Democratic politics is assuming new forms, as are the ways that politicians perform political leadership. Traditional establishment politics in Western representative democracies is struggling, not only because it has trouble responding effectively to wicked policy problems, but also because increasingly competent and assertive citizens are no longer satisfied with their role as passive spectators to elitist party politics (Dalton and Welzel, 2014). Citizens increasingly want to influence the matters affecting their daily lives more than is allowed by the occasional visit to the ballot box. This disenchantment with representative democracy is seen in declining voter turnout and party membership and growing interest in other forms of political participation (Mair, 2013).

July, 17 2020   |   Eva Sørensen

In response to this development, governments have introduced a variety of platforms and arenas for direct participation, including user boards, neighborhood councils, online consultation processes and different forms of participatory budgeting (Smith, 2009). These initiatives have not dampened the democratic disenchantment among citizens, however. Their trust in politicians continues to decline.

As many political scientists have noted, the growing political distrust has created fertile ground for populist political leaders, both in newly established democracies and in countries with lengthy democratic traditions. Cas Mudde (2004) goes so far as to call populism the zeitgeist of our time. There is indeed good reason to pay attention to the surging populist forms of political leadership and to worry about their democratic implications. However, there is a problematic tendency in the media as well as among researchers to overlook what appears to be a different, much more timely and viable response to the crisis for traditional elitist establishment politics. This response involves the development of what I call interactive political leadership.

Interactive political leadership deviates from populist political leadership in a number of ways. While populist political leaders accuse political opponents of being enemies of the people, interactive political leaders negotiate with them to create broad-based political support and build legitimacy for political goals, strategies and solutions. Populist politicians refuse to take expert advice, insisting that they know exactly what must be done. In contrast, interactive political leaders seek input from a broad range of experts and engage in close dialogue with relevant and affected stakeholders and citizens to guarantee the information, ideas, perspectives and support required to respond effectively to complex and turbulent policy problems. Populist political leaders insist on simplicity, whereas interactive political leaders address complexity. Finally, populist political leaders claim that they can singlehandedly make good things happen. By contrast, interactive political leaders mobilize, empower and join forces with society to share power and mobilize resources to make things better.

This difference between populist and interactive political leadership styles becomes clear when comparing how US President Donald Trump and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen have responded to the COVID-19 crisis in the spring of 2020. Trump started by stating that he was in full control, proceeded to declare a state of emergency, only to shortly thereafter conclude that it was time to re-open society. He then attacked Democrat governors who did not obey his call for a speedy opening with tweets such as “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, which legitimized and perhaps even spurred demonstrations and riots among local citizens. Focusing exclusively on revitalizing the economy and getting people back to work, he ignored health experts and science, together with the majority of US citizens, who were anxious that opening society would trigger a further spread of the virus.

From day one, Danish PM Frederiksen stated that Denmark was in an unprecedented situation and that the government had no readymade response strategy: Success depended on the willingness and ability of all Danes—public and private, experts and laypersons, politicians and citizens—to work together to find viable solutions. She initiated negotiations with all of the ten political parties in parliament, and invited health authorities, university professors, public employees and local communities to participate in the debate and contribute to the development and implementation of broadly supported strategies for dealing with health-related issues, together with the economic challenges resulting from the crisis. Revisions were made to the prototypical strategy swiftly, continuously and based on rapid learning—and the media played a key role as a platform for critical yet constructive debate.

Frederiksen’s political leadership style in coping with COVID-19 is no isolated or exotic example of interactive political leadership; rather, it is symptomatic of a larger trend. An emerging body of research documents shows a tendency among politicians at all levels of government to invest time and energy in building broad political coalitions and alliances in society. They solicit input from relevant experts, public and private stakeholders, as well as from affected citizens, to qualify their policies but also to muster public support and commitment to implement political decisions. Top-level public officials seek input from relevant and affected actors at early stages in a policy-making process to better understand the problem at hand (Hendriks and Lees-Marshment, 2019). Parliamentary committees interview stakeholders or invite them to comment on specific issues and tentative solutions and commission citizen forums to propose solutions to sensitive policy issues (Ercan, 2014; Sørensen and Torfing, 2018; Farrell, Suiter and Harris, 2019). Political parties seek inspiration from outside the party (Bischoff and Christiansen, 2017).

