There are three types of “authority” in political leadership. Each of the three has had a major influence on American political life over the centuries. More, all three are playing a role in both parties’ primaries, and will continue to do so until the November election.
The three are: traditional authority, or “the way things have always been done,” the primary mode in pre-industrial states; bureaucratic authority, which tends to be found where there are large populations; and charismatic authority, which occurs when an individual is widely recognized as having unusual talents and personal appeal.
The Founding Fathers were certainly influenced by tradition. Their thoughts on the system of law reflects the British model that they were familiar with. Their concepts of the federal system of government was influenced by both ancient Greece, and by the Indian societies of the northeast. Their beliefs on individual freedoms also were influenced by the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy.
“Bureaucracy” simply means identifying the most efficient way to deal with large numbers of people. Everyone who has had the pleasure of going to a local Department of Motor Vehicles finds that if they have a “usual” problem, it gets handled relatively fast; while if it is an unusual issue, they may be in for a long wait until it’s resolved.
Thus, the United States government originally sought a balanced approach to issues involving the large, rural farming population, and the more populated cities. This was one of the issues behind the Civil War — and obviously related to the central dispute, slavery. The government would become increasingly bureaucratic during the industrial revolution.
Charismatic authority generally is associated with when a leader of a marginalized group of people challenges the machine. It usually has the shortest shelf-life: once the machine kills that charismatic leader, his or her movement is decapitated. In the turbulent decade of the 1960s, for example, men such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King provided powerful examples of charismatic authority.
Now, let’s take a brief look at each of the three “top” candidates for the presidency: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. By using the sociological model of authority, each of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses come into sharper focus. As readers may know, I support Bernie Sanders; however, I believe that the following is an objective view of all three.
Donald Trump fit’s a loose definition of “traditional,” in the sense that he is a male, and our culture remains rather patriarchal in terms of the federal government. Being an aggressive male also has helped to propel his candidacy — this was evident when he “alpha-dogged” Jeb Bush. He also has experience with the bureaucracy of the business world, including on the international stage. But his biggest strength comes from being charismatic to a significant portion of the republican/ tea party people.
His weaknesses are evident. Although he has attempted to be included as VP as far back as 1988, by writing his infamous “willing to serve” note to Bush the Elder. He has no experience in politics. This actually appeals to a segment of angry tea partiers, but is a very real weakness going into the general election.
Hillary Clinton seeks to end the tradition of the presidency being a men’s club. Indeed, until 2008, it was exclusively white male, upper economic status. Yet, in several traditional societies that practiced some form of democracy, the role of women was not as limited as it has been in the US. In traditional Iroquois society, for example, there was a balance of power between male and female: while men served as chiefs, each extended family was represented by a Clan Mother — usually an elderly woman, who had the authority to remove a chief from that status. More, the decision to go engage in warfare was made exclusively by women. In many senses, Hillary Clinton has served in a role with a higher degree of authority than any woman before her.
Hillary’s greatest strength is found in her understanding of bureaucracy. While people tend to associate “bureaucracy” with the negative, it is a reality in any system that deals with a large number of people. Before becoming VP in 1960, for example, Lyndon Johnson was the most effective political leader of the twentieth century in Washington. Clinton has experience in two of the three branches of the federal government — far more than anyone except a few vice presidents who, having previously served in one or both houses of Congress, went on to run for president.
Her weakest point is found in “charisma.” Like the vast majority of politicians, she is not an inspirational public speaker. While she obviously has wide support within the Democratic Party — and, at very least, the respect of a segment of republicans — she appears uncomfortable in delivering speeches, or participating in debates. This is not to suggest that she lacks a mastery of the facts being discussed. Rather, like Al Gore, she lacks charisma.
Bernie Sanders has an interesting public appeal that is partially rooted in tradition. The fact that the overwhelming number of young adults actively support him has confused his opposition. In large part, it is because of his being the wise grandfather or great uncle that these young people both respect and adore. More, he serves as in the role of the elder who warns his people that they are being led astray. Of the three candidates, he is definitely the most honest — without any reputation for corruption or unethical behavior — he has the trust of the young adults …..and that is something that money can’t buy.
His experience within the bowels of bureaucracy is substantial. He has served successfully as a mayor. He went on to serve in both the House of Representatives, and in the Senate. In each of these positions, Sanders has shown outstanding judgment — think of the vote that enabled Bush and Cheney to attack Iraq without provocation — and a passion for social justice.
Sanders is also charismatic. While his speaking style is unique, and not of the style one usually considers “charismatic,” the power of his message has moved him from having little national support, to being recognized as the candidate most capable of defeating Donald Trump in November. It is important to note that his opposition had believed that Sanders’s being a democratic socialist would kneecap his campaign. Indeed, it would have, in 1950. But in 2016, it has become a huge plus, largely due to his charisma.
If we were to judge the probable outcome based upon the dynamics of authority within our current system, Hillary Clinton’s bureaucratic experience would make her the favorite to win in November. However, 2016 has been an unusual year, and both the republican and Democratic primaries have each been well beyond strange. The bureaucratic powers-that-be — known as the establishment — was prepared to serve up another Bush versus Clinton election contest. But the public rejected that plan.
It appears, at this time, most likely that it will be Clinton versus Trump. That could be a more difficult contest than people might have assumed. Only one thing is certain: this evening, while doing some grocery shopping, I ran into one of my best friends, David, who said, “This is by far the strangest year in politics in my lifetime.” To be sure, he is correct. I suspect that it will continue to grow even stranger between now and November.