“Leaders” and the Abdication of Personal Responsibility

The run-up to this November election prompts me to think about how many voters in this country are abdicating their personal responsibility by blindly following the “leadership” of one or another interest group.  The clearest example of this in the current election has been among groups supporting Proposition 8 — which would declare gay marriage unconstitutional in California.  However, there are many other examples in various parts of the political spectrum.

The abdication of personal responsibility is far from a new phenomenon.  Perhaps the most well-known example is the way the people of Germany followed the leadership of Adolph Hitler prior to and during World War II.  In the aftermath, it is hard to understand how literally millions of people could have accepted Hitler’s simplistic mantra that the world’s problems were caused by the Jews, and that the Aryan people, exemplified by the people of Germany, deserved to lead the world to a great and glorious thousand year reich.

Yet there are certainly millions of people in the United States who will state as a matter of faith that the United States is the greatest country in the history of the world; that the U.S. political system is the most pefect political system ever devised; and that the U.S. never has and never will do anything except what is in the best interest of the people of this country and the world.  There is something very comforting in this kind  of simplistic and absolutist thinking.  It eliminates the need to be concerned about events like the My Lai massacre or the firebombing of Dresden during World War II (or, for that matter, among Germans, the persecution and murder of Jews and other minorities).

Perhaps even more importantly, when people agree to accept absolute control by a leader, they abdicate  any personal responsibility for their actions under that leader’s control.  Stated this way, examples are widely spread.  They range from Jim Jones and his People’s Temple to the Mafia and its various leaders.  In each case, the leader demands and is willingly given unquestioned control of the members’ lives.

The unspoken bargain in such cases is that the leader knows better than those being led what is best for all concerned, and by accepting this  leadership, everyone will benefit.  An unspoken corollary is that to question the leader’s decisions or edicts would be counterproductive to the group’s (and, eventually, even the questioner’s) best interest.  Among other things, this means that anyone questioning the leader’s orders  is risking the opprobrium not only of the leader, but also of everyone else in the group.

In a representative democracy such as ours, there is enormous benefit to the leader, and potentially also to the group, from such a bargain.  In return for giving up personal control over their vote, the group’s members become part of a much larger mass of people that can potentially wield much greater political power.  If one adds to that the potential for the group (and its leader) to control the financial resources of the group’s members, the power is even further expanded. 

On the Left, groups such as Moveon.com have also capitalized on the recognition that amalgamating members’ resources can increase their effectiveness.  There are, however, two key differences between groups such as Moveon.com, for example, on the one hand and a classic leader-centered group on the other.  The first is that Moveon.com makes its decisions about using group resources by a collective process, while leader-centered groups are heirarchical, with a single leader or a small group of leaders controlling the group’s decision making.  The second, and perhaps even more crucial, difference is that Moveon.com does not require blind obedience from its members.  If Moveon.com decides to support a particular course of action, for example supporting Barak Obama’s candidacy, individual members are free not to participate in that action while still remaining members in good standing in the group.  Leader-oriented groups are generally far less forgiving of such “apostacy”.  At the very least, refusing to follow the leader’s direction brands one as a heretic.  At worst, it can result in being excluded from the group, shunned, and potentially even attacked by the group.

Of course, there is not an absolute dividing line between groups requiring blind obedience and groups encouraging individual thought and choice.  At one extreme are groups commonly referred to as “cults”.  At the other are groups that are held together only  by a  loose compendium of commonly-held beliefs and make no requirements of their members’ behavior.  Among groups supporting Proposition 8, one can find a wide range of levels of control, ranging from groups that dictate that their members vote for and provide support for the ballot measure to groups that, while also providing support, only advise their members to do so.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that leader-centered groups can pose a significant threat to the democratic process.  Nazi Germany is a vivid example, but there are many others as well, including Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina, the divine emperorship in Japan, and the “cult of Mao” in China.  How to deal with such collective abdication of personal political responsibility is a major challenge for democratic political thinking.

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