In Search of Authority


Published Winter 2023

National Affairs

In March of 2020, American citizens, exhorted for generations to “question authority,” “follow your heart,” and “live your dream,” received a jarring summons: Renounce private judgment and individual choice, and collectively defend the common good against an invisible threat — all because political leaders and scientific experts say so.

For a brief moment, in an eerie echo of a more conformist age, the summons seemed like it might be answered. But within weeks, the spell was broken. On April 15, thousands of protestors assembled in Lansing, Michigan, to denounce Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s strict Covid-19 restrictions. Similar protests soon erupted throughout the country.

Just a few weeks later, these protests were dwarfed by a ferocious backlash — first against police, then against nearly all symbols of political authority — ignited by the murder of George Floyd. New waves of rage kept coming: the toppling of statues, the battles over critical race theory in schools and universities, the rejection of the presidential election results. By the end of the year, the claims to legitimacy by nearly every locus of authority in American life — scientists, the police, educators, governors, the president, the courts, and the Congress — lay in ruins.

The year 2020 did not kill authority in American public life; it had been on life support for some time. This was merely the year authority tried to rise from its sickbed, in defiance of its terminal condition, and then expired from the strain. Needless to say, the Biden administration has not succeeded in resurrecting it.

Our contemporary crisis of authority runs much deeper than most realize. It is not just the product of institutional rot in Congress; of a swamp in Washington, D.C., that needs to be drained; or of inept leadership by grandstanding celebrity politicians. Nor is it simply the result of the radically democratizing effect of digital media, of a world in which likes and retweets matter more than credentials or even elections — although this is, as we shall see, a key part of the problem.

More fundamentally, our problem is that we no longer know how to recognize an authentic claim to authority, even if one dares show its face — which it almost never does. Without recognition of authority, there can be no legitimacy. Without legitimacy in our authoritative institutions, we cannot know how or why to act — a paralysis we experience as a loss of freedom even as we rage against the authorities we fear pose the greatest threats to our freedom.

THE END OF AUTHORITY?

Although our current crisis is grounded in a loss of political authority, it has grown to infect every domain of our public life. Approval ratings for all three branches of American government hover around all-time lows, while even formerly respected and seemingly apolitical agencies like the CDC and the FBI draw profound suspicion. Today the term “expert” is more likely to elicit a sneer than an attentive ear — except among segments of the population who, as if in a desperate attempt to compensate, try their best to make expertise an object of nearly religious genuflection. The problem has even spread to the private sector, where social-media platforms like Twitter have faced a crisis of confidence in their ability to exercise effective authority over their domains — a development that has led many to turn to Elon Musk as a savior in much the way the American electorate turned to Donald Trump in 2016.

This crisis is not limited to the left or the right. Authorities’ responses to the various earthquakes of 2020 had something in them to upset everyone, and the reactions on both sides tended to be mirror images of one another. When it came to Covid-19, Americans on the right typically saw pandemic restrictions as draconian lockdowns — forms of lawless oppression and fundamental injustices against the American way of life. Americans on the left, meanwhile, were more likely to fume against what they saw as either government weakness in the face of the crisis or a lack of political will — especially in the Trump White House and among red-state governors — to take the difficult steps necessary to protect the public in a time of grave danger.

When Black Lives Matter protests rocked American cities over the summer of 2020, the roles reversed. The left reacted with rage and indignation at any attempt by the guardians of public order to show their teeth in the face of violence; the agents of law enforcement were seen, like the agents of public health, as perpetrators of lawless oppression. At the same time, the right fulminated against the weakness and lack of will the authorities displayed. “Why aren’t they doing more?” they demanded as vandals ransacked stores and burned buildings to the ground — just as the left had fumed about the response to Covid-19. Today, a large majority of Americans cannot recognize an act of political authority as such; they perceive it as either brazen oppression or craven abdication.

