Political space supports leaders, not rulers.
Some participants are opinion leaders. Whenever people engage in discussion, some are more convincing than others. And where different groups of people are involved in a political process, each collective typically delegates a few members to represent the entire group.
What distinguishes them from the rest, what makes them so convincing, is, on the one hand, their ability to persuade and, on the other hand, their capacity for representative thought.
To be capable of representation means to be able to look at one topic not only from your personal standpoint but also from the perspectives of others. This capacity goes hand in hand with deliberation, which is essentially the liberation from our individual standpoints in the common world. Deliberation leads to “a true freedom of movement in our mental world that parallels our freedom of movement in the physical one” (PP: 168). To be sure, this does not mean that we have to abandon our personal standpoints once and for all but rather that we can leave and return whenever we please. Further, it does not mean that when we look at the world from the perspectives of others, we automatically adopt the actual views of others. Instead, we make present before the inner eye, that is, we re-present, their standpoints.
“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them. This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else […]; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.” (BPF: 237)
In order to do so, we have to be familiar with the physical environment and the conditions of life, every-day problems, the necessary skills one needs handle them, how one is being looked at by others etc. It goes without saying that our representation will be more accurate and our articulation of what we represent will be more vivid if we who represent have actually “walked in the shoes” of those who we represent. Otherwise we must be or we must have been directly confronted with them. The weakest basis for representation is of course the hearsay from far away. Our inner representation becomes a vantage- or checkpoint for the process of opinion formation.
Representative thought enables us to understand different realities. Persuasive speech, on the other side, enables us to articulate these realities adequately. Both capacities boost each other, so to speak. Taken together they create in a person what the Greeks called phronesis and what Arendt describes as “discerning insight” (PP: 169). This discerning insight, which is neither wisdom nor knowledge, is the central characteristic of the political actor, the “one outstanding virtue of the statesman” because it enables those who possess it “to communicate between the citizens and their opinions so that the commonness of this world becomes apparent” (PP: 18).
In the political realm, which is exclusively concerned with the common world, this ability, if it is accompanied by the necessary courage and personal initiative, qualifies those who are most able for leadership. What it does not qualify for, and what the truly political actor is not interested in because s/he knows that it must ultimately result in self-defeat, is rule. The difference is very simple: While the leader is a primus inter pares, the first among equals, the ruler is entitled to give orders. The leader leads the way, s/he is a beginner, a pioneer, we might say. The ruler, on the contrary, dictates what is to be done. While rulers and oligarchs – elected or not – depend only on obedience, compliance and non-resistance, leaders always depend on the consent, the initiative and the active support of others to see through what they have started.
Leadership is incredibly important in the political realm not only because leaders are the ones who lead the way, but also because in all political problems that cannot be solved locally, the leaders of each local community will almost naturally turn into delegates and representatives (without necessarily being elected for several years) and move up, as it were, to the next higher political scale. Leaders, in other words, do not only assume responsibility for the world, they are also asked to take responsibility, that is, to respond in the name of their community and to represent those who are absent.
Discerning insight, the ability to understand multiple realities and to communicate between differences, qualifies political actors for leadership. Political space encourages and makes room for leaders.