Is Zelenskyy Making Democracy Cool Again?

The invasion of Ukraine thrust its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, into the spotlight. Although many perceived the former actor and comedian as a probable lightweight, he rose to the occasion, capturing the world’s attention when he famously refused a U.S. offer to evacuate the conflict zone, reportedly saying, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

“I think that will go down in history,” says Kenneth Dekleva, a senior fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. “After two years of a worldwide pandemic where we’ve seen so many failures of leadership, both in authoritarian societies and in democratic societies in the West, Zelenskyy is a breath of fresh air. … Zelenskyy has inspired people, and he’s shown us that good leadership and courage, heroism — these kinds of core values — matter.”

Instead of going into hiding, Zelenskyy has made a point of remaining visible, appearing on social media and in footage released by aides since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Male leaders often attempt to project strength, masculinity and a sense of being destined to lead, according to Michael Blake, a professor of philosophy, public policy and governance at the University of Washington.

“Zelenskyy appears to be presenting a much more unusual picture of leadership in which his trajectory is not ordained by fate or some sort of political genius. Instead, it’s almost accidental,” says Blake. “His personal style of self-presentation is much less concerned with depicting unusual lack of fear or unusual physical prowess. Instead, he is perfectly willing to own up to being frightened and being occasionally overwhelmed.”

Zelenskyy is also shunning the usual leadership look. He’s put aside his dark suit and tie in favor of an olive-green T-shirt or jacket more associated with soldiers or rebel guerillas.

“I think it’s ultimately a symbol of, ‘I’m here. I’m authentically with you,’ and it’s been incredibly powerful,” says Samuel Hunter, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I think he wanted to upset the people in the suits a little bit, to come across as a changemaker, this person that is doing things that other people are unwilling to do.”

Social media appeal

Like Donald Trump before him, Zelenskyy has learned to leverage social media to communicate directly with the masses. Trump broke the mold by cutting out the middleman, including his own spokespeople and the news media, by tweeting directly to his supporters. While Trump primarily used Twitter, Zelenskyy relies on the more visual Instagram platform.

“There was what felt like a direct line from what (Trump) was thinking to what others were seeing and hearing and reading,” Hunter says. “And I think Zelenskyy represents the next data point in that pathway, but it’s very visual and touches with a younger generation in a very compelling and interesting way.”

One of Zelenskyy’s strengths is that he appears to have cross-generational appeal.

“He’s probably someone that multiple generations can connect on in part because not only is he adept at dealing with this sort of social media world and speaks multiple languages and is sort of this Hollywood star per se, but because he’s sticking around in zones that are dangerous,” Hunter says. “The older generations — he’s earning respect from those, as well. I think he spans generations in ways that other leaders have not been able to.”

Zelenskyy isn’t the first former actor to connect with the masses. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was aware of image and presentation due to his acting background. Trump, who starred on a successful reality television show, is also very deliberate in how he presents himself.

“It is, I think, an under-noticed fact that politicians do have a fair amount in common with actors,” Blake says. “I think what’s really different here is that Zelenskyy is changing the role.”

New leadership model

A change that could usher in a new model of democratic leadership.

“When he appeared with unshaven cheeks and bags under his eyes and said, ‘I’m still here.’ Every time he came back to say, ‘I’m still here,’ it’s simply added to the thought that this could, in fact, be a model of leadership that would do the job,” Blake says.

Over the past few years, populism’s message has attracted a growing number of followers. Freedom House, which tracks the number of countries that are democratic, has noted a decline in functional democratic governance every year for the past 20 years.

“Some of this has been a result of the rhetorical strength of populism in a world fraught by fear of the undeserving ‘other’ coming in and undermining your economic status,” Blake says. “People are frightened of a slowdown in economic productivity, of widespread migration undermining cultural integrity. People are just plain frightened, and so, the populist has an easy sell, which is, ‘I’m here, touched by God, to return you to the former glory that was unjustly taken from you.’”

Blake says there hasn’t been a good counternarrative to that other than reasserting democratic platitudes — like the importance of the consent of the governed. But Zelenskyy demonstrates that democratic leadership has the capacity to be morally justified while also rousing people’s emotions.

“The fact that Zelenskyy appeals not just to the head, but to the heart, has been extremely promising, because it indicates that democracy might have rhetorical power as well as intellectual power,” Blake says. “We see someone who is willing to say, ‘This is worth fighting for. This is worth suffering for.’ And people are responding to it.”

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