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Could a long-dead German philosopher resembling Karl Marx with a proper haircut, hold the keys to the 2016 US presidential election race?
Yes, if the sharply-contrasting campaigning styles of rival candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reveal deeper truths about the way modern societies are led, and the way we pick those who will wield power over us.
The long-dead German’s name is Weber – but he’s no relation of Randy Weber, the US congressman representing Texas’ 14th District whose electoral merchandising is pictured above, with thanks. It’s Max Weber, one of sociology’s founding fathers and author of the 1922 paper ‘Three Types of Legitimate Rule,’ which defined both the power structures and the styles of authority we still see at work today.
The Clinton-Trump election race offers an almost perfect case study illustrating the enduring power of Weber’s ideas. The election is more than just a clash of personalities, party policies or economic proposals for the next four years. It is a raw struggle over the nature of leadership that leaps straight from the pages of Weber, first translated into English in 1958.
In the US election, two of Weber’s three types of rule are going head-to-head (the third, based on Traditional Authority stemming from hereditary or hierarchical status, crashed out of the race early with the failure of Jeb Bush’s dynasty-based bid).
Hillary Clinton’s many decades of inside-the-beltway Washington politics and deep understanding of the machinery of government, make her an almost perfect proponent of Weber named the Legal-Rational Authority or bureaucratic leadership style.
Those wielding Legal-Rational Authority dominate norms, principles and processes, establishing performance-based contracts with their followers. They are true makers of the modern state. President Obama said: “I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”
As Weber said: “development of the modern state is identical indeed with that of modern officialdom and bureaucratic organizations just as the development of modern capitalism is identical with the increasing bureaucratization of economic enterprise.” Indeed, astute critics have even detected Clinton – who describes daily politics as “the slow boring of hard boards” – delivering a verbal homage to Weber, who originally coined this phrase.
Almost every criticism of Clinton – either informed or uninformed – rotates around her perceived bureaucratic profile. The bloodless career politician whose true loyalties are to Wall Street rather than Main Street; the cold legal mind out of touch with common needs. The manipulator of State Department communications protocols.
Adherents of Legal-Rational authority find it inconceivable that any serious electoral alternative to such competence could exist. Yet it does.
At first glimpse, Donald Trump looks like the incarnation of Weber’s third and most troublesome wielder of power: the Charismatic Authority figure. Such a leader’s mission and vision is to inspire others not by rational means, but through extraordinary characteristics and a magical-seeming rapport. As Weber explained in ‘Politics as a Vocation,’ a Charismatic Authority is followed because of personal qualities, and because people think such a man is powerful.
Seen from the Rational-Legal perspective, the fidelity of Trump’s supporters is completely baffling. There seems no plan, no organisation, no structure and no coherence, verbal or otherwise. The promises are iconoclastic, not progressive. No wonder they call it “Post-Truth Politics.”
But these concerns simply don’t count if Trump has indeed tapped into one of the three modes of legitimate rule as defined by Weber. I say “if” because there is a body of expert thought suggesting Trump’s operational style is not in fact Charismatic Authority but a dangerous variant of it, diagnosed as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. You can read here about how NPD may also have affected campaigners in the UK’s EU Referendum.
Weber’s core theory certainly shows up well at election seasons. But in daily life it appears more opaque, because less colourful authority figures such as managers or executives nearly always combine elements of all three types.
Which is why in the 1960s academics and management gurus began refashioning Weber with a horizontal cut to create two new categories; Transactional Leadership and Transformational Leadership. In the process, Weber’s troublesome fascination with Charismatic Authority was magicked away.
Ever since, there’s been a war going on between two rival visions of how leadership works in a post-feudal world. Business gurus James McGregor Burns and Bernard Bass took forward Weber’s ideas to found separate wings of a global industry of management thinking. There’s an earlier blog all about this accessible here.
Transactional Leadership styles impose a mutual contract of “expectation and delivery” on followers, by wielding bureaucratic tools. But the weakness is engagement: followers need help uniting around a vision of the future for which no empirical evidence exists.
By contrast Transformational Leadership styles invoke “change through inspiration” using softer interpersonal skills and – though the MBA schools that preach this philosophy are loth to admit it – elements of Weber’s original Charismatic Authority.
Indeed, part of today’s perplexity at the Trump phenomenon as that it delivers such a brusque reminder of the enduring power of the irrational in leadership – after decades in which Weber’s original ideas about charisma were Bowdlerised and sanitised for use by international management industry.
In the global battle of ideas, Weber has done well. He was the first to define the links between the Protestant work ethic and successful capitalism – in the process skewering the Marxist notion of religion as the “opium of the people.”
And although only 19 when Marx died in 1883, Weber’s thoughts motivated generations of managers of large-enterprise capitalism, who ultimately destroyed Marxism in the marketplace and created the liberal nation-states we know.
Trouble is, Weber also turned over the stone hiding one of humanity’s enduring and most dangerous weaknesses: our periodic need to elevate charismatic demagogues into positions of political power over us, regardless of the social cost.