The current crisis of authority is the responsibility of both rulers and the ruled, experts and ordinary people, politicians and citizens. This is usually the case when trust breaks down in human relationships. Perhaps one party acts in a way that forfeits trust. The other party, now prone to bouts of paranoia, begins to view the first party’s actions through jaundiced eyes. The first party responds passive-aggressively, or resorts to subterfuge to accomplish its wishes, further undermining the relationship. This is as true of the breakdown of marriages as it is of the breakdown of political society. Sometimes there is a wholly innocent party — but this is not often the case.

Recovery and reconciliation in American public life, if they are to happen at all, will require a reckoning among both our morally bankrupt elites and our self-indulgent and distrustful citizenry. The first must grapple with their failure to genuinely lead, the latter with their unwillingness to concede any legitimacy to leadership on the increasingly rare occasions when it manifests itself.

If our problem is that political authority has become unrecognizable — that we no longer know how to spot authority if it does appear — any road back to political health must begin by learning anew what it is we are seeking.

AUTHORITY, POWER, AND FREEDOM

What is political authority? Before we answer, we must distinguish between two key concepts: authority and power. If we fail to do so, we will misunderstand the relationship between authority and freedom, perceiving them as antagonistic to one another when in fact they go hand in hand.

We may define power as a capacity for action in the broadest sense. The idea of power is thus quite close to that of freedom, for freedom clearly involves a capacity to act; indeed, we can use the phrases “power to act” and “freedom to act” interchangeably in certain contexts.

Some have disputed this characterization of freedom, arguing for a purely negative understanding of the term as the absence of compulsion. Yet under this definition, the quadriplegic is considered perfectly free to walk around so long as no one prevents him from doing so. This, of course, is absurd, and does violence to our well-grounded intuitions about what freedom must entail.

Because power and freedom are so similar to one another, they can readily stand in an oppositional relationship. One person’s power is perceived as (and quite often is in fact) a threat to another person’s freedom. There is, at least in some measure, a zero-sum game at work here.

That is not the case, however, when it comes to authority.

The concept of freedom adds to that of power the idea of rationality — freedom is the capacity for meaningful, rational action. We do not ordinarily think of the insane as “free”; indeed, it is precisely their radical un-freedom that can justify restraining or confining them. But from whence arises this meaning? Where do we find our reasons for acting? Not, as modernity is so fond of telling us, from within the freedom of our own will, for that is simply circular. No, it is authority (in the very broadest sense of the term) that provides us with reasons for action, and which thereby makes free action possible.

Authority is thus, in the pithy formulation of theologian Oliver O’Donovan, “the objective correlate of freedom.” Whereas one person’s power can limit another’s freedom by compelling him to act against his will, authority elicits free action by giving him reasons to act. Although it may be the authority that summons me to action, I can then recognize that action as my own. Power is thus far weaker than authority.

Authority gives us reasons for free action in two main guises: as epistemic authority and as political authority. Due to their systematic conflation over the past century, both types of authority are in a state of crisis.

THE CRISIS OF EXPERTISE

Epistemic authority can take many forms, but the dominant form in the modern era is what we call “expertise.” Expertise is clearly in a state of crisis — a development lamented by some and cheered by others. The reasons are not difficult to uncover.

Expertise is by its nature a relative measurement — the 7th-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville, lauded as the greatest mind of his age, soberly reported to his readers the existence of cyclopes, satyrs, and cynocephali (dog-headed humans). The expert is the person who has, if not a monopoly of access to certain forms of knowledge, at least much greater access than the average person, whether through the benefits of position, training, or raw intellectual gift.

The information age blew open the bottlenecks through which experts mediated the scarce and precious resources of knowledge. Its champions may have been wrong in harboring utopian delusions of the paradise that would result from the radical democratization of knowledge, but they were not wrong to believe they were changing the world in profound and irreversible ways. Today, thanks to the ease with which we can acquire and share information, the would-be expert’s voice is drowned out by a cacophony of self-appointed rivals who unleash a deluge of raw, undigested information upon the public.

