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Zelenskyy: The Quintessential Classical Liberal Hero
His blend of human and political virtues are a shot in the arm for the waning self-confidence of liberal democracies
Wikipedia, Creative Commons
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has galvanized the West. The European Union and the United States have imposed unprecedented economic sanctions to slash Russia’s financial resources; Western leaders have beaten a path to war-torn Kyiv in a show of support; and despite Putin’s veiled threats to deploy nuclear weapons, U.S. lawmakers are preparing $40 billion in further aid to Ukraine, while the EU considers bearing the pain of a phased embargo of Russian oil.
The wellsprings of the response are many: shock at Russia’s naked belligerence; the eruption of massed warfare in Europe after decades of relative peace; the threat of a broader conflagration; the extraordinary tenacity of Ukraine’s David against Russia’s Goliath. But at the heart of it all is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a man whose surprising leadership is a compelling blend of ancient and classically liberal virtues, among them courage, fair-mindedness and a resolution to serve his people, forgoing the abuses of populism. At a time when the West is deeply anxious and divided over liberal democracy, Zelenskyy is helping us remember that we do care about liberal democracy, and that it is, perhaps, stronger and nobler than we think.
Entertainer to Ukrainian President
Zelenskyy is an unlikely hero. He began his career in comedy, TV, and film, and as a Wall Street Journal writer puts it, “He became famous for his skits, including one where he and some accomplices dropped their trousers and pretended to play a piano with something other than their hands.” His fame spread when he won the Ukrainian version of “Dancing with the Stars.”
But the performance that launched his political career was his role in the Ukrainian TV show “Servant of the People,” where he played a schoolteacher whose rant about corruption in government is posted online by a student and goes viral, ultimately landing his character in the president’s chair. The show struck a deep chord with the public, leading Zelenskyy in 2019 to in fact run for president on an anticorruption platform under a political party named, in a triumph of branding, Servant of the People.
“We should have a government for the people, and not a people for the government,” Zelenskyy’s platform declared. It decried law enforcement agencies that placed “economic pressure on business” and denounced “telephone justice,” in which powerful politicians and oligarchs interfered in the courts to protect their interests. Political officials convicted of corruption would be “banned for life from holding public office.” In simple, direct language, the platform incorporated classical liberal themes: the rule of law, division of political power, economic liberalization, simplified tax systems, education vouchers, and self-determination amid a smaller government. On the campaign trail, Zelenskyy supported such libertarian reforms as the legalization of gambling, prostitution and medical cannabis.
In the election, in a stunning upset, Zelenskyy swept nearly every region of the country and garnered 73% of the vote against the incumbent president. His fledgling political party even won a majority of seats in the Ukrainian parliament.
It was a powerful mandate, but a little over a year later, Zelenskyy’s anti-corruption agenda looked dead in the water. Worse, he appeared to be part of the problem. In a sobering assessment of Zelenskyy’s tenure, The Brookings Institution’s Stephen Pifer observed that Zelenskyy’s approval rating had dropped to 38% and that he had fired a reformist prime minister, prosecutor general and cabinet, while triggering the resignation of an admired national bank official. Zelenskyy’s political opponents began to accuse him of using offshore accounts and pressuring his political opposition. More recently, Zelenskyy has allowed the exigencies of war to justify shutting down a Russia-leaning political party and consolidating six Ukrainian television stations into a single news outlet.
The UnPopulist Leader
Yet in wartime, liberal democracies have done much worse. Indeed, what’s striking about Zelenskyy are the liberal sentiments he’s brought to life.
Despite his dismal prewar approval ratings and the polarizing temptations of wartime, he has resisted the populist impulse to frame ethnic Russians, whether in Ukraine or Russia, as “the enemy.” He has avoided crude caricatures and sweeping generalizations, refusing to dehumanize Russians as Russians.
