The sociologist Robert Michels, one of Max Weber’s most brilliant students, in the concluding chapter of his 1911 book, Political Parties, wrote, “…every system of leadership is incompatible with the most essential postulates of democracy.” As citizens of democratic countries in the twenty-first century, we should carefully reflect on Michels’ well-researched conclusion at this time of conflict and global uncertainty. Especially in the Unites States where, in the present process of seeking a new president, we are bombarded with rhetoric from the media and our politicians announcing the need for strong leadership. One wonders if we’ve learned anything about democracy, or leaders, since 1911. And what are the core postulates of democracy, and do they conflict with leadership?
I believe the most fundamental postulates of democracy would include the belief that ordinary citizens possess the practical wisdom and moral decency required for self-government. Ordinary citizens are the true governing class in a democracy. In representative democracies, our political representatives are our servants and play a subordinate role to that of citizen. The only power and authority they possess are what we, the citizens, delegate to them. Such subordinate status and delegated authority, possessed by public servants, require complete openness with information and absolute transparency in the decision-making process when fulfilling their political role. This is not a suggestion, but the only way for democracy to be successful. Yet, in the past 100 years, have our democratic governments demonstrated much openness or transparency? This brings us to leadership.
What is the essential system of leadership, and why does it conflict with democracy? Leadership denotes ranking, division, and separation. Whenever we think in terms of leadership we create a dualistic world. We create a rank-based dichotomy, two categories: one of leaders – a select and privileged few; and the second of followers – the vast majority. The practice of leadership, by definition, grants unique privilege to leaders to monopolize information and control decision-making, and it justifies them in doing so. Leadership is, unavoidably, a rank-based system, where control and power come together in a select and privileged group at the top. It will always be secretive. It may become abusive and finally corrupt. This rank-based system creates a leadership class in society, which allows easy cooperation between political and business leaders. The back and forth job shuffle between the power brokers in business and politics, which subsequently occurs, has undermined any real chance for self-government by the true governing class – the ordinary citizens.
Today, the belief in the need for strong leadership has replaced the earlier ideologies of priestly power and divine right of kings as the means for ruling elites to maintain and justify unequal power. For this reason, I call it a myth. It subordinates the interests and well-being of the majority of persons to the interest and well-being of the privileged elites and makes it appear normal and natural. The myth of leadership is perfectly suited to play this a role in a democracy. By making the undemocratic values of command and control authority appear as natural and appropriate to the exercise of leadership, it turns citizens into subjects, unquestioning allegiance into patriotism, and democracies into functional oligarchies.
The myth of leadership also rationalizes the privileges bestowed upon leaders. Surrounded by the allure of power and privilege, our political leaders have a difficult time accepting their proper place in a democracy. Further, we are taught that leaders enjoy a moral superiority and integrity that few possess. Leaders are great men, and a few women, who we should revere and trust without question. Such mythic thinking leads individuals to become complicit in their own oppression. The wealthy and well-connected are able to manipulate such a system to become vastly better off, while the many experience only marginal gains and in too many instances, no gains at all.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but when we accept without question the rhetoric of leadership, we misconstrue the proper relation of citizen to politician. We become an authoritarian society; regardless of whether republicans or democrats control Congress or the White House. Michels believed this was inevitable, in fact the sub-title of his book was – A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies. The remedy is not to find some new leader, to whom we surrender our future, but we must decide to create a genuine democracy. Otherwise, we will continue to be victims of what Michels called the iron law of oligarchy. We need less leadership and more democratic self-government. Where democracy requires openness, transparency, and participatory governing, leadership justifies secrecy, control, and authoritarian rule. Leadership and democratic self-government are incompatible practices.
If only we could leverage our current disenchantment with our politicians and political parties to create a more participatory democracy. We must change our mind-set from believing we need a leader to save us to the belief that we, the people, can practice self-government. We need to find new ways for ordinary citizens to participate more fully in solving the problems of our common public life. We should support only those candidates for public office who speak less of their leadership ability and who, instead, promise to facilitate greater citizen participation and to create more incentives for ordinary citizens to participate in the formulation of public policy. Democracy requires that we deliberate together as peers and gain political literacy in the process of engaging in public affairs. If we’re not careful once again we might get a strong leader, when what we really need is more citizenship in a participatory democracy.