Everybody a Social Movement

A few decades ago, back when the Internet was a cherubic baby and the words “you’ve got mail” made people smile with glee, people were predicting that the Internet would forever change the relationship between government and individuals. Because information could be shared more easily, government could be more transparent and citizens would have more power over their elected officials, they said. Individuals, now able to dip their hands into flows of information no longer controlled by the levees of large media corporations, had more freedom to develop their own opinions about the world, they said. All this would lead to a level of individual freedom never before seen in recorded human history. The biggest changes, they said, would be in societies with authoritarian governments. These regimes would no longer be able to control their citizens.

These prophecies, to some degree, came to pass with the Arab Spring. Scholars were giddy over the people power presented in those social movements, and were quick to point out the role social media played in challenging, and sometimes removing, authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Djibouti.

I believe that these events were momentous. And like many scholars, I believe that the Internet has the potential to help bring democracy to authoritarian countries.

But I think that the biggest sea change will occur not in authoritarian countries, but in democratic societies. It is in democracies that the Internet and social media may affect the most lasting changes in the relationship between government and individual. It may not seem so, because every four or eight years we meet the new boss who is the same as the old boss. But a social media enabled “revolution”, as it were, may be occurring right now in the United States.

Over the past several weeks, three distally related events suggest to me that this is the case:

  • Two people who have never held public office are the frontrunners for the Republican nomination. There is a general feeling of mistrust in America towards its government officials. So much so that conservatives are willing to throw their support behind anyone who is not seen as a part of the establishment. Conservatives want “citizen statesman” as opposed to career politicians. As a result, two rather odd characters are the frontrunners. One is a once-bankrupt blowhard with perpetually puckered lips. The other is a mild-mannered surgeon who looks to me to be always squinting.
  • Law enforcement is suggesting there is a “Ferguson Effect”. FBI director James Comey said in a recent speech that law enforcement is afraid to be proactive because of social media: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns? I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.” Comey made these remarks at a time when the violent crime rate in the United States has increased. Some have linked the “Ferguson Effect” to this spike, while others have said there is no evidence to support the claim. What is important here for the argument I am trying to make is that police officers feel like they are under more scrutiny.
  • The President and Chancellor of the University of Missouri step down. A coalition of black students, faculty and graduate assistants, and football players (most importantly, the football players) formed a movement that ousted the president of that university. As is often the case, protest begets more protest. Protests were seen within a matter of days of the president’s ousting at over twenty campuses – including Yale and Smith colleges.

All three of these phenomena are examples of a loss of authority. Individuals simply don’t believe in the people and institutions that have been charged to lead them.


People have been talking about the decline of trust in government for some time now as it relates specifically to government officials. But I think it goes deeper than that. There is a sea change in the cultural expectations individuals have for all authority figures of a certain type. The German sociologist Max Weber identified three types of authority:

  • Legal-rational – based on abstract legal principles. A person or institution’s ability to exercise power over another is grounded in the rule of law. Weber saw bureaucracy as the epitome of legal-rational authority. Think about the guy who holds your fate in the palm of his hands at the DMV.
  • Traditional – this is authority that is passed down or based on custom. Unlike legal-rational authority, there is no rational basis upon which a person or institution is given the authority to make decisions.  He could be an idiot, but he has authority simply because it was always that way.
  • Charismatic – this type of authority is based on an individual person’s ability to inspire others. Religious prophets and leaders of social movements have charismatic authority. No law or tradition gives them the right to tell people what to do.  People follow because they have the chutzpah to thumb their nose at traditional authorities.

Modern Western societies are dominated by figures vested with legal-rational authority. Local and federal governments have power over many aspects of people’s lives. Indeed, Weber was writing at a time when Western societies were becoming more rational and less traditional, with a growing importance of the state making decisions. This has, with some exceptions, only increased. Ronald Reagan famously said in a 1986 speech that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’”. Reagan, as were (are) many conservatives, railing against government bureaucracy encroaching over aspects of their lives that were traditionally the purview of the family.

