Bobo: We Don’t Follow Leaders Like We Used To

Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
But users, cheaters
Six-time losers
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters. — Dylan

So Bobo is complaining that we just don’t worship heroes and follow leaders the way we used to. He spends about a third of the column complaining that Washington monuments are so much less heroic than they used to be. The statues of Jefferson and Lincoln are powerful but humanized, Bobo says. More recent ones, such as to World War II or FDR, are mostly duds.”That’s because they say nothing about just authority,” Bobo says.

I agree that the WWII and FDR monuments lack the visual and emotional impact of Jefferson and Lincoln, but I think that’s mostly because they are more installations than monuments. I’ll come back to this in a minute. Bobo goes on —

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

Metrosexual Black AbeJ points out,

Bad choice of years. In 1925, the country was in a (albeit soon-to-end) boom, in 1955 it was in the middle of the greatest 25-year-period in human economic history. Now, by contrast, we are at the end of a five-year stretch during which the average American family has seen its total assets drop in value by 40%, which means there has been no growth (zero) in the wealth of the average American family over the past 20 years. And then throw in a disastrous war that elites almost uniformly supported.

Those of us at least old enough to remember Howdy Doody know that a lot changed in the 1960s and never went back to the way it was before. The Greatest Generation went through the New Deal and World War II and trusted the government to know what it was doing. The Boomer generation was raised to believe America Is the Best, Smartest, Holiest Nation That Ever Was and were betrayed by Vietnam.

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

Oh, please; the baggers are followers par excellence. They are perfect examples of the right-wing authoritarian model. The OWSers are something else entirely, discussed in the last post.

I think mass media have made leaders a lot more familiar than they used to be. Consider that during the Lincoln Administration few Americans ever heard Lincoln’s voice. It’s been recorded that he had a high-pitched voice and a dreadful backwoods accent. Most Americans only saw his homely, solemn face in engravings — I don’t think still photos could be printed yet — and read his eloquent speeches in newspapers. These days we get them walking and talking, gaffes and all, in our living rooms. Some leaders have the stage presence to make this work for them; most don’t.

I’m thinking also of a book titled The Mask of Command by John Keenan. It is more about military than political leaders, but he points out that styles of leadership have changed drastically through recorded history. He does this by illustrating four leaders — Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S Grant, and Adolf Hitlet. A mixed bag. He showed how military leadership evolved from Alexander, wearing flashy armor and charging into battle on a big, white horse, to Grant, who set the style for the modern professional military.

Speaking of monuments, all over Washington there are equestrian statues of Civil War generals brandishing swords while mounted on prancing or rearing horses. And then there’s Grant —

The sculptor, Henry Merwin Schrady, surrounded Grant with a frantic cavalry charge and artillery, but even in the 19th century it would have been absurd to portray Grant as flashy. Alexander the Great was finally, utterly, dead.

But then we get to Hitler —

In the modern era, portraying leaders as larger-than-life heroes is the stuff of totalitarianism. Yet this is what Bobo yearns for. He goes on —

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I’m saying that if Bobo like heroic monuments I believe there are a lot of them in China, of Chairman Mao.

11 thoughts on “Bobo: We Don’t Follow Leaders Like We Used To

  1. Every time I go to read a Bobo column, I ask myself the same questions:
    1. What the hell is this feckin’ idjit babbling on about now?
    2. What, never mind country, WHAT UNIVERSE, does he live in?
    3. Why is he whining about the results of policies he supported in the past, still supports now, and will support in the future? This countries becoming a sh*thole because s*theads like him support the still richer and more powerful sh*theads who want this country to get sh*ttier, all for their own profit and amusement.
    4. Why does he still have a job that pays him enough to buy a $4 million mansion?
    5. Where do I sign-up to get a great paying job with benefits like his? Do I go on the intertubes and search for “”

    And let’s look once more at what Lil’ Davey wants us untermenschen to relearn:
    “Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes:”
    – and I guess he ain’t talkin’ ’bout Drs. Seuss & Spock.

    “…that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary;”
    -hmm… have anyone in mind, besides yourself, oh learned and exceptional one?
    And isn’t this close to the old line, ‘we’re all created equal, it’s just that some are created more equal than others?” And isn’t THAT perilously close to the fundamental belief of Conservatives – that they themselves, and their ideas, are superior to all others?

