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Political leadership and public administration in a post-democratic and populist age

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Contemporary political leaders are under sustained pressure: variously distrusted as “out of touch” elites, inauthentic centrists who are “all the same”, or ineffectual cyphers for global forces beyond their control. Populist parties with charismatic leaders increasingly claim the mantra of authenticity and popular representation, eschewing responsible government. It increasingly appears that the centre cannot hold. Different responses to these trends are apparent, including: political leaders embracing populist sentiments, and drawing these forces into governing coalitions: or politicians seeking to govern in a populist register from a core base; or political leaders seeking to reinvent political parties and forms of mass engagement in political processes. A common response has been to depoliticise government and policymaking, by shifting power in key areas like monetary policy, competition law or climate change target-setting to technocratic, expert bodies or committees, and in so doing insulate policy from short-term populist pressures. A very different response, currently being debated by some UK politicians and intellectuals, is to disperse power and reconfigure the state: empowering city leaders and others at a sub-national level in order to overcome gridlock and incapacity in national government.

Each of these responses points towards different ways in which political leadership is being reconceptualised. In this talk Nick Pearce asks whether these represent plausible strategies for overcoming the crises of political leadership in contemporary democracies. Or, is more fundamental economic and societal transformation required? What would competing normative theoretical perspectives – including political theories that propose a ‘realist’ approach to politics – suggest that we can expect to see happening in the years ahead?

This talk is part of the Centre for Science and Policy Lectures & Seminars series.

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