Excessive Deference to Leaders Corrupts Them

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Who wouldn't lose their humility if constantly surrounded by sycophants eager to invest them with unchecked power?

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David Brooks kept an audience of hundreds rapt Thursday for a compelling 45 minute lecture on two competing codes of human conduct: the code of honor and valor that we associate with the Greeks, and the code of humility and love that we associate with Jesus Christ. In his estimation, we're at our best when we succeed in blending these codes, but we've largely abandoned both.

He nevertheless argued, during a brief question answer session, that today's political leaders are often better than we give them credit for being. He praised Chief Justice John Roberts for acting as a guardian of the institution he heads while adjudicating the Affordable Care Act. President Obama has many wonderful qualities, he averred, adding that humility isn't one of them. He praised Mitt Romney too, noting that he's had a remarkably successful career in business, that he is the sort of man who left his son's wedding reception to aid a sick person in need, and that he once helped an acquaintance move boxes despite having an arm in a cast at the time.

Often, America's elected officials are people you'd admire if you met them in any other walk of life, he concluded. "They're impressive people in the business with the toughest possible character test: everyone is worshiping them their whole lives. It's tough to be a normal person with that."

On that narrow point I think he is right.

Most of our presidents, senators and governors are extremely accomplished people with at least some exceptional qualities. They are thrust into a position that would be the ruin of many humans. Power itself tends to corrupt. Being surrounded by sycophants is itself a character test. There are, too, the many opportunities for personal indiscretions, and an apparent sense of invulnerability.

But I part ways with Brooks when I ponder the implications of these realities.

He pondered them in a recent column. In it he empathizes with those in power, a natural enough thing for an empathetic man who often interviews them. "We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power," he writes. "Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty." He goes on to note that "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... These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those 'Question Authority' bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority."

It seems to me that there is a tension between Brooks' insight about why it is difficult to be a good leader, and his admonition that "before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following." As he puts it, "To have good leaders you have to have good followers -- able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it." His critics perhaps dismiss this point too readily. There have been times when leaders inspired greatness in followers. Take Gandhi (never mind the reality that today's leaders are not exactly Gandhi analogues).

What cannot be squared, in my mind, is the insight that leader worship makes it harder for people in power to behave honorably, and the simultaneous argument that we need to be more admiring of our leaders. I do not mean that we should be disrespectful or them, nor of any other human being.

But we ought to be skeptical of their intentions, knowing that power corrupts; and we ought to challenge them, for if having worshipful sycophants inflates one's self-importance, what better corrective than dissenters confident enough to convey that the leader has erred in his or her judgment?

More than anything else, we ought to constrain the power leaders wield.

There is a fantastic book by Gene Healy called "The Cult of the Presidency." It is noteworthy, among denunciations of misbehaving leaders, in laying the blame for our woes on the American voter.

Says Healy in the magazine-length version of his thesis:

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He--or she--is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America's shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He's also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth. This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the "commander in chief" as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

It's difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble. 

On the American right, you don't get much farther apart than Gene Healy and David Brooks, but they have this common insight: being surrounded by people who inflate your importance and treat you as a figure of worship makes you a worse leader. As Brooks put it in his Thursday talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the best leaders are at once willing to act decisively and prone to humility and introspection. They are attuned to the possibility that they too are fallible.

Sycophants destroy that perspective. 

In America, the Founders built various reminders of leadership flaws into the system. Its checks and balances are a reminder that no actor is infallible. The Constitution doesn't entrust the president with the power to declare war. It leaves that to the many representatives of the people. Our founding document bestows a free press too - a guarantor that America's leaders would always be held up to scrutiny and even ridicule, as any student of Founding era political cartoons could anticipate.

It would be much safer to be the sort of follower that Brooks calls for in a country where the president remained constrained by Founding-era limits on his authority, but that is not our lot. The deference Brooks counsels in an era like ours, where the president routinely claims unchecked authority to do as he pleases, and where the notion of the presidency is inflated to the status of cult hero and protector of the nation - deferential followers would invite bad leadership today.

Says Brooks:

Those "Question Authority" bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority. 

But challenges to authority aren't mere attitude, mounted for their own sake as an intellectual pose. Challenging authority is in fact indispensable if authority is to remain just, legitimate, and tempered by the humility that is a precondition of good leadership. Brooks invokes Lincoln as an example of a great leader. He was mocked, challenged, and disrespected more ferociously than any political figure today. America's problem isn't its inability to follow, but its refusal to constrain its leaders in ways that force them to resist the temptations toward excesses inherent in their positions.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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