Friday, June 06, 2008

McCain, Clinton, Obama: Three Forms of Authority

Laurie Fendrich, a Hofstra art professor, has blogged for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the three main presidential candidates of the moment representing Max Weber's three forms of legitimate authority. As a sociologist, I am obliged to work Max Weber into all conversations, and am glad for this opening.

Weber argued that for most of human history, the main form of legitimate authority in society has been tradition -- that is, the fact that "our ancestors did it" and "we have always done it this way" was the best reason to act one way rather than another. He noted, though, that the main achievement of the political economy of modern societies was to develop a quite different theory of legitimate authority, the rational/legal. Society was supposed to act upon laws that applied to all, which were created by a rational process of elections and executed by a rationally administered bureaucracy. The other kind of authority is the wild card of the charismatic leader. Weber thought a charismatic leader, or prophet, was the main way traditional societies changed; Weber also thought that the periodic appearance of a charismatic leader could save modern rational societies from stultifying into an iron cage of bureaucracy.

Fendrich, and her colleague sociologist Mark Landis, saw the three candidates as representing the three types of authority:
McCain represent tradition;
Clinton represents rational bureaucracy;
Obama represents charisma.

The impending McCain/Obama race will represent a straight competition between tradition and charisma.

I think there is something to this idea. Obama is clearly charismatic, and McCain is clearly the most past-oriented of the three. And Clinton's strength has, more or less, been in her mastery of the machinery of government execution.

Still, Weber himself argued that the United States was born a rational/legal country, without an established traditional authority. All serious American politicians are vying to lead a rational, bureaucratic legal machinery. This is the foundation of the great stability of American government.

That said, I can see the value in seeing the upcoming election as a contest between two rational, legal, bureaucracy-respecting Senators. One wants to lead by continuing the (recent) traditions of his party; the other by transcending the recent divisions of the parties by using his personal charisma to inspire others to act in untraditional ways.


Chairm said...

McCain is a maverick in temperment, but not on principle.

Obama is a radical in principle but not in temperment.

That suggests that McCain appeals on the basis of charistmatic leadership -- he is independant and stubbornly self-referencing. He flinches at being bound by how things have always been done. Just look at how he has consistently dissed the base of the Republican votership.

Obama appeals as a traditonal leader of the leftish side of the political spectrum. The tradition there is of standing in opposition rather than in league with the establishment. He poses as one who rises above differences even as he talks of "remaking" the country. His tradition is not the country's tradition, but so far his appeal has been to the Democratic party votership. He has not strayed the way that McCain has made a point of straying, again and again.

McCain the charismaticpower? Sounds odd but don't let his age fool you.

Obama the traditional power? Yes, within his narrow slice of the spectrum; and don't let his tone fool you.

Weber should be more prominent in the nation's assessment of election campaigns. But then we'd have to retrain the talking heads on network (and cable) TV news shows. Heh.

Michael Kruse said...

"As a sociologist, I am obliged to work Max Weber into all conversations, and am glad for this opening."

What? No Talcott Parsons? :)

Weber is favorite of mine as well. Interesting analysis.

Gruntled said...

Parsons is so far out that he is bound to come back in.