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Authority and the Current Crisis

The other day, David Brooks wrote a column in which he said the following:

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

According to Robert Wright, everybody made fun of this column. Wright said that you can’t seriously survey the quality of leadership we have now and blame people for being cynical about them — especially given that in Congress, at least, the biggest principle that seems to motivate most of those leaders is doing whatever the wealthiest and most powerful donors want. You’d have to be willfully blind not to see that. Wright adds:

Last time I wrote about Brooks’s column, I vowed to ponder the chicken-and-egg problem Brooks is suggesting here–i.e. that we’re cynical and unruly because we’ve had so many bad leaders, but our cynicism and unruliness keep better leaders from emerging.

OK, I’ve pondered it now! And I think this vicious circle isn’t really very vicious. Indeed, I think our cynicism increases the appeal of leaders who truly deserve following–leaders who would earnestly grapple with our problems, say unpopular things that need to be said, etc. I think watching so many politicians tailor their convictions to the latest polls has left us hungry for politicians with actual convictions. That’s one reason Ron Paul has such a fervent following.

Obviously, such a candidate runs into problems. For example: saying unpopular things can cut into your popularity! But having unpopular ideas isn’t Ron Paul’s only problem; having ideas that are unpopular because they seem nutty and cultish–e.g., his ideas about the gold standard–is another one. So the narrowness of Paul’s following doesn’t disprove my conjecture that a cynical age creates opportunities for a bold and creative leader with integrity, candor, and true vision. In any event, I’m holding my reverence in reserve until one shows up.

I actually think they’re both right, and we’re kind of screwed.

Brooks is partly right to say that it’s hard for leaders to emerge because people really are cynical. But why are they so cynical today if our institutions are not particularly worse today than they were half a century ago? I don’t think it’s wholly, or even mostly, a matter of decadence. I think we simply know a lot more today than we did back then — “know,” as in “have much more information.” After Vietnam and Watergate, who could have as much trust in the leadership elite as they once did? Hell, after Iraq, who could? Only someone who is willfully blind. The press are far less likely to defer to authority, and to protect its prerogatives. Do we really want to go back to a time when the media covered up for the president’s sex life, a la Kennedy? Would it be better for us if the press refused to cover for the crimes of clergy? I think not.

John Podhoretz said to me once that a central problem of leadership in our era is how to maintain authority (which is not the same thing as power) in a media culture in which everyone is always watching, and every sin and fault is magnified. We know a lot more about our leaders and their lives than we used to do, and, as Walter Bagehot said of the royal family, if you let sunlight in upon the magic, it dissipates.

Though the circumstances are far less rarefied, the same principle applies. If we are poor followers today, my sense is that it’s mostly because it takes far more effort to ignore the b.s. and believe the image. We are more skeptical. Skepticism is not the same thing as cynicism, though it’s hard to separate the two out.

Robert Wright is no doubt correct that the solution for this problem is to get leaders who have strong principles and who are more or less incorruptible. I wonder, though, if the only kind of people who have the personal integrity and strength of character to resist the ordinary corruption of political life are people like Ron Paul, who are so  unconventional that their appeal is limited. (Another way of saying this: only a true nut could protect himself from being absorbed by the Borg that is contemporary Washington).

It’s not just a Washington problem. Think of the churches. How much do you trust religious authority? Or think of the news media. And so forth.

You cannot have a society in which all authority is radically suspect. Things will fall apart. At some point, most people have to suspend their disbelief. But who? At what point? And at what cost?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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