<< The Body Politic

The follower problem

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks takes a look at how the monuments we build reflect our national character–and how, given the disappointment of recent monuments (e.g., the World War II, FDR, and MLK Jr. memorials, as well as the proposed Eisenhower Memorial), more thought about that leadership would be a good thing.

Brooks’s thesis is that Americans have an unhealthy problem with authority, and that the pervasive idea of constantly questioning authority “no longer symbolize[s] an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. [It] symbolize[s] an attitude of opposing [any] authority.” This “follower problem” is one reason why we’ve started to build bad memorials:

Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?

Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.

Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.

But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

[… By rejecting all authority y]ou 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.

For more on the role monuments in civic life, read the rest of Brook’s column here, and check out the remarks from our recent panel discussion on the subject here.