Political Authority Explained


Why Do Bad Leaders Stay in Power?

Last month Aleksandr Lukashenko intercepted a European airliner and ordered it to land in Minsk so he could arrest the dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend. The plane had not planned to land in Minsk nor had it planned to fly over Belarusian airspace. Belarus used a fighter jet to scramble the airliner’s signals causing it to fly off course. This brazen act of manipulation caused European countries to avoid Belarusian airspace and cancel all flights to or from the country. Despite this unprecedented autocratic behavior from Lukashenko and massive democratic protests since a stolen election in October, he remains secure in power. 

Belarus is an extreme case of authoritarianism. Condoleezza Rice once called it, “The last dictatorship in Europe.” Nonetheless, it raises questions about authority. People continue to respect Lukashenko despite his crimes and misdeeds. He has lost his popularity and the public’s support, but retains the authority to command them. Still, his hold on power depends on the trust and support of elites in key institutions. Michael Miller writes, “Being a dictator is a dangerous, high-stakes game where, much like global thermonuclear war, sometimes the only winning move is not to play.” Still, an assassination or a military coup remain possible, but not probable in Belarus. So, why do bad leaders remain in power?

Authority Defined

Authority comes in many shapes and sizes. The President of the United States has tremendous authority, but mid-level managers also command authority over their departments or divisions. A priest commands authority during mass and a surgeon commands authority during a surgery. Some people have authority in rare circumstances, while others regularly hold authority over others. Authority involves power, but it also involves acceptance or at least acquiescence from others. So, authority always involves at least two people. At its most basic level, it functions as a relationship based on some form of hierarchy or expertise. 

Political authority is no different from other forms of authority. It functions as a relationship between a leader, those governed, and other elites. The nature of the relationship depends on the nature of its political institutions. Political authority in a democracy may involve a relationship between an elected official and constituents. The elected official has the authority to govern and may interact with their constituents through executive or legislative functions. But the constituents also interact with their leaders through elections and campaigns. Political authority in authoritarian regimes is based on a relationship as well, but it is less interactive. Their authority depends more on the support and acceptance of other elite figures. 

Authority Depends on Recognition

Institutions confer authority on people through the establishment of hierarchy or recognition of expertise. Authority is about more than power. It involves recognition from the community or society. Of course, social recognition often involves substantive characteristics like knowledge, competence, or skill, but communities may celebrate members for incomprehensible reasons. Moreover, talent often goes unnoticed. Authority, ultimately, depends on the recognition of perceived expertise rather than actual competence. It is a social construct based on a widely accepted belief. Over time it becomes a source of identity. A person identifies themself through the recognition of their authority. Their identity is reinforced again and again through the recognition of others. Eventually an identity becomes independent of its initial perceived characteristics. An incompetent or poorly educated doctor remains a doctor. There is a reluctance to strip anyone of their substantive identity. 

Leadership depends more on social recognition than any other trait or characteristic. Leaders emerge because people follow them. Sometimes leaders have a charisma that makes others want to follow them. Others will struggle to command a room. Some describe leadership as natural, while others argue it is learned. The truth is leadership involves a range of traits attractive to different people and relevant in different situations. Different leaders make sense for different situations and groups, because they combine different aspects of leadership into their own unique style. 

Leadership and Institutions

Nonetheless, leadership depends on social interactions. It implies a hierarchical relationship. It implies a sense of authority. People confer authority on their leaders to make decisions for their group. Many assume leadership extends into every situation and any context, but the reality is leadership is largely compartmentalized. The reason why leadership appears to transcend any specific context is transformative leaders find ways to expand the limits of their institution. A charismatic pastor expands the confines of religious life into new areas. The charismatic political leader expands the political into new aspects of society.

Modernization involves a wide range of complex, overlapping institutions The vast diversity of institutions means modern societies have different sources for authority. The diverse range of institutions require a compartmentalization between different parts of life. A supervisor at work has no influence on life outside of work. A political leader has little authority at a religious service. A doctor has no authority over somebody’s marriage. Nonetheless, these institutions have overlap so problems in one part of life will bleed into others. Moreover, identities overlap so people carry parts of themselves from one institution into another. The confidence from a successful career may lead to confidence in politics. Others may reinforce this confidence through support and recognition. Still, many find success in one domain of their life has little relevance in others. Instead, they find ways to compartmentalize their lives into distinct contexts. 

Constitutional Authority

Constitutions formally compartmentalize political authority into different institutions. A constitution might distinguish between legislative and judicial powers. But words on paper do not create institutions. Institutions involve networks of relationships within a unique context. They have a natural fluidity and adaptability. It is difficult to impose unfamiliar political institutions. They typically adapt to the norms prevalent in the culture. Indeed, paper institutions may even disguise real political authority and power. The strength of political institutions rests on its ability to establish an independent context for new types of relationships, authority, and power. Without an independent context, institutions do not exist. They operate as a hollow shell where other institutions determine the norms, authority, and the locus of real power. 

