The crisis of followership

Great Britain has a crisis of leadership. One main party now headed by an agit-prop Marxist; the other by a hapless prime minister, who has now quit, leaving the crazies to take over.

This prompted The Economist’s “Bagehot” columnist (covering Britain) to recall a long ago discussion about leadership — where management guru Peter Drucker said we actually need to think more about followership. (Here’s a link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/05/04/britains-followership-problem) If we don’t see great leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, and FDR, maybe it’s because followership has changed.

In America, Democratic party followers are riven between two opposing tendencies. One feels we need radicalism, blowing up the system. The other wants to seize the center ground, to return America to normalcy. Would-be leaders play to one or the other ethos, the gap seemingly unbridgeable. The followers want the leaders to follow them, not the other way around.

The Republicans’ situation is the opposite. They’re totally united, in following one leader — down the road to perdition.

Bagehot says politics works (or should) by politicians gaining authority from voters and using it to do the work of government. Authority had long been gained through followership, with three basic paradigms: voter deference to an elite; class solidarity; and perceived competence.

All three have broken down. The very idea of deference rankles. The idea of competence elicits laughs. And class consciousness has faded. The result is a collapse in legitimacy and a widening gap between leaders and followers.

Which, says Bagehot, “has sent new forces surging through the body politic.” Including know-it-all cynicism on the one hand and, on the other, sudden enthusiasms for radical nostrums. I would add the degeneration of political discourse into what looks more like team rivalry; color war rather than class war. Policies are only a thin veneer on what is really a cultural, tribal divide. Us-against-them, with winning all that matters. Trampling “the better angels of our nature.”

Meantime, Bagehot writes, the most dangerous motivator “is the combination of anger, disappointment and bloody-mindedness” — in a word, resentment. And Bagehot fears this politics of resentment will likely trump the politics of problem-solving for some time.

Speaking of Trump — oddly, the column actually doesn’t. Yet obviously Trump’s election represented exactly what it talks about. A gotterdammerung of resentment and bloody-mindedness, when too many American voters threw responsible citizenship to the winds and plunged for its antithesis.

And of course the great irony: why expect such nihilism to achieve what (inchoately, confusedly) they sought? Surely a leap from the frying pan to the fire.

Indeed, Bagehot quotes the words people most commonly use in condemning politicians: “contemptible, disgraceful, parasitical, sleazy, traitorous.”

Remind you of anyone in particular?

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2 Responses to “The crisis of followership”

  1. cocobiskits Says:

    Reminds me of almost any politician of the last 15-20 years in UK, Canada, or US.

  2. Gregory Kipp Says:

    I’m pushing for the current crop of Democrat candidates to develop coherent, practical, effective policies to address some real issues, something Congress and our President seem incapable of doing. Policy development and implementation is needed in areas such as immigration and the southern border, jobs moving overseas and the hollowing out of the middle class, the unaffordable cost of healthcare, student debt, preservation of the natural world and climate change just for starters. And let’s face it — the “my way or the highway” approach to politics has proven itself completely ineffective. Both sides need to realize that neither is going to get everything they want, and everybody needs to work together to develop a compromise plan that is good for the Nation. This will require leadership from both sides of the aisle. Are their any individuals out there capable of filling the role?

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