The Crisis in Democratic Leadership


By LYNN T. WHITE, JR., President, Mills College, Oakland, Cal.

Delivered at the Fifty-First Commencement of Pomona College, Pomona, Cal., April 24, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 655-659.

TO address a graduating class in April of 1944 is no easy task. If I were to speak in sanguine terms of the opportunity which lies before you to remake the world after the heart's desire, I should insult your intelligence, for you know that this is a grim world and that any conceivable improvement which may be accomplished during the time of your lives will leave it still largely a vale of tears. If I were to exhort you in general terms to go forth despite all obstacles to build the kingdom of righteousness on earth, I should insult your character, for in any case you will so dedicate yourselves. Therefore, it seems that the least offensive course which one may adopt on this occasion is thetry to assist your thinking regarding a major aspect of the agony of our time: the crisis in leadership.

In October of 1932 I was in Rome observing the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Fascist seizure of that city. I stood in the Piazza Venezia as Mussolini came out upon the balcony of his palace and listened to the scores of thousands of Black Shirts packed in that great square chanting "Duce, Duce, Duce!" In the following January I was working in the archives of the cathedral of Catania on the east coast of Sicily and was living in a little boarding house which was packed with German tourists. One evening just before dinner the news of the burning of the Reichstag arrived. You will remember that to win an election in Germany the Nazi Party had set fire to the Parliament Buildings in Berlin in order to blame the atrocity on the Communists and thus swing a majority of the German electorate into their camp; a scheme which worked admirably. That evening in Catania as I listened to the conversation at the tables all about me constantly I heard the expression, "Our Fuhrer will get us out of this. Our Fuhrer will repress the Communist terror." Fuhrer: Leader 1 It was borne in on me to what an extent the conflict of the twentieth century is involved with the problem of securing the right type of leadership in our society. Since, in general, the leadership in our own country emerges from the ranks of the college graduates, it is appropriate on such an occasion as this to clarify the concept of leadership which is necessary for the strengthening of our democratic tradition.

Here in America the method of securing leadership has often been misconceived as a purely passive process of letting the cream rise to the top and then skimming it off. Leaders are thought of as an elite which appears spontaneously from society. But leaders do not in fact emerge entirely under their own' power. Although the personal qualities of the leader himself are certainly not to be underestimated, he is never in any real sense a self-made man. Leaders are'to a great extent forced to the surface by the society in which they live, and a society usually finds the type of leaders for which it is looking. There can be no leader who is not supported by the led. Therefore the problem of producing a desirable leadership in our society is essentially a problem of popular education. It is not enough to select young men and women of brilliance, to give them the best possible training, and then to place them in positions of responsibility. It is far more important to develop in the great mass of our people a discriminating taste in leadership so that the millions who will never themselves be leaders may recognize clearly the type of leadership which they wish and may support intelligently the individuals who embody it. This means that we must formulate our theories of leadership much more exactly than we have done in the past. We must make Americans much more aware of the various types of leadership than has heretofore seemed necessary. Our enemies, the totalitarians, have been much less remiss in this respect than we. It is part of their strength that they know exactly what kind of leaders they want and that they have educated their people to want and to support such leaders.

There are three possible theories of leadership. The first is very commonly propounded in our own land, and yet I think you would agree with me that it contains within itself pernicious elements. It maintains that leaders are a mortar which holds society together. The ordinary citizen is a brick, relatively passive. It is the mortar which binds the individual bricks together, makes them a coherent and functional whole. If the mortar fails the social structure disintegrates. To change the metaphor, the leader is a nerve cell which integrates and coordinates the other cells of the body according to the will of the central controlling agency, the brain, which is a concentration of nerve cells. You will sec that such a theory assumes, either consciously or unconsciously, that our society is in fact an organism having an existence in itself which transcends the existence of the individual component units. In its perfected form this organic theory of society is identical with totalitarianism and conceives of the Leader, the Fuhrer or Duce, as being not merely the brain of society from which the minor leaders take their orders and to which they bring back their reports on the state of the organism, but even as a mystical embodiment of the soul of the community. Metaphors are indeed useful instruments of the human mind if their limitations are observed. Very often, however, a figure of speech which is valid in certain respects entirely fails in others, yet because it has seized our imagination it perverts our thinking. We mistake similarity for identity. We must beware of this trickery- of words. There is indeed a human organism, but there is no organism of society apart from the sum total of the individuals composing it. There is no America, no American mind, apart from the one hundred and thirty odd million individual Americans who constitute our nation. We must clearly recognize that the seeds of totalitarianism lie in any theory which conceives of leadership as the directive or cohesive force in an organic society.

The second theory of leadership is seldom heard in America but has been consistently advanced in Europe ever since the days of Machiavelli. The leader is conceived as an Ubermensch (in view of the current connotation of the name "Superman," one is driven back to Nietzsche's word) who is to his followers as the wolf is to the sheep. He is deliberately and consciously predatory. He is without scruples or compassion. The sole objective of history, according to this theory, is to produce a very limited number of these exceptional individuals. The sole purpose of society is to provide them with a means of support and of expanding their sacro egosimo, their "holy egoism," to use Mussolini's expression. Such a theory of leadership is too extreme to find much following in the United States, but in the minds of the totalitarians it has fused with the organic theory of leadership already mentioned. Indeed, in practice these two harmonize very successfully, since the first secures the support of the common man by appealing to his altruism and at the same time to his need for guidance, whereas the second evokes the full energies of the leader group by appealing to their selfishness.

