The Need for a Popular Leader

The need for a popular leader is common to both democracies and authoritarian systems: to attract support and to maintain stability.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, leaders receive more attention in the media for their personalities than for their team-management skills.  A leader’s public popularity and communication skills are important for the whole team to gain and retain power.  This is especially true in democracies.  Governments in authoritarian political systems have less need for short-term popularity, but they cannot afford to completely ignore it.

The focus on personal popularity is magnified by television, which enables voters to become increasingly familiar with the behaviour of leadership candidates.  But the selection criteria for TV personalities do not match the job description for a good political leader, and some leaders want to win power just for its own sake: to feed their egos.  Their endless search for popularity means that they set policy by reacting to newspaper headlines, which are not a good basis:

●  Many crises could have been avoided by earlier action, anticipating the problem rather than waiting for it to become serious – as in British examples of the government’s slow reaction to the coronavirus crisis and to the shortage of HGV drivers, despite having been warned about both.

●  Fast-moving situations can cause reactive politicians to make abrupt policy reversals, which the public find hard to understand – as was the case with the British government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.  The Guardian reported on Boris Johnson’s Covid flip-flops: the pledges upended by reality – an article prompted by his sudden decision to ban families from staying with each other at Christmas.  The government progressively lost people’s trust and willingness to comply with its edicts on the pandemic because it was so obviously rudderless.

●  The endless search for popularity can tempt leaders to make irresponsible policy decisions, as described later (

An increased focus on policy might make it more likely that people would elect a leader who would serve their best interests.  Ronald Dworkin described American politics as “trivialised”, on the dust jacket of his book Is Democracy Possible Here?, and he outlined the need for a more policy-focused public debate in chapter 5.  He argued that American politics are driven by the sound-bites in advertisements, in the relentless drive to increase the popularity of leaders, rather than by reasoned analysis.

The need for a popular leader in a democracy drives political parties to negotiate with high profile figures.  This was demonstrated by How Donald Trump convinced the Republican party to revolve around him, as reported by the Guardian on 12 May 2016.   The tensions between him and the party were never fully resolved, though, as shown when he had encouraged his supporters to storm the Capitol building in an effort to try to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election; as reported then by CNN, Angry Republican leaders float removing Trump from office because of the damage that he was doing to the reputation of the party.

A popular leader can retain public acceptance even in times of hardship, but an unpopular leader is a liability to a political party.  In countries where political leaders are appointed by their parties, an unpopular Prime Minister can be toppled – as was the case when Boris Johnson quits as UK prime minister, dragged down by scandals “after he dramatically lost the support of his ministers and most Conservative lawmakers”.  Ministerial resignation statements referred to the need for a more trustworthy leader, but one suspects that the momentum for change actually came from his increasing unpopularity.  A YouGov poll at that time showed that the membership no longer has confidence that Johnson has what it takes to win the next general election”.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6344a.htm