As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge celebrate the birth of their second child, Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, with their family, their joys echo throughout the world. The exploits of the Royal Family People have served as “reality television” and the source of “entertainment news” for the British long before these concepts even made it into the vocabulary of Americans, yet the ongoing saga of Princess Diana’s son Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton has truly become a global soap opera.
A bit silly, the obsession actually clears the way to ask the far more serious question of what role will traditional leadership play in our democratizing world. Clearly, the British, Spanish, and the Japanese have found a way of preserving their cultural inheritance while embracing democracy. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, however, struggle, because their monarchies do not want to surrender the bulk of their power, which the British monarchy did.
What makes this problematic is that forced transition of power leads to a great deal of conflict. It is, of course, also important to recognize monarchs and emperors are not the only traditional form of governance struggling with the transition to democracy. “Tribal” leadership, for example, is extremely important in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, parts of the Americas, and elsewhere.
At the heart of all power is legitimacy. For democracy, it is the decision of a population to embrace a leader that gives that leader his, or her, legitimacy. Where it is far easier to say a group like the Islamic State lack legitimacy, because they use force and fear to obtain power, it is not so easy when it comes to traditional leaders who enjoy power due to their family legacy.
Certainly, it is strange for faithful followers of democracy to believe someone can inherit power, but those under the rule of traditional governance see the right to power as a characteristic of their culture, which makes their leaders the only legitimate rulers in their minds. In the democratized world, monarchs and tribal leadership are socially analogous to the heads of families. Where age and relationship often determine “rank” in a family, birthright adds another level of power struggle to communities ruled by more traditional forms of governance.
As the world democratizes, however, these traditional powers must recognize their legitimacy and claim to power will be increasingly dependent on their performance. Under democratic thinking, those who hold power do so only because they play a, more or less, constructive role in society. For much of human history, people were shielded by the powerful, because they served them. Thanks to the United States, government now exists solely to serve the People.
If bad leadership is empowered due to voter support, whether from voter ignorance or a lack of good choices, democracy can be weaker than other forms of government in the short-term. While stagnant and self-serving leadership are issues for all forms of government, including democracy, the cyclic nature of democracy provides a built-in mechanism to shift away from ineffective leadership, so the interests of the People can be better balanced and addressed. As such, a real democratic government is more likely to remain more stable in the long-term.
On the other hand, unelected leadership can get things done without much trouble or delay. If they are good leaders, this is a benefit to their People. Over time, the tendency for self-serving and incompetent leaders to inherit power, however, leads to a failure to properly balance the interests of the population. All governments will, therefore, be judged based on how well they are serving their countries and the interests of Peoples.
If those who inherit their power wish to remain in power, they must, therefore, embrace their cultural legacy in order to serve their Peoples to the best of their ability, not themselves. The role of autocratic and tribal leadership in the modern world is changing, but the Peoples of the world have the right to choose their leaders and they will choose their traditional leaders, if that leadership serves their interests. How that is done will, of course, greatly depend upon the culture of a given People and what they need from their government.
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