Of course, the result is not a genuine democratization of knowledge. As much as we exhort one another to “think for yourself,” “do your own research,” and “make up your own mind,” few of us really want to go to as much trouble as all that. Most of us are followers by nature, and as sources of information have proliferated, so too have gurus promising to make sense of it all. Hierarchies have, if anything, intensified in the age of Twitter — commentators like Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin have hundreds or even thousands of times more followers than you or me — but these hierarchies of influence have little relationship to formal credentials or training. During the pandemic, skeptical journalists like Alex Berenson were likely to find a much larger audience than leading epidemiologists.

The heyday of the expert was the early 20th century — this was the point in history at which the complexity of human life had radically increased but the availability of information had not yet caught up. In the age of railway timetables, trans-Atlantic steamships, and Gatling guns, it quickly became clear that the sturdy common sense and hoary maxims of the Farmers’ Almanac would no longer suffice; the world urgently needed men of science who could make sense of the profoundly complex new phenomena that had enmeshed the human race.

Samuel Morse’s telegraph might have flashed news from one side of the globe to another in an instant, but the diffusion of most forms of knowledge at the time was still limited to the speed of the printing press. Thus civilization increasingly handed over the keys to the car (another of its bewildering inventions) to a new clerisy of scientific managers who promised to make sense of the complexity. The idealistic declarations of public servants and university presidents in the age of Woodrow Wilson and the two Roosevelts are quaint not only in their un-self-conscious confidence that they could speak truth and mold policy, but that people would actually listen. And listen many did: Franklin Roosevelt was swept into office with unprecedented margins on the coattails of a sincere pledge to rely on his “brain trust” to solve the biggest economic crisis in American history.

The cult of scientific management extended an alluring promise: the reconciliation of the American ideal of individual liberty with comprehensive, rational social control. After all, my freedom is threatened if I want to do X while you tell me I must do Y. But what if you can tell me — and demonstrate scientifically — that Y is what I really want to do, or at any rate what I would want to do if I had the relevant information? Faced with the need to make a host of difficult decisions for the common good of an immensely complex society, the bureaucratic emissaries of Wilson’s “New Freedom” saw in knowledge the power to shape the destiny of the nation without the old-fashioned authoritarianism of ordering people around. Rather than risk bruising political debates over what ought to be done, they proposed to let science answer that question. Political authorities would serve merely as the dutiful executors of what the data prescribed.

During this period, political authority exhibited a strong tendency to clothe itself in the fashionable garb of epistemic authority, masking as much as possible its distinctively political nature. The Third Reich’s revolt against spineless technocracy and its deification of will over intellect only cemented the Wilsonian trend among Western nations: Any attempt to ground political action on a less-than-scientific basis was dismissed as fascism.

This conflation of political and epistemic authority continues down to the present day, as seen in the “follow the science” mantra. The problem, as many recognized during the pandemic, is that epistemic authority never enjoys the unity that political authority has (or at least ought to have). Instead, multiple scientific authorities always vie for power and followers like feuding medieval lords. For over a century, epistemic authorities projected an image of unity, but the digital age pulled back the curtain to reveal a cacophony of arguing voices.

This doesn’t mean that expertise isn’t real, of course. It certainly is, and even when it cannot provide the certainty we crave, it deserves more confidence than most of us want to give it in the year 2023. As 16th-century English legal theorist Richard Hooker observed, man’s fallibility and fallen nature do not invalidate all human claims to knowledge:

Men are blinded with ignorance and error; many things may escape them, and in many things they may be deceived; yea, those things which they do know they may either forget, or upon sundry indirect considerations let pass; and although themselves do not err, yet may they through malice or vanity even of purpose deceive others. Howbeit infinite cases there are wherein all these impediments and lets are so manifestly excluded, that there is no show or colour whereby any such exception may be taken, but that the testimony of man will stand as a ground of infallible assurance. That there is a city of Rome, that Pius Quintus and Gregory the Thirteenth and others have been Popes of Rome, I suppose we are certainly enough persuaded. The ground of our persuasion, who never saw the place nor persons beforenamed, can be nothing but man’s testimony. Will any man here notwithstanding allege those mentioned human infirmities, as reasons why these things should be mistrusted or doubted of?