I never thought I'd get chance to put Reagan in one of my blog posts! In this Dec. 29, 1988, file photo President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers as he arrived in Palm Springs, Calif. Reagan's line “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were 'I’m from the government and I’m here to help you'” is in essence a critique of the encroachment of legal-rational authority.

I never thought I’d ever be putting this man in one of my blog posts! In this Dec. 29, 1988, file photo President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers as he arrived in Palm Springs, Calif. Reagan’s line “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’” is in essence a critique of the encroachment of legal-rational authority.

Everybody a Social Movement

The rise of outsider candidates, the purported Ferguson Effect, and the removal of University of Missouri’s president, suggest to me that we are at a critical juncture in American society. I think charismatic authority is rapidly gaining legitimacy at the expense of legal-rational authority. Scholars prophesied that it was in less developed countries, dominated by traditional authority, where the Internet would have its greatest impact on governments. But this is not the case. The Internet, and more specifically social media, has had and will continue to have its greatest impact within democratic countries whose leaders possess power through legal-rational authority.

The growth of charismatic authority is not about a few exceptional human beings leading moral crusades against unjust legal-rational and traditional authorities in the style of Mahatma Gandhi. Imagine Gandhi  – tiny, with walking stick in hand, blinking placidly behind thick glasses.  British soldiers with stiff upper lips are pointing rifles down at him, waiting on orders from their commanding officers.  Behind Gandhi are multitudes of Indians, ready to forge ahead. It was, in some ways, a hierarchical assembly led by a charismatic authority figure standing up to another, more powerful hierarchical assembly led by legal-rational authority figures. But the days of transcendent figures being able to command and a group of people in this way seem to be over.  Indeed, the people who try to organize people to walk down main street are ineffectual at best, and tired  jokes at worst.  Think Al Sharpton.

The type of charismatic authority that is eating away at legal-rational authority has a different form. In an age of social media and networked individualism we have hundreds of thousands of people who are busy collecting “likes”, “followers”, and “retweets”. They have their own view of things and their own narratives about the world. They do not need a Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King to speak truth to power. They can do it themselves.

It is not readily apparent that the desire to gain followers is something akin to the desire to lead a social movement.  But if we think about it, they are very similar in function.  The idea is to be witty or provocative enough with 140 character quips to get people to pay attention to you, to repeat what you said, and regurgitate your ideas to others.  The goal is to influence others to take your views – to follow you based solely on your charisma.

Everybody is a social movement these days.

Unforeseen Consequences

The consequences of this new form of charismatic authority encroaching on legal-rational authority are hard to predict. But I can venture some ideas that flow along political lines.

For progressives, movements like Black Lives Matter are not as focused and directed at specific policy changes. You’ve got too many cooks in the pot, so to speak. Everybody has their own version of what Black Lives Matter means, and they tweet their versions to their thousands of followers. There is no seminal charismatic figure as the focal point of the movement, given the authority to define goals and set strategy. If you ask five people what is the end game of the Black Lives Matter movement, you will get six different answers. Interestingly, it has been through legal-rational channels that progressive movements have ultimately entrenched their victories. Martin Luther King may have changed hearts and minds with charisma, but concrete changes were only got through changes in law. And so ironically, as people with an interest in progressive causes invest more of their energies in social media and following the multitude of charismatic networked individuals, they may be siphoning energy away from the type of authority that can create lasting change.

For conservatives, I think that their party may be gutted from the inside. Indeed, it already has. Although they like to see themselves as the party of self-sufficient families and small businesses, in reality the Republican party is just as much beholden to government (see: military-industrial complex, see: Trans-Pacific Partnership) as Democrats. True Republicans know this, and thus you see people supporting the Tea Party, a growth in the presence of Libertarians, and yes Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

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