Sore Throat By: Sore Throat
Policy Person
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07 Sep 2020 : Leadership Phrenology?

Although I was trained in pretty much the mainstream of political science, this pandemic has caused me to question a pretty basic assumption of how we understand governance and what affects that.

The usual poli sci trinity of explanatory families is "Ideas, Institutions, Interests." That is, most explanations for how we see people—whether individuals or groups—act or interact explain the processes or outcomes we see as operations existing beyond some individual. In the political science view of the world—and the view of much of sociology, economics, and international relations, at least—there isn't much role for the action of individuals.

To some extent, discounting the individual has been a generally good move on the part of many social scientists. By eschewing "great man" or "big person" explanations, we have accomplished a few things. We have been able to see beyond the idiosyncratic features of particular situations and cases and find similarities among the dissimilar that might not have been obvious otherwise (although I struggle to think of examples at the moment, since this isn't my main point). Sometimes such perspective has also helped us to de-center the ruling or dominant groups, giving us a fuller picture of a society (I think this has particularly been true in history as a discipline) or at least to see other factors beyond the dominant or obvious ones.

But in the social sciences, we like to make fun of—or at least denigrate— explanations that rely on the actions of particular people. That falls under the preserve of policy schools, or of less-scientific psychology approaches (i.e., those that do not use fMRIs), or of very old, conservative, "British" approaches to studying history. If that's what you want to study, those of us who police the boundaries of disciplines are quite happy to show you the door and send you along to the phrenology of "leadership studies" while we continue to do our science over here. You may get a regular gig on a news channel or program, but you won't be right.

Again, it may be helpful to discount "leadership" as an explanation, as it's often too easy. Did a country do a particularly skillful or poor job at managing the crisis of an epidemic? Attribute it to the quality of the leadership in place. During the worse years of the HIV pandemic, journalistic and policy professional analysis often seemed to boil explanation down to the personal leadership involvement of the national president. Reagan and Mbeki were poor leaders on HIV, and that explains why "nothing" happened! Botswana's Festus Mogae "led" and Botswana advanced! Except that the whole stories of the US, South Africa, and Botswana cannot really be told as if they fully depended on Reagan, Mbeki, and Mogae.

But. This pandemic has really tested my resolve on this explanatory anti-vein. The utter failure of President Trump to lead on COVID-19 in any fashion has had severe and ongoing consequences for the US response to this pandemic. Every day in my work here in DC, there's a new permutation of how one person, sitting in the correct chair, can become the central explanation for a mass policy outcome. Sure, there's lots of concomitant stuff that makes it all so much worse—the capitulation of a major political party to a death cult of personality, the lack of a robust public health system, all-encompassing polarization beyond the wildest dreams of ideology, and so on.

The people I work with often don't have much time for professional social science. In part, it's because we professional social scientists have created isolated self-referential discourse communities. At least as often, however, we can't offer explanations that are really much better than what people with twenty years of experience come up with or intuit. Even worse, when we refuse to countenance explanations—like "leadership"— that are blindingly obvious to those who work every day in the politics we claim to study, we further demonstrate reason for politicos to ignore political scientists.

All my training in political science taught me to be as suspicious of "leadership" as I would be of phrenology or astrology. My day-to-day work makes me think that much of social science is more akin to alchemy than we like to admit. Alchemy's not quite hokum, because there's elements (ha! pun!) of true knowledge there. After years of training in the wonders of contemporary social and political science, however, I wonder how you precipitate the chemistry from the magical thinking.

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