State formation fails when it tries to impose institutions nobody recognizes. Authority is never simply declared or imposed. A society must recognize authority. It recognizes hierarchical roles from within familiar institutions. Because institutions overlap one another, weak institutions allow stronger institutions to undermine formal authority. New democracies find their institutions compete with more traditional sources of authority like local tribes. Elections in unfamiliar environments adapt to more familiar systems of patronage. Religious leaders can influence or constrain political leaders even when the state is not a formal theocracy so long as the culture has a strong religious identity. 

Washington and Mandela

Nonetheless, some leaders overcome institutional constraints through the force of their personality. Authority always involves a relationship. While strong institutions legitimize authority, strong personal relationships can strengthen institutions. Some leaders transcend institutional constraints to define their role through the force of their personality. Max Weber described these leaders as charismatic. Charismatic leadership is important for the formation of new institutions. George Washington established a strong tie to the American people through his command of the army during the Revolutionary War. He then used this connection to strengthen Republican institutions like the Presidency and to legitimize the Constitution. A weaker leader like John Adams may have left these nascent institutions irrelevant and powerless. 

Nelson Mandela is another leader who used his personal charisma to legitimize democracy in South Africa. The African National Congress has dominated politics in South Africa, but continued to govern democratically despite persistent challenges of corruption. Mandela could have used the strength of the ANC to overrule his constitutional limitations, but embraced his new role instead. His leadership laid the foundations for democracy in South Africa to survive its current challenges. Democracy is never guaranteed, but South Africa has maintained democracy despite criticisms of state capture. 

Nonetheless, the future of South African political institutions may depend on its current president Cyril Ramaphosa. Washington did not etch American political institutions in stone through his leadership either. Many charismatic leaders followed Washington to reinforce, redefine, and reshape the Presidency, the Constitution, and other aspects of the American political system. Thomas Jefferson came to power at a pivotal moment of heightened polarization. His charismatic leadership set a precedent for the respect of freedom of speech and the press. Later Presidents reshaped the presidency and American governance in both positive and negative ways.

Charismatic Leadership

Scholars often portray charismatic leadership in the literature on populism as something sinister. Ordinary leadership, on the other hand, is almost portrayed as virtuous. Most importantly, the two types of leadership get described as paths for a leader to choose. For my part charismatic leadership is neither dangerous nor courageous just as ordinary leadership is neither dull nor steady. The difference between them depends less on the leader than the nature of the relationship between leaders and followers. Ordinary leadership relies on the strength of institutions as the source of their authority. Charismatic leaders use their relationship to solidify their authority. Ordinary leaders may have respect and deference. They can show competent leadership or fail in important moments. Regardless, the most ordinary leaders transition to their successor without disruption.

Charismatic leadership transcends an institution. The relationship they forge becomes so strong it can carry over into new institutions. Their personality shapes the nature of their authority. They legitimize institutions through their participation within them and redefine their roles and limitations. Ordinary leadership confines itself to the norms and constraints of an institution. Charismatic leadership defines its own limitations. The power of charismatic leadership to make its own rules leaves it susceptible to many of the most sinister political figures like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, but nearly every successful political regime relies on charismatic leaders to define the limits of political power for their successors. 

Fragility of Institutions

New democracies depend on charismatic leaders as much as totalitarian regimes. However, charismatic leaders in democracies use their charisma to establish limitations on their power. For example, George Washington ensured a peaceful transfer of power after two terms. Nelson Mandela walked away after just one term. These decisions established norms for future political leaders. Both leaders made many other decisions to constrain their office to allow for constitutional governance. Simón Bolívar, on the other hand, represents a founding leader who failed to establish these important institutional norms. His failure left Latin American political institutions undefined and unstable. 

New regimes, typically autocratic regimes, can rely too much on force or coercion. But even this power depends on the social recognition of the army, the police and other institutions of coercion and force. Political authority can survive so long as their presence is impossible to deny. However, its foundations do not rest on actual power, but rather social recognition. Protest then has immense power, because it refuses to recognize political authority. Widespread and sustained protest movements topple regimes because they cause others to question whether the autocratic leadership has true authority. They chip away at the institutions necessary for authority. In contrast, revolutionaries recognize political authority as an enemy and fight it. Protest movements, meanwhile, undermine authority at its very foundations. 

Fragility of Political Authority

Political authority is inherently fragile. Its survival rests on its social recognition. So long as people recognize authority, it remains secure. But whenever people realize they have the power to reject it, the institutional foundations it depends upon begin to crumble. Unfortunately, political instability often begets more instability. Once people understand authority depends upon their implicit recognition, they may refuse to recognize new sources of authority even when it is democratic. Indeed, democratic governance establishes its own forms of authority. So despite all the advantages iof democracy, democratic authority is far too often just as fragile. 

A Few Sources

Margaret Canovan (1999), “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy,” Political Studies

Carl J. Friedrich (1961), “Political Leadership and the Problem of the Charismatic Power,” The Journal of Politics

Ernesto Laclau (2005), On Populist Reason

Takis Pappas (2016), “Are Populist Leaders “Charismatic”? The Evidence from Europe,” Constellations

Andrew Wilson (2011), Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship

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