Big Sort

What’s Missing Is Followership

Dan Balz at the

Washington Post

writes about

a “collective breakdown of leadership in Washington,” while the paper’s

lead editorial says

the country faces “A Test of Leadership.” Over at the

New York Times

, Jackie Calmes

writes that

the House vote Monday “was the product of a larger failure—of political leadership in Washington. …” On the op-ed page,

David Brooks compares

“this generation of political leaders” to FDR and finds “they have failed utterly and catastrophically to project any sense of authority. …”

These are all really smart folks, but this time, I think, they have it, as my mother would say, completely bassackwards.

What we have today is a failure of followership.

Americans don’t follow like they used to. Every institution that once had “authority” has lost followers over the last two generations. Mainline church denominations have been losing membership since 1965. So have the old clubs and civic groups. Newspaper readership penetration peaked in 1965 and has been declining ever since. Are people fleeing newspapers because a lack of “leadership,” Mr. Know-It-All Editorial Page?

People aren’t following anymore. And not just in the United States. University of Michigan political scientist Ron Inglehart has been polling worldwide since the 1970s. (See his World Values Survey


.) What Inglehart finds is that people in richer countries are less “elite-directed” and are increasingly engaged in “elite-challenging” activities.

People don’t follow. They express.

They don’t go to Democratic Club meetings, like the ones held around my hometown of Louisville. They certainly don’t wait around to be told what to think by a “leader.” They petition or boycott.

People don’t read the boring old newspaper. They blog.

“We are witnessing a downward trend in trust in government and confidence in leaders across most industrial societies,” Inglehart wrote in 1997. (Yes, that was a decade before Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House.)

The generation that emerged in the second half of the 20th century lost faith in every vestige of hierarchical authority, from the edicts of Catholic bishops to degrees in Free Masonry to the speeches given by governors and senators. (Ask people in business what it’s like to “lead” Gen Y workers. Talk about a group of nonfollowers.) Editorialist and reporters write about the “collective breakdown of leadership” as if an entire generation of Americans were born without the skills of a Sam Rayburn, Dwight Eisenhower, or LBJ. There are just as many leaders as there have ever been.

What’s missing are old-fashioned followers.

And, you know what? If we’re waiting around for leaders to get us out of our messes, we’re going to be waiting for some time. Because followers make good leaders, and followers are gone for good.