When we move beyond mere matters of fact and turn to issues of practical reason, however, we rarely enjoy such certainty. In confronting the question of what should be done, Hooker says we must align our minds to follow “which way greatest probability leadeth” and, as much as possible, keep our confidence proportionate to the evidence. Too often, he notes, human beings thirsting for certainty shut their eyes to uncertainty and try to pretend that they — or the experts they are trying to follow — know the right answer. When reality finally bursts their bubble, they revert from all to nothing, losing all faith in the authorities that let them down.

So it is today. As Martin Gurri powerfully chronicles in The Revolt of the Public, our elites are now paying up on a century’s worth of bad bets made by the clerisy of scientific management:

High modernist ideology was a utopian faith: it assumed that rational planning and scientific know-how, if imposed on a gigantic enough scale, could eradicate the miseries of the human condition, from tyranny and inequality to hunger and disease. The enemy was history, mother of superstition and disorder. The hero was the expert-bureaucrat, who could wipe the slate clean.

For a time, the public bought into “the impossible expectations heaped on the expert-bureaucrats…but when the crack-up came, an unconquerable sectarianism shielded the public from any sense of responsibility, and allowed it to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people in authority.” In other words, while expertise can indeed solve many technical problems — witness the extraordinary technological innovations and data-crunching feats of the past century — it cannot solve all political problems. By claiming to do so, it has managed to discredit both epistemic and political authority.

THE ABDICATION OF POLITICAL AUTHORITY

Why have our extraordinary leaps forward in technical expertise not been matched by equivalent political problem solving? Why is the Wilsonian turn to scientific management recognizable in retrospect as a form of abdication? It is because there exists, and will always exist, a chasm between knowledge and action that cannot be bridged, but only crossed by a certain leap of faith.

In the realm of theoretical knowledge, we can always calibrate our confidence to the level of certainty the data permit. Scientists are accustomed to this kind of bet-hedging, often offering explanations or predictions with a “90% confidence interval” or a “99% confidence interval.” Such claims come with a proviso: “By all means believe this, but not completely; it could turn out to be wrong.”

In the domain of action, such bet-hedging is not always possible. Sometimes it is, as when an investor hedges his bets by placing shorts so that if his anticipated investment outcome doesn’t pan out, he can still come out on top, or at least limit his losses. In many domains, however, life doesn’t allow such tactics: We are stuck with the choice to act or not to act. Acting merely 70% or 90% of the way is futile, or perhaps worse than inaction. Consider a man who is unsure whether a particular train is the one he’s supposed to catch. He could take his chances and hop on board, or he could hold back, hoping that if the train was the one he was supposed to take, there will be another one later. What he clearly cannot do (without hazard to life and limb) is 70% board the train and 30% stay on the platform.

So it has been with many of our recent, politically polarizing dilemmas. An expert might argue for the necessity of wearing a face mask to slow the spread of infection, while another might question the efficacy of such measures and emphasize the psychological harms of impairing face-to-face communication. In confronting such a dilemma, a public authority might choose to order a mask ordinance, or he may refrain from doing so; what he cannot plausibly do is prescribe that everyone wear a mask half on their face and half off, or wear a mask 50% of the time.

The necessity to act amid uncertainty becomes even more obvious in the case of policing. An officer may be unsure of whether a suspect is armed and threatening, but he will need to make a decision — often a split-second one — to shoot or not to shoot. To halfway shoot at the suspect may still get the officer in trouble if the suspect turns out to be unarmed, and it may still get him killed if the suspect is armed. Similarly, when it comes to a disputed presidential election, judicial authorities must ultimately rule in favor of one contender or the other; they cannot suspend judgment indefinitely or invite the rival candidates to share power.