    “… that we choose our leaders…
    -How quaint! Did he not read or at least hear about Citizens United? Davey, WE, as in people like ME, don’t choose our leaders anymore – billionaires and corporations do now – by brainwashing us untermencshen to the point of drowning us in advertizing . And if they drop the ball, then the voting machines can be rigged. And if all else fails, the Supreme Court’s been known to lift it’s robe and show the citizens it’s ass.

    “… but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion;”
    -Yes, because that worked out so well for the rest of us from 2001 to 2009.
    Oh, and how come now that we got ourselves our first Democratic Darkie as President, you and your cronies ain’t doin’ no defferin’ ‘n trustin’ of HIM? Quite the opposite, in fact.

    “… that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.”
    -And ain’t them the problems, Davey, me boy?
    That the very proud individuals in your digital Rolodex, and amongst your set of cocktail-party pals, are only truly happy when they’re able to punish the group(s) beneath them, and treat them like a herd of diseased cattle to be led to slaughter?
    And that the problem with you and your pals, Davey, me boy, is that you ARE organized and led by just authority – and by that, I mean, JUST authority?


  2. My God, he talks about this “mass adversarial cynicism” as if it just happened. “My goodness, where did all of this mass adversarial cynicism come from? Wait, I’ve got it! That must be why we don’t build awesome monuments anymore!”

  3. “Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat.” Mr. Jefferson also made the rather alarming statement, “Money, not morals should be the principle of a commercial nation.” As is his custom, Bobo lives in a reality that exists only in the mind of Bobo.

  4. I’ve never read Bobo but have read your comments on him and his insipid writing. But I see it now, this is horrible. What IS his point? We need to shut up and follow the leadership or our betters? Really, doesn’t sound very democratic to me. Sounds rather monarchical. I totally agree, though, that the righties are more willing to follow blindly while lefties are less inclined. Here in red WI I see “Scott Walker is my Hero” bumper stickers and signs everywhere, and each and everyone of them makes me gag. You would never see a lefty doing that, ever, ever, ever. I’m also trying to figure out what it is about Walker that is so, well, heroic.

    Bobo also seems to forget that we are a deeply divided country, partisanship brought about by the righties and their propaganda network. If a rightie is elected he/she has no interest in bringing the state or nation together with some common ground initiatives. It’s seen as a gold mine to get everything that they have always wanted to get. If a leftie is elected, he is simply not accepted as a true leader and they will do anything to deligitimize him/her, and certainly won’t follow his/her leadership.

  5. I nearly laughed out loud at this passage:

    It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

    Better than everything around them? Vanity? Oh, Bobo, will you never stop projecting your problems onto the world at large?

    Imagine being surprised to discover that people tend to think political leaders are all in it for themselves after decades of supporting the party that made Gordon Gecko a role model and has been working to undermine every single community-oriented program in the nation. Gee, David, why would anyone think that, after Dick Cheney, who decided HE was the best VP candidate for Shrubya, helped start a war that was mostly good just for generating no-bid contracts for his former company Halliburton?

    Why would anyone lose faith in a system that allows numbskull apologists for such men to have a regular column in the Paper of Record, and buy themselves $4 million homes?

    Yeah, it’s got to be a problem with the followers. Sure.

  6. I believe unquestioning belief in “leaders” goes hand in hand with knee jerk nationalism.

  7. As Corey Robin puts it in “The Reactionary Mind”:

    “Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty – or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force – the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere.”

    For an even more succinct view, see Phillip Agre (

    “The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use “social issues” as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them.”

    Brooks is a true conservative. Thus, there must be a “followership problem,” since it goes without saying (at least for him) that we bottom feeders aren’t allowed to question or challenge our betters.

  8. Pingback: “Self-Awareness just hopped on the last bus out of Dodge.” - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  9. There is, for that matter, a standard for man-on-horse statues; you can tell how they died based on how many (0, 1, or 2) of the horse’s front feet are raised from the pedestal.

    So a Grant statue (died of natural causes) would be less “monumental,” by definition, than those “rearing horses” (both legs up: died in battle) Brooks appears to prefer in his sight-lines-are-everything dictum.

    For me, I prefer leaders who can stay alive and keep most of their soldiers alive as well.

    • Ken — The convention of how the horse is portrayed is more of a legend than a reality, I believe. I understand there are exceptions, even among civil war generals (see Snopes). The more significant detail is how Grant himself is portrayed. The horse looks more heroic than he does. He would have been amused, I think.

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