True, he has accused Russian soldiers of war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere, but this is based on evidence of their specific actions, not on assuming evil of Russians as a people. In an interview with independent Russian media outlets (summarized and translated by journalist Alex Zeldin of the Jewish online newsletter Forward), Zelenskyy carefully distinguished between the Russian government and the Russian people, while conveying his gratitude for Russian citizens who have opposed the war. He did express “deep disappointment,” writes Zeldin, with Russians who support the war — a view that may seem harsh, given that Russians could pay a terrible price for standing up to Putin. Yet Zelenskyy’s own people, whom he has pledged to serve, are paying a terrible price for standing up to Putin as well.
And in a separate interview with The New York Times, Zelenskyy even expressed sympathy for the Russia’s soldiers. They are, he remarked, around his daughter’s age and “could be my children,” observing, “They will die in uniforms because of decisions made by men in suits.”
However “unpopulist” his approach to ethnic Russians has been, it’s true there was a populist, anti-elitist tinge to Zelenskyy’s political rise: His platform claimed that the Ukrainian people have been divided by “‘political pensioners,’ who ‘hitchhike’ from power to opposition, from party to party.” Yet when the war began, Zelenskyy immediately called a truce in his contentious political feud with “oligarch” Petro Poroshenko, the man he defeated for the presidency, with Poroshenko saying, “He can firmly count on my support.” Here again, Zelenskyy avoided an obvious temptation; Ukraine is widely recognized to suffer from a post-Soviet oligarchy able to manipulate the institutions of government, and scapegoating “oligarchic” political opponents in the crisis would have had an aura of plausibility.
Most notably, he has avoided the self-glorification that serves as the hallmark of a populist leader — the claim of a unique status or insight as the leader of the “true” people. Think Donald Trump or Hugo Chavez. Instead he tells The Times that if he weren’t president, he’d be serving in the military, but jokes that he’d probably be serving food, since he is “probably not as good a shot as some other people.” If he is “strong” and “decisive,” it is because, “We have a special people, an extraordinary people.” Eschewing bravado, he adds that, “If a person is not afraid of losing his life, or the life of his children, there is something unwell about that person,” but that as president, “I simply do not have the right” to succumb to that fear.
Frontline Leadership: Courage Without Machismo
In fact, Zelenskyy’s courage may be the virtue for which he’s most widely admired. When Russia’s armed forces came crashing across the border on February 24 and headed for Kyiv — Ukraine’s capital and the president’s residence — the moment was ripe for the former entertainer, outnumbered and outgunned, to exit stage right. Recognizing this, U.S. officials did a reasonable thing: They offered to help Zelenskyy evacuate.
Responding to rumors that he had fled the country, Zelenskyy took to social media with a hand-held camera to confirm his presence in front of the presidential palace — smiling, with a raised fist. A handheld video later confirmed the presence of his cabinet. In the days that followed, he spoke from Kyiv, giving interviews and addressing Ukrainians in social media broadcasts. Videos outside Kyiv showed him touring military hospitals to hand out medals and thank wounded soldiers.
This courage, no doubt vital to maintaining the morale of the Ukrainian people, was tempered by practical wisdom. Recognizing his country needed help, Zelenskyy indefatigably reached out to world leaders in remote addresses to congresses and parliaments in the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Germany, France, Sweden, Greece, Canada, and the European Union, among others. The BBC counted 10 such speeches in one two-week period, each tailored to its audience — the U.S. hearing appeals to 9/11 and Mount Rushmore, the British hearing echoes of Shakespeare and Churchill. This rhetoric, which emphasized solidarity based on mutually shared values of freedom and self-government, was accompanied by specific, direct requests.
Yet it certainly appears that Zelenskyy didn’t want this war. As a presidential candidate, he pledged to call on the international community to end Russia’s occupation of Ukraine territories in the Donbas and Crimea; as president, he met with Putin in 2019 in peace talks to end the Donbas conflict. Prior to the Russian attack in February, he asked the United States and others to stop warning that Russia might invade, describing it as alarmist and disruptive of Ukraine’s economy. Even now, Zelenskyy has indicated he is willing to compromise in areas that don’t deny Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, such as increased protection of the use of the Russian language.
