A ‘hero’ for the twenty-first century: meet the CEO politician

In the twenty-first century, politicians behave more like CEOs. When voters are seen as shareholder citizens, what is left for democracy?

Peter Bloom Carl Rhodes
14 May 2015
Carly Fiorina. Demotix/Brian Frank. All rights reserved.

Carly Fiorina. Demotix/Brian Frank. All rights reserved.Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina made headlines this week by launching her campaign for the US Presidency with the confident message that “what she did for HP, she can do for America”. While potentially being the first female Republican nominee is undeniably newsworthy, it is her business leadership that has garnered the most attention. In the lead-up to announcing her candidacy last February, Fiorina declared “HP requires executive decision-making, and the presidency is all about executive decision-making”.

Despite these optimistic claims, her record as CEO has been criticized as a tenure marked by outsourcing, mass layoffs and internal conflict. Indeed, the issues of her time as CEO were so severe, “that several prominent former HP colleagues recoil at the idea of Fiorina managing any enterprise again, let alone the executive branch”. 

While such criticisms are important, they miss a more fundamental issue. Questioning Fiorina’s track record is one thing. But why is being a CEO considered good experience for being a politician? What does such a belief say about the present and future of our contemporary democracy?

With the recent election of a pro-austerity Conservative majority in the UK, these concerns have become even more pressing. Indeed in addition to his fiscal conservatism, Tory leader David Cameron is often described in terms more befitting a responsible corporate executive then an inspiring politician. As the Economist recently observed:

"Whatever fire rages in Mr Cameron’s breast, the calm efficiency that allows him to polish off a dozen tough decisions before breakfast comes across, in one so well-heeled, as a slightly alienating insouciance."

With the line between political and business leadership styles becoming ever more blurred, are we heading towards a new era where democracies not only serve the interests of corporations but also are increasingly run like corporations?

A recipe for success?

The CEO is a twenty-first century hero. From flamboyant entrepreneurs like Richard Branson to ‘sharks’ like Alan Sugar, CEOs are popularly associated with innovation, dynamism, power and wealth. The new ‘celebrity CEO’ is not the ‘fat cat’ nor the boring suit, but the ‘cool cat’ – the epitome of power, hipness and success. 

The association of the CEO with success is so dominant that the term has become a cultural shorthand for triumphalism in all walks of life. To lose weight you must be the “CEO of your own body”, men must learn to “date like a CEO”, and personal and professional fulfillment can only come if you are the “CEO of me”.

It is not surprising that politicians are following suit. The twenty-first century has been witness to the rise of the “CEO model of political leadership”.  The current age demands a business-focused style of leadership:

"As democracies mature, you need different types of people. You go from wanting people who can lead political agitations and write constitutions, to people who can manage a budget and improve the efficiency of programmes. That’s where an MBA training comes in useful."

The political uptake for the “cult of the CEO’” was not an embrace of the inspiring executive but rather a reversion back to the corporate leader who was able to ‘get things done’ effectively, efficiently and decisively.

The victory of George W. Bush in the 2000 US presidential election was perhaps the first and most obvious success of this new model. Bush’s business education and experience were trumpeted throughout his campaign, his Harvard MBA used to validate his authority.

A former classmate of Bush expressed what many at the time felt: ''The lawyers and the generals have had their chance. Why not give an MBA a shot?'' Bush’s cabinet was similarly filled with former CEOs:  Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Don Evans, Elaine Chao, Andrew Card Jr, and John Snow had all been corporate heads.

The trend is global.  Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi came from Fininvest; before becoming a South Korean statesman, Chung Ju-yung founded Hyundai; and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has a management degree from MIT and headed up the Ghana Tourist Development Company. 

The ‘responsible’ shareholder citizen

The idea that political leadership should model itself after corporate leadership points to a broader shift within democracies. Voters “are looking for financial acumen” according to Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida, “and they associate that with CEOs. They can talk with credibility when they talk about real financial issues”. Within this political climate, 2010 was hailed in the US as the “high water mark for the CEO as candidate” with over 40 business executives running for higher office.

These values extend beyond just former CEOs. The current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot epitomizes the new business style of democratic leadership. He has followed a pro-market agenda ranging from repealing worker protection laws to privatizing the remaining government-owned corporations. Tellingly he speaks as if Australia itself were a corporation. On his election night he announced: “Australia is under new management and is once more open for business”.

This business mentality is also starting to intrude into ideas of democratic accountability. Covering a fall in the polls, the Australian news media tellingly asked: “if Tony Abbott was CEO, would he be sacked for his performance?” Even his opponents have adopted the language of corporation. The executive director of the Australia Institute – a left-leaning think – Richard Dennis declared that citizens should “think of government in terms of a business structure” with the Prime Minister as its CEO. In this respect “any CEO who does a poor job of keeping their board informed and aligning their agenda with that of their board is sailing into dangerous waters.”

The idea of the CEO political leader brings with it a new vision of the modern voter. The ‘shareholder citizen’ must be ‘responsible’ and ever more ‘market-knowledgeable’.

The emergence of corporate democracy

The ‘neo-liberalism’ of the past several decades has radically influenced how we understand democratic leadership and citizenship. Politicians increasingly present themselves as the living embodiment of corporate values. Voters are now ‘shareholders’ tasked with dutifully electing the best CEO for the job.    

Political theorist Wendy Brown rails against the “undoing of the demos”: the shift from ‘homo politicus’ to ‘homo economicus’ – the “image of man as an entrepreneur of himself”. Politically, this has translated as a romanticization of the politician as private executive and citizens as investors.

The neo-liberal penetration of democratic leadership is not about the absence of government. It is its intentional use to “encourage particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and commercial behaviour in its citizens”. The transformation of democracy into corporate strategy produces a politics where the ideology of the market is prioritized and its values predominant.  

The continued prevalence of austerity speaks to this exact phenomenon. Despite clear evidence of its economic failures and skewing of resources to the ‘haves’ at the expense of the ‘have-nots’, it remains a credible, if not in some places popular, policy. “Ideologically, it is the intuitive appeal of the idea of austerity – of not spending more than you have ­–­­ that really casts its spell”, notes professor Mark Blythe. “Understanding how austerity came to be the standard policy in liberal economic thought when states get into trouble can reveal why it is so seductive and so dangerous.”

The CEO politician is “so seductive and dangerous” for the same reasons. They represent a ‘common sense’ idea that leaders should be efficient, productive and decisive. Moreover, that they should deploy these qualities towards maximizing the country’s economic growth and doing whatever is required to ensure a healthy market.

Such qualities are on display even in heated electoral campaigns where austerity is being explicitly questioned, such as in the 2015 UK elections. Here all parties, from Labour to the SNP, must convince voters of their “fiscal responsibility”. Labour’s Ed Miliband declared that his party "sets out a vow to protect our nation's finances; a clear commitment that every policy... is paid for without a single penny of extra borrowing". Meanwhile his Conservative opponent and current incumbent pointedly asked voters if “they would trust Ed Miliband to run the economy?”

Following an unexpected victory, major business leaders joined together to push the re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron to be “ambitious”, in language that could be mistaken for a newly emboldened business executive given a fresh vote of confidence by shareholders:

"Fight the Whitehall culture of incrementalism, risk aversion and inertia that stops much-needed change. Only then can business and government, together, work to ensure that a prosperous, confident UK can pay its way in the world in the decades to come."

In today’s democracy, the business of politics is in fact business, both in substance and style. Whether traditional democratic values of liberty, equality, justice, hospitality and community can withstand these changes is yet to be seen. The prospects do not look good.

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