Which leaders make history?

by on October 20, 2007 at 6:09 pm in History | Permalink

Leaders who make history are often provincials: Provincials attempt what sophisticates consider naive.  The two current candidates for world leadership [Reagan, Gorbachev] were both country boys, a state park lifeguard and a champion harvester, each an outsider to the inner elites of the government he headed, each in his own way an idealist determined to push beyond the status quo.  Reagan had been tailored in Hollywood, but the sophistries of Washington’s nuclear mandarins had failed to complicate his apocalyptic Dixon, Illinois, worldview.  Gorbachev’s southern Russian accent and hillbilly grammar offended the ears of the suave Moscow bureaucracy he outmanipulated a dozen times on any ordinary day.

That is from Richard Rhodes’s interesting Arsenals of Folly: the Making of the Nuclear Arms Race.  I’ve never seen a good quantitative study of how leadership biography matters for policy outcomes, and I expect that solid results are as hard to find as in birth order studies.  Does anyone know of a good, concrete stylized fact here?

1 Foobarista October 21, 2007 at 1:50 am

My impression is that few of the history-making “nation-builder” leaders – whether “good” or “bad” – come from the “nexus of power” areas: Hitler wasn’t even of German nationality and didn’t like Berlin or Berliners, and Stalin was from Georgia in the Caucasus. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were both from “rich peasant” backgrounds in the middle of China, and neither had much connection to Beijing or Shanghai. Lincoln and Jackson were from the hinterlands and not Boston or Virginia.

The main exceptions to this in American politics would be both Roosevelts, from New York, who had old East, blue-blood pedigrees.

2 Jon Kay October 22, 2007 at 1:55 am

I’ve been binging on bios for about a decade, and so this is a subject of great interest to me. I hadn’t noticed the sticks connection, but it does seem likely to me now I’ve seen it and thought a bit. My random leader check of Themistocles checked out – he was from a small burb. Oh, and TR was born in NY, but spent years out West, to learn, I guess.

Connections I had noticed include personal difficulty, serious travel, and exercise. More here.

3 Steve Sailer October 22, 2007 at 4:08 am

Most of the famous political leaders in history were the children of monarchs.

4 Andromeda October 22, 2007 at 7:08 pm

Trajan and Cicero, but I think not the majority of prominent Roman leaders.

I wonder if it’s a factor so much of provincials not falling under insider mores? I mean, that’s appealing, in the same way that presidential candidates always position themselves as outside-the-beltway, but…I find myself more thinking of the prep school kids I teach. It’s easy to be mediocre and successful if you have the advantages of pedigree and connections. But provincials who crack the elite ranks will only do so if they display unusual skill — is it, then, surprising if they are overrepresented among the great?

5 David Smith October 23, 2007 at 9:50 am

This may have to do more with the political system than the leader biography: the system that can put an outsider in power is one in which the leader has the upper hand over the establishment. Sam Kernell in Going Public claims that since party convention reforms put the selection of US Presidential candidates in the hands of mass constituencies rather than party leaders, outsiders have become increasingly frequent in the White House, and these are often Presidents with a talent for getting their way by riling up the public rather than negotiating with their fellow political elites. He has a nice line: “What do a peanut farmer and a movie actor have in common? The answer is their lack of interest in active negotiation with fellow politicians and their confidence in speaking directly to the voters.”

6 ikl October 23, 2007 at 10:13 pm

This is pretty silly. Think about the Soviet Union / Russia for a moment. Let’s see:

Lenin = Provincial (from largish provincial city in Russia)
Stalin = Provincial (from small town in Georgia)
Khrushchev = Provincial (from small-town Ukraine)
Breznev = Provincial (from largish provincial city in Ukraine)
Chernenko = Provincial (born in village in Siberia)
Andropov = Provincial (born in provincial center where Gorbachev was from – Stavropol)
Gorbachev = Provincial
Yeltsin = Provincial (from large provincial city in Russia)
Putin = Not a provincial (from St. Petersburg)

So basically almost everyone who led the Soviet Union is from the provinces – in Russia everything except Moscow and St. Peterburg is considered more or less provincial. This is not really surprising given the demographics of the place – most people live outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, birth rates are higher outside large cities and population tends to flow from the perifery to the center. Lots of people in Moscow were born and raised elsewhere. So it is not surprising that this is true of the political leadership. And it’s hard to say that Gorbachev’s provincial background is unique enough to explain anything – Gorbachev even went to university in Moscow unlike anyone else on this list . . .

Russia might be a somewhat extrme case, but I suspect that the same is true of most other places which political systems that are open enough that you don’t have to grow up in the elite to rise to the top of the system. One could do a somewhat similar exercise with American political leaders (until Bush, I guess).

So it’s hard to say how Gorbachev being a “provincial” made a difference. The main point is, I doubt that this hypothesis has much explanitory power whatsoever . . .

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