This trend is hardly surprising when we consider the last four decades of public sector reform (Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011). The aim has been, among other things, to enhance the effectiveness and legitimacy of the public sector through the formation of partnerships and networks between public and private actors around wicked governance problems. Consequently, the idea that public authorities can govern society on their own without involving firms, NGOs and citizens is long gone. Today we live in the age of governance, where governing society has developed into a collaborative, multi-actor activity (Torfing et al., 2019).

But why, then, has the surge and promise of interactive political leadership gone relatively unnoticed among practitioners and researchers? One possible explanation is that while the surge of populist political leadership has attracted all the attention, interactive political leadership has developed under the radar. Populist political leaders are difficult to overlook; their appearance is often out of the ordinary. They refuse to play by the traditional rules of party politics, discard science and question the status of core democratic institutions, such as representative assemblies and the judiciary system. Populist political leaders are spectacular and therefore newsworthy, which grants them easy and abundant access to mass media. News media want a striking and dramatic appearance, memorable one-liners, friend-enemy narratives and political conflict. Interactive political leaders stick to democratic norms, such as pluralism and freedom of the press, they build on scientific knowledge and they back core democratic institutions (Stoker, 2019). Moreover, when they do break with political tradition, they do so by building alliances and coalitions, avoiding or solving conflict, accepting differences of opinion and respecting adversaries.

Whatever the reason for the limited attention to interactive political leadership, it is regrettable. Because this type of political leadership gets limited media attention, it cannot serve as the source of inspiration for politicians searching for new ways to take leadership of antiauthoritarian, critical and competent citizens. They must make do with the few interactive political leaders who know how to capture media attention by other means than the populists through the dramatization and celebration of collaborative politics.

The limited attention from researchers is also lamentable. It means that we know far too little about what interactive political leadership entails for politicians at different levels in the political system. Moreover, it remains unclear what a turn to interactive political leadership implies for the interplay between politicians and public administrators, what it means for stakeholders and citizens, and how it affects the problem-solving capacity of the political system and the distribution of power and influence in society. Finally, there is a pressing need to consider what democratic representation, political accountability, policy innovation and policy implementation look like in the context of interactive political leadership.

The first step toward answering all these questions is to develop a language and theoretical framework for studying interactive political leadership, which is what my new book tries to do (Sørensen, 2020). Drawing on recent strands of governance theory and theories of political leadership, I define interactive political leadership as a strategic effort to engage relevant and affected members of the political community in the formulation and implementation of political visions, strategies and policy solutions. I then show how interactive political leadership is already a widespread practice and that a further turn toward this form of leadership does not require radical reforms in the institutions of representative democracy but mainly a change in leadership practice. Next, I develop a number of propositions regarding what a turn to interactive political leadership might imply for democratic governance. My conclusion: Although there are barriers, dilemmas and challenges along the way, interactive political leadership appears to offer a promising building block for overcoming the current crisis facing representative democracy.

My book concludes in the direction of a democracy where the governing of society takes form through a productive interplay between attentive and responsive political leaders and active and empowered citizens. The book is an invitation to other researchers to chip in and take part in improving our understanding of where political leadership is going in Western representative democracies.


Eva Sørensen is Professor in Public Administration and Democracy, Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Denmark.



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Sørensen, E. (2020). Interactive Political Leadership: The Role of Politicians in the Age of Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Torfing, J., Peters, B.G., Pierre, J., and Sørensen, E. (2019). Interactive Governance: Advancing the Paradigm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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