects of political crisis”, Observatory on contemporary crises, December 11, 2019, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/the-architects-of-political-crisis-l-tedesco/