At the heart of all properly political authority, then, lies the necessity of making decisions. Such decisions ought to rest, wherever possible, on a long train of careful deliberations; they should not be the product of mere whim or arbitrary fiat. Nonetheless, every decision ultimately requires that the authority figure terminate this train of deliberation and cut off debate, as the etymology of the word de-cision highlights.

The modern conflation of epistemic and political authority has led us into a lion’s den of moral confusion. The epistemic task is open-ended, issuing constantly revisable judgments that are carefully calibrated to what the evidence will bear. The political task, on the other hand, requires closure; it issues in binding judgments that must often go well beyond or stop well short of what the evidence will bear. Epistemic authority, in other words, will only get us so far. If that authority is doing its job correctly, it will be honest about the fact that, in many cases, it leaves us teetering on the edge, uncertain but needing to take a leap of faith. At that point, political authority must take over and authorize the leap.

If we try to transpose political authority into an exclusively epistemic key, the attempt can happen in only one of two ways: Either we will emasculate political authority by subjecting it to the perpetual revisability that belongs to the sciences, with every command continually second-guessed not only by those to whom it is addressed, but by its own authors; or we will clothe the provisional judgments of epistemic authority with an aura of false certainty in order to render them sufficiently definitive to authorize political action.

During the pandemic, authorities at all levels of government managed to perform both of these disastrous operations at the same time. Hardly any Covid-19 emergency briefing was complete without a parade of “government scientists” appearing to explain why the proposed course of action was dictated by the data. Like the expert bureaucrats of Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, their job was to limit freedom without exercising authority. They did not need to decide for us what ought to be done; they simply had to declare what the science had already demonstrated we must do.

Outside such briefings, many of these scientists readily admitted that the whole business was profoundly uncertain and that they were just giving their best guess. But to incorporate such language into public briefings would have required a courage that our leadership class has not cultivated for generations. To their credit, many leaders did have the humility to continually revise policy as data dictated. But to the extent that the initial decrees had been clothed in the garb of false certainty, such revisions simply bred confusion and contributed to an impression of arbitrary and unaccountable bureaucratic tyranny.

Of course, this blurring of the boundary has been happening for decades. The consequences are readily evident in the way citizens view the demands of civil authority. Throughout the pandemic, many Americans on the right met mask mandates and similar measures with a “prove it to me” response, saying, in effect: “It’s not that I’m necessarily against masks or vaccines. I’d be happy to comply if I thought that they actually worked, or that the disease was serious enough to warrant such measures; but since I don’t, I won’t.” The backlash against policing on the left had an identical structure — at least outside the fanatic fringe: “Sure, law enforcement might occasionally need to employ force,” they seemed to say, “but if I do not personally see the necessity of force in a particular case, I must assume it is an example of police brutality.”

Certainly, law must meet a minimum level of plausibility if it is to command obedience. But the burden of proof has shifted: Where once it was generally understood that civil laws were binding unless manifestly unjust, it is now generally believed that they are only binding if manifestly just and, moreover, manifestly necessary.

This posture rejects political authority tout court. If I can only be obliged to do those things that I am already convinced I am obliged to do, then political authority no longer plays any role. As Hooker shrewdly observed when confronted with such revolutionary premises in the 1590s:

[This] opinion…shaketh universally the fabric of government, tendeth to anarchy and mere confusion, dissolveth families, dissipateth colleges, corporations, armies, overthroweth kingdoms, churches, and whatsoever is now through the providence of God by authority and power upheld….Those things which the law of God leaveth arbitrary and at liberty are all subject unto positive laws of men, which laws for the common benefit abridge particular men’s liberty in such things as far as the rules of equity will suffer. This we must either maintain, or else overturn the world and make every man his own commander.

Having accepted that every man is indeed his own commander, liberalism has increasingly recast the role of political authority as a purely educative one: to supply every citizen with the information and arguments that will persuade him to act as authority deems necessary. At first glance, this looks like the realization of the Kantian ideal: Every citizen is perfectly free, obeying reason alone. The gentle voice of persuasion replaces the harsh hand of coercion. Yet in fact, this is a recipe for more insidious forms of un-freedom. It is not possible for the government of a large, heterogeneous community to establish actionable consensus through rational persuasion alone. If it cannot resort to compulsion, it must resort to manipulative propaganda instead.