This mix of courage, prudence, self-discipline, sense of service to his people and outreach to the global community — a blend of classic and liberal virtues — represents genuine frontline leadership. It stands in stark contrast to the approach of his adversary, Vladimir Putin, a distant totalitarian clad in business suits and frequently seated at long conference tables that carefully separate him from visitors who might threaten his safety. Not surprisingly, while Zelenskyy rallies his allies, Putin solidifies his opposition.
Restoring Faith in Liberal Democracy
Zelenskyy has our attention in part because of the worldwide implications of the crisis that’s been forced upon him. But there is something in his example that speaks more broadly to the troubles of our times.
The liberal democracies of the West and beyond have been torn in recent years by deep cultural divisions that have fed — and in turn have been fed by — populist uprisings. The resulting bitterness has bred impatience with the democratic process and the liberal institutions designed to mediate it. The grappling for control by various factions has risked damaging those institutions and snuffing out the democratic ideals that sustain them.
Against this backdrop comes Zelenskyy’s instant willingness to fight for a flawed and fledgling liberal democracy against a larger, more powerful totalitarian nemesis. Despite an obvious opportunity to demonize the country’s ethnic minorities, he speaks of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians with care, tolerance and fair-mindedness. He works unstintingly on the citizenry’s behalf, filling the role of a public servant. Unlike modern-day populists, he uses social media to reach out to Ukrainians and the world, rather than deploying it to sow division and dissension at home and abroad. The country’s parliament still meets, even as Zelenskyy provides vocal and visible leadership without assuming the smug swagger of the strutting generalissimo and populist savior.
The liberal virtues we’ve seen from Zelenskyy have been fortified by the four classical virtues of antiquity: courage; prudence and practical wisdom; a dedication to fairness and justice; and the temperance revealed in self-restraint and self-discipline. This is worth noting. One powerful critique of liberalism that has emerged in recent years is that its immense productivity is destructive of the traditional values it depends on. Zelenskyy, a man whose early life seems typical of the fluff spun off by a lightweight modern world, might have been perfectly manufactured to demonstrate this thesis and reveal liberalism’s emptiness. That he hasn’t doesn’t refute the critics, but it suggests the debate isn’t settled yet.
And there is a final element here. Our view of Zelenskyy and Ukraine is constantly mediated not just by what Zelenskyy and his government reveal to its Western audience, but by what our own media, leaders and people focus on as well. We’re aware — and we shouldn’t forget — that Ukraine’s government has suffered from corruption and injustice; that Ukraine’s past is entangled with Nazi and Soviet oppression; that its borders are recent political constructs. That these facts are not rehearsed in every discussion of the country’s plight suggest our willingness — or perhaps our hope — that we can indeed support a country and a political leader despite their past sins and imperfections. We are entertaining the idea that a people’s aspirations to honor the right virtues — to be better — matter.
Inevitably, Zelenskyy will face hard choices in the days and months to come. Some of them may disappoint us. The exigencies of war are brutal. Angry Ukrainian soldiers could go rogue on the battlefield. And he, and we, are faced with the great insight of liberalism: Power has a corrupting influence to which no human being is immune.
But Vladimir Putin entered this war afraid of what a liberal democracy represents for his own bullying regime. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has given him something doubly potent to fear: the example of power used to help people, to lead people — not to threaten them, nor to give them a strutting caricature of strength that dominates others under a pretense that it’s on their behalf, but rather to offer a view of what they and their country, at their finest, can be.
Bonus Material: The video is now available of the debate between University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen and Stanford University Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies’ Francis Fukuyama on “Does Liberalism Offer a Worthwhile Way of Life?” The debate, in which Deneen argued “no” and Fukuyama “yes,” was part of Michigan State University’s LeFrak Forum’s annual conference, whose topic this year was Liberalism and Its Discontents.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.