An exploration of democratic and non-democratic leadership

“It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” – James Madison, Federalist 10

In his oft-quoted passage from Federalist 10, James Madison suggests that a single statesman cannot always orient all factional interests towards a common good, particularly because statesmen rarely possess the requisite political judgment, virtue, or foresight to do so. Madison knows this problem to be true even in republics where the leader, elected by the majority of the people, is expected to have displayed some degree of sound political judgment.

If popular election does not produce an enlightened statesman more often than not, what is the difference between a democratically-elected leader and a non-democratically-elected leader? Does regime type matter?

In a recent lecture hosted by the Kellogg School for International Studies, Dr. Graeme Gill, a fall 2018 Kellogg Institute Visiting Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, challenged the notion that any regime other than democracy must be a system of “arbitrary uncontrolled rule.” He explained that political theorists have always drawn a line of distinction between democratic and non-democratic regime types, but fall short in exploring the constraints that authoritarian leaders do face.

To all political scientists with democratic biases, authoritarian leaders are the quintessential unenlightened and unrestrained statesmen, yet Gill has raised questions regarding the extent to which their power actually goes unchecked. Researching the regimes of Stalin and Mao, two of the most egregious dictatorships of the 20th Century, Gill has discovered evidence that oligarchs in these political systems did possess balancing power. He reveals that although Stalin and Mao both appeared to rule from the top with limited political judgment and little consideration for the public good, oligarchs in both regimes exercised some independence in proposing policy recommendations or questioning the policy decisions of the leader. When Stalin was away on vacation, his oligarchs exercised some autonomy in crafting policy suggestions. Mao even allowed forums for political speech and policy debate. Granted, if the oligarchs or citizens questioned the dictator’s authority rather than his policy, they would likely never be heard from again, and the line of distinction between authority and policy was vague. Regardless, Gill argues that there still existed norms, rules, and decision-making processes to check the seemingly unenlightened, unrestrained power of Stalin and Mao.

While Gill acknowledges these mechanisms of constraint, authoritarian regimes still undoubtedly differ from democracies and democratically-elected leadership. Namely, in democracies, the mechanisms of constraint are sewn into the fabric of political institutions, derived directly or indirectly from the will of the people. Procuring the public good relies on constitutionally-outlined checks and balances rather than the tenuous rapport between a dictator and his oligarchs.

Although “the enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” in democratic regimes, Madison acknowledges the inevitable shortcomings and fallibilities of any political leader and explains that the U.S. Constitution creates structures of government to mitigate this problem. The Constitution enlarges the scope of the American republic, inviting a greater number of factions to voice their opinions, which fosters a greater competition of ideas and leads to compromises aimed at the common good. The direct election of representatives in Congress and the separation of powers in the federal government are meant to facilitate political decision-making that is more “enlightened” than any one political leader.

Thus, in theory, the Constitution provides a system of institutionalized-constraints that, unlike the weak autonomy of oligarchs in authoritarian regimes, more consistently aim at reasonable and balanced policy-making. Whether or not the Constitution’s intended constraints are being properly enforced in today’s contentious political environment is another question, but American democratic structures of governance remain fundamentally distinct from non-democratic norms.

Kate Lederer is a senior studying economics and political science. Her surfing career began and ended when she visited Lisbon, Portugal during her semester abroad this past spring. She can be reached at