The true task of political authority is not to tell us to do what we have already decided we should do, nor is its task to educate or indoctrinate us into deciding to do what it wants us to do. Rather, it is the task of political authority to command us to act amid uncertainty; it is political authority that can sometimes say, when challenged, “because I said so.”

How is such an exercise of authority distinguishable from raw power? We began, after all, by distinguishing power from authority on the basis that it is the task of authority to provide reasons for action. To be sure, sometimes in a crisis or emergency, there may be no time to fully lay the reasons before the public; action must be taken now and explained afterward. Sometimes, although it rankles us to hear it in our democratic age, the reasons may be compelling, but few members of the public may be qualified to understand them. Oftentimes even the authority figure himself will not be fully certain about what the right choice is, but must nonetheless make a decision. To do so is not to abandon reason, but to recognize that not all reasons are demonstrative. If uncertainty is real but action is necessary, political authority must issue commands that go beyond what reason alone can fully justify.

We should not shy away from the fact that this entails a certain degree of arbitrariness in the judgments of political authority, especially when — as is always the case in large-scale decisions — incommensurable goods are at stake. Consider the mundane matter of speed limits. Some limits are necessary to ensure public safety, but how strict should they be? Epistemic authority may certainly weigh in on the question: There is no shortage of experts ready to calculate how many lives might be saved by a five-mile-per-hour reduction in average highway speeds. What the experts cannot necessarily predict, however, is whether a five-mile-per-hour reduction in the speed limit will result in a corresponding change in driving habits, or whether people will perceive the adjustment as unreasonable and ignore it. Moreover, experts might be able to calculate the economic costs of adding a few minutes to everyone’s commute, but they cannot determine how many millions of dollars in lost productivity we should accept to prevent one traffic fatality.

The pandemic magnified these classic problems of unintended consequences and incommensurable goods a thousand-fold. Political authorities found themselves in the unenviable position of making high-stakes decisions amid profound and often irreducible uncertainty. No wonder they preferred to surrender the podium to Ph.D.s brandishing alarming charts and graphs. But now we can name this deference for what it was: an abdication of political authority that threatened — and continues to threaten — dangerous consequences for our body politic.

Our political leaders handed over their job to the experts, saddling the latter with practical questions that positive data simply cannot answer. The results were predictable: The inherent limitations of expertise were publicly exposed, and its authority among large segments of the population came crashing down. Cynical politicians hoped to offer up overburdened scientists as sacrificial lambs to quell the frenzy of the angry mob, but by chaining their own authority to that of the experts, they succeeded in destroying the foundations of political as well as epistemic authority.

LEARNING HOW TO LEAD

We can now venture a pithy definition of political authority as the authority to make decisions between incommensurable goods amid uncertainty, and to compel obedience to these decisions. Such compulsion can happen through mere force and fear, but this constitutes a replacement for authority rather than its exercise. Authority operates where we recognize that (a) a decision must be made, (b) the situation is fraught with uncertainty, and (c) this leader is the man for the job, whether by virtue of his office or his personal qualities — ideally both.

Political authority requires profound courage. There is a reason why, since antiquity, political authority has been closely linked to the battlefield. It was the task of kings to go out to war, and if they did not do so, whatever captain did successfully lead the people into battle was likely to find himself the beneficiary of a coup.

This dependence of political authority on military authority is not nearly as quaint as we might think: From George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, a startling number of U.S. presidents ascended politically due to their demonstrated martial prowess. The battlefield, after all, throws into sharper relief the perils that face every political leader. In war, decisions must be made; they cannot be put off indefinitely until all the data is in or full consensus is reached. Despite every attempt at fact-finding or soliciting wise counsel, the general must often act amid terrible uncertainty. He must choose between incommensurable goods: Should he sacrifice lives in order to gain time, or sacrifice time in order to save lives? His decision cannot be merely personal; it must be a binding command. Others must follow and obey, even when they themselves are profoundly uncertain about what must be done and are not privy to most of their commander’s reasons. Anyone who can keep his head and summon others to action in the face of such doubt and peril is likely well-equipped to guide a people through the perils of peacetime.

