The goal of this essay is to clarify the relationship between leadership and equality as two essential constitutive factors of a democratic political system. The essay is motivated by concern about increasing inequalities in the political system of the United States and other countries that describe themselves as democracies. The first section notes the logical tension between leadership and equality, and spells out my understanding of the key terms I use in this essay. I show how the tension between leadership and equality poses a conundrum for democratic governance. Yet the crux of my argument is that profound socioeconomic inequalities pose the more basic threat. I identify disparities in power, as distinct from leadership, as the root of the problem here.
Leadership and power are often conflated. Eliding the differences between the two impedes our understanding of the dilemmas we face. The classical answer to concerns about the abuse of power is to establish institutional constraints on political leadership. Yet good leadership is essential in solving the problems we confront. Because leaders can take significant steps to reduce inequality, leadership and equality are not always in tension. If we are to emerge from our current malaise, we must recognize and draw upon the positive contributions of leadership to efficacious democratic governance.