William Jordan has dipped his toe into two of the most powerful democracies in the Western world. He worked as a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service for 30 years, and now he lives in France.
At the seventh annual St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, he shared his perspective on why electorates sometimes make bad choices and how people can respond to poor leadership.
Jordan spoke on a panel called “Western democracy; when electors choose the grossly incompetent.”
One of the speakers, political science professor Paul Kubicek of Oakland University in Michigan, offered some thoughts on why countries sometimes choose incompetent leaders.
“Some people are so disillusioned they’re willing to try anything new,” he said. “Being inexperienced itself becomes a qualifier. Being a celebrity on a reality TV show becomes a qualification to be the president of our country.”
Kubicek said sometimes people just want things to change, and they are willing to choose someone new and risky over a career politician who seems stuck in the same old rut.
Jordan said lack of education is another reason voters choose incompetent leaders.
“I think education is the answer,” Jordan said. “Well-informed electorates are always going to be better electorates.” The panel stressed that citizens should become more engaged – not less – when under incompetent leadership.
“We as electors have to have faith that somewhere down the road the justice system will catch up with them, or we will have the ability to force the parties who nominate the grossly incompetent to do better,” Jordan said.
The panel was largely optimistic, promoting the idea of personal responsibility among citizens.
The panelists agreed that democracy is about more than just elections. Living in a democracy is about getting involved in society. According to the panel, civic engagement is one of the best ways to overcome incompetent leaders.
“Democracy is not an end. It’s a process,” said Colombia law professor Richard Briffault. “Get involved, vote, organize, participate and gather information.”
The panel also discussed rising above incompetent leaders by engaging civilly with people from other political parties. Kubicek reminded the audience not to throw around words like “deplorable” or “ignorant.”
“If you ever talk to somebody on the other side, they could very well lecture you about how you are also ignorant about XYZ,” Kubicek said.
Jordan spoke about the “great debates,” a new practice in France under the government of President Emmanuel Macron. The debates are public forums where citizens gather to talk about local and national issues.
“I wish there was some way in the United States that we could have a forum on a local level where people of all political persuasions could discuss openly and honestly the things that are on their mind,” Jordan said. “It would create a greater degree of respect as political campaigns unfold.”
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