Followers too Far?

Leadership and followership typically proceed along an historical trajectory. Since they are twinned, and since they change over time, they were different in the early 19th and 20th centuries from what they are now, early in the 21st. Still, the Western trajectory has tended consistent at least since the Enlightenment. Power and influence have devolved away from those at the top, and toward those in the middle and at the bottom.

In the last few years, however, some have wondered: How far and fast can this devolution go? How much political power can leaders lose and followers gain without inciting instability?

A case in point is what’s been happening on some of America’s most prestigious college campuses. While most Americans support students’ right to protest, when such protests turn virulent to the point of being violent – as happened recently in Berkeley, California – the authorities feel obliged if not obligated to step in. Authority takes over when inmates overtake the asylum – when followers overwhelm leaders.

More than anything else the rise of the threatening follower at the expense of the threatened leader explains the reemergence of authoritarianism – leadership more dictatorial than democratic. Putin clamped down when Russians got restive. Erdogan clamped down when Turks got defiant. El-Sisi clamped down in the wake of the Arab spring. And Xi Jinping clamped down in response to the growing number of Chinese activists.

Additionally are strongmen in other countries that previously were liberal and democratic, such as Hungary. Additionally are would-be strongmen, such as Donald Trump, who would like nothing so much as to highjack precisely those institutions that preclude his becoming an autocrat. And, additionally is a significant percentage of the electorate that itself opts for order over disorder, for the illusion of reversion over the encroachment of change.

Which raises this question: How far will the pendulum swing? Will followers in liberal Western democracies continue to feel unmoored? Continue in consequence to revert to populism and authoritarianism? Or will the trajectory of history prove immutable – and the regression to autocracy more an aberration than a rule?


Note: I’m hitting the road. So, no new blogs for at least the next two weeks.

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