12 June 2012

David Brooks's Follower Problem: Where are we going, anyway?

David Brooks raises interesting questions in his latest New York Times column, which begins unpromisingly with grumpy comments about the uninspiring monuments the country erects these days. Brooks thinks these unheroic monuments testify to the country's increasingly conflicted attitude toward authority, and the people's apparent inability to imagine or idealize what Brooks calls "just authority." He sees many reasons for this problem, and they cut across ideological lines. Americans have become too egalitarian and too individualistic, he claims. Worse, they've become indiscriminately cynical.

These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.
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 [sic?]  semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king. 

Brooks's equation of the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers will doubtless offend both groups, each assuming that it challenges only wrongful or abused authority, and only for indisputably good reasons. At the same time, each group probably seems authoritarian to the other, the Occupiers demanding more power for the state in the minds of the TPs, the TPs demanding more for corporate patriarchy, depending on what Occupier you talk to. But Brooks is probably onto something when he includes that both groups, if not the society as a whole, have what he calls a "follower problem." What are they missing? 

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. 

Brooks may complicate the issue more than he needs to, because what he's really talking about is representative government. Democratic republics depend on people trusting the people they elect, with the election itself the fundamental act of trust. But too many people, Brooks claims, take the too-democratic attitude that you're no better than I am, so who are you to tell me what to do? The problem isn't just cynicism, he writes; it's vanity. This brings him back to the monument problem. We can't create inspiring monuments, he thinks, because we're reluctant to acknowledge a hero's superiority or present him (or her) as someone who should be emulated by others. This seems more like a description of the Tea Party or larger libertarian attitude, but a shift of perspective might make widespread distrust of business leaders look very similar.

But if Brooks perceives a "follower problem," he fails to ask the most obvious next question. He may be right that "to have good leaders you have to have good followers," but before you can have good followers you have to have a general agreement about the direction we're all going in. That has to happen before anyone decides who leads and who follows, unless you presume that only a leader can decide the direction, while everyone else should trust him. I'd like to think that in a democratic republic the people decide the direction and the leaders steer us there. But we live in the American Bipolarchy, where the people do not choose the direction. Instead, we decide where we don't want to go, or who we don't want to steer us, by voting for one party as a veto on the other. Republicans may hope that Mitt Romney will get a mandate in November, but if President Obama loses it won't be because voters have positively chosen Romney's direction, but because they'll have repudiated Obama's. Romney will find, as have his recent predecessors, that such a verdict comes with no automatic deference to his will, no matter what he might assume. But if we mistrust leaders, we mistrust each other as well -- our fellow followers whether we think of ourselves or others that way or not. We may be more cynical than we were in Eisenhower's time, to choose an example Brooks offers, but is that crippling cynicism a cause or a consequence of our real trouble? Brooks gives us an interesting preliminary diagnosis, but further research is necessary.  


Anonymous said...

"They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts."
I don't think that is the case at all. Teabaggers love heirarchies and authority. As long as THEY have it. The right-wing is a text-book case of alpha-malism (to coin a phrase). What they don't respect is authority that they didn't elect or appoint into office. They very much worship the idea that each and every one of them is a "king of his castle", with the family being the servants/peasants/slaves. What they hate and disrespect is anyone and everyone who refuses to conform to their particular herd.

Samuel Wilson said...

Of course, there's one big exception to your description: God. They can't claim to have elected a deity, but many of them still bow to the entity just the same, and some question secular hierarchies, when it suits them, because they don't come from God. It seems that the people you mean can stand hierarchy when they understand it to be traditional, ancient, and empowering for themselves against others.