What is a Statesman

We yearn for great leaders, but we seem to resist them when they come along. This is a paradox inherent to democracies, between the demand for liberty, equality, and self-reliance among citizens and the continuing need for leadership in the unruliness of an open society. We vacillate between power and drift, between embracing strong leaders and endorsing a kind of leaderless rule. Our confusion about statesmanship is partly because we have lost the language in which to understand the term. The term statesman has an old, even an antiquarian ring about it. Herbert Storing, a great historian of the American founding, once noted that there seems something almost “un-American” about the word. While politicians pay lip service to the concept, for the most part the term is regarded as outmoded, elitist, and vaguely anti-democratic. Harry Truman once joked that a statesman is just a politician who has been dead for ten or fifteen years.  Yet it is hard to deny that today we are experiencing a dearth of statesmanship. With the exception of Volodymyr Zelensky, bless him, who is doing a stirring impression of Winston Churchill, statesmen are in short supply. Our current moment has certainly witnessed a renaissance of authoritarian figures — Putin, Xi, Modi, Bolsonaro, Orban, Trump — but none of these seem to qualify as statesmen. What is a statesman, and how do we know one when we see one? The confusion about the concept is due in part to its unavoidably normative character. Isn’t one person’s statesman another’s demagogue? Historians are often wedded to a kind of social determinism that regards the statesman as an agent of powerful classes, interests, and social forces which he or she may only dimly understand. Political scientists, who only feel at home in the world of big data that can

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