What is it that induces soldiers on a battlefield to follow their commander, even amid mortal danger? The word “follow” is the key one. Alexander the Great triumphed over a much larger Persian force at Gaugamela because he led his men into battle, while his opponent Darius lurked in safety before turning to flee. Of course, as modern generals have shown, it is not always necessary to stand amid the storm of bullets on the front line, for there are other risks besides death: Even the general in the safety of headquarters faces the profound peril of being wrong, and of being seen to be wrong. He makes high-stakes gambles that could end in humiliation. The question is: When the reckoning comes, will he shoulder that responsibility, or seek to slough it off onto another? If a leader demonstrates the courage to make life-and-death decisions amid profound uncertainty and personally accepts the blame if the decisions do not pan out, his men will follow him into the jaws of death.

Effective leadership, in short, entails a willingness to embrace risk — something that flies in the face of the advice every political strategist and corporate lawyer gives his boss. We live in a culture of risk management, a society in which every little decision must be data-crunched, focus-grouped, and insurance-hedged before it can be acted upon. With a horde of advisers to lean on, every politician and CEO can rest assured that if something does go south, a dozen scapegoats stand at the ready. This abdication of leadership turns out to be a Faustian bargain: Our leaders might keep their offices longer, but these offices are steadily drained of any real authority; witness Congress’s current approval rating — 21% at the time of this writing.

Starved of real authority, society casts about desperately for replacements, latching on to every brash defier of convention as a potential savior. Donald Trump’s extraordinary success was due largely to his willingness to ignore the rules of the risk managers and data-crunchers, his apparent readiness to personally shoulder the burden of calling the shots as political leaders once did — even if, when the moment of truth came, he proved more than willing to divert blame onto scapegoats. The uncanny success and bizarre mystique of Elon Musk owes much to the same phenomenon: This corporate leader conducts himself more like a medieval lord on horseback than a bureaucrat in a boardroom.

Yet if it is wrong to conflate political and epistemic authority, it is equally wrong to divorce them, defying the wisdom of experts for contrarian kicks. Critics have rightly derided the know-nothing decisions of a Trump and the erratic fancies of a Musk as more quixotic flight from reality than a return to the age of heroes.

Politics is an imaginative enterprise, and we find ourselves today with our imaginations malformed by generations of leaders cross-dressing in lab coats or exhorting us to “just do what feels right.” Consequently, on the rare occasion that a genuine servant-leader combines competence, confidence, and humility, the left derides him as a manifestation of fascistic toxic masculinity while the right pillories him as a namby-pamby compromiser.

The urgently needed reformation of our imaginations must begin in arenas less polarized than national politics. Thankfully, other realms of life exist, although national politics has increasingly colonized them. State politics, local politics, schools, churches, small businesses, and community sports teams: In these grassroots environments, the necessity of authentic authority — and a hunger from its absence — is deeply felt. Even in a role as humble as that of Little League coach, a leader must make difficult decisions between incommensurable goods in the midst of uncertainty, and then he must compel obedience to them. This requires wisdom, courage, and charisma in defiance of the culture of offense-taking and risk management that is ascendant in our time.

We can find in these little platoons not merely schools of virtue, but schools of authority — places where aspiring leaders can learn anew how to act as authorities, and where the rest of us can learn anew how to recognize the phenomenon of authority. If we struggle to discern true political authority within the sphere of politics, then let us call on religious leaders, school principals, coaches, and businessmen to model it in their own local contexts — and let us cut them some slack when they inevitably fail. Only by doing so can we retrain our imaginations to see and our affections to respond to an authority that transcends mere expertise.

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

Photo by Sander Weeteling on Unsplash


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