There is a third theory of leadership, however, which is in complete opposition to the first two and which is, I trust, that held by the great majority of Americans, even though we have not adequately defined it. We must formulate it, nevertheless, if we are to maintain ourselves in this great conflict with the dictatorships and if we are to prevent ourselves after this present war from becoming mired in the quicksands of totalitarianism. The third theory holds that leadership is an instrument for the development of personality not only in the leader but equally in his companions, the led.

Inherent in this definition we discover the axiom which chiefly separates us from all brands of totalitarianism: the assumption of the infinite worth of every individual no matter how apparently degraded. It is well to recognize that this is an essentially religious notion. We Americans are so devoted to the idea of the complete separation of church and state, a separation which for practical purposes is essential to the maintenance of both religious and political liberty, that we have often been reluctant to recognize thatit is impossible completely to segregate religious from political thinking. The axiom of the infinite worth of every personality can not be defended rationally, nor can it be proved correct by an appeal to day-by-day experience. It makes no sense apart from an essentially theological belief that every individual is endowed with a quantum of intelligence and freedom of choice, and that the purpose of living is to give every individual an opportunity to "save his soul" or "develop his personality" (depending on whether you want the older or more recent phrasing of the same problem) by the exercise of his reason and freedom. This faith and this alone lies at the basis of our rationally and empirically indefensible system of universal suffrage. We give a ballot each on the one hand to the greatest authority on political science and on the other hand to the most ordinary of our citizens; we send them individually into little booths where they mark them up; then the anonymous ballots are put into a locked box from which they are taken and counted impartially. Is there any better evidence that in our democratic society we are not interested primarily in the efficiency of society as a whole or in reaching the best solution of each individual political problem but rather that we regard our political organization as existing for the purpose of giving every individual, whatever his state of spiritual development, an opportunity to grow as a person through examining the facts relevant to a political problem and then arriving at an individual decision regarding that problem?

It follows that leadership in a democracy is a device for developing the intelligence and discrimination of the whole body of citizens in order that they individually may become better human beings. This sounds terribly abstract, but after all an abstraction is merely a generalization drawn from innumerable specific instances, and this principle of democratic leadership may be observed in the conduct of a Boy Scout troop as easily as in the conduct of a nation. It means that the democratic leader must always respect his companions, the led; that he must never be more than primus inter pares—the first among equals. He must know that in a very real sense it is they who lead him. The implications of the theory of democratic leadership were humorously expressed by a politician of the French Revolution who, seeing a mob rushing by in the streets below his office windows, seized his hat and said to his secretary, "There go the people. I am their leader. I must follow them." The tinge of cynicism in that remark should not blind us to its essential sincerity.

The democratic leader's respect for his fellows has several practical consequences. First of all, he never lies to them. Since the purpose of democratic leadership is to develop reasons and discriminating choice in every citizen of the community, the leader must see to it that the citizens have the facts relevant to all political problems and he must encourage the utmost freedom in the discussion of those problems. One of the most ominous symptoms of the decay of the democratic tradition in the United States has been the tendency on the part of government officials to suppress facts which are necessary for the formation of political judgments on the part of the people. It is, of course, true that in time of war certain types of military and economic information must be withheld lest the enemy be aided. Nevertheless, who will deny that in certain spheres of government a psychology of secrecy has developed? The attitude seems to be that since the people are not trained experts it would be well to prevent discussion of difficult problems: in other words, the efficiency of the state is held to be more important than the development of the individual citizen. Secondly, the democratic leader never appeals to the blind loyalty of his followers, nor does he attempt to establish his leadership merely by assertion of authority. He never says, "Do this because you love me so much" or "Do this because I am your Leader." On the contrary, he says, "Let's do this for the following reasons, and now let's sit down and discuss those reasons just to make sure that we all understand that they are right reasons." Finally, (and this is perhaps the most important touchstone to distinguish democratic from dictatorial leadership) the democratic leader protects minorities within the group from coercion by the majority, and insists on their right to attempt, by discussion, to convert themselves into a majority and even to displace him from his position of leadership. Such forbearance is difficult, especially in small groups, yet it is vastly important, since the attitude displayed toward dissident minorities is the primary test of whether or not the group is primary or whether the precedence goes to providing opportunity for the spiritual development of the individuals who constitute the group. Freedom of speech is the hair shirt worn by every democratic society. Suppression is so easy; patience is so difficult. The democratic doctrine of civil liberties reflects an ascetic determination to suffer fools gladly, since at times what at first seems folly turns out to be wisdom. Like the fasting of monks, it is an act of abnegation designed to toughen the spiritual muscles of every member of the community.

It is evident, therefore, that democratic leadership is the exact reverse of the Fascist "Leader Principle" which deprives the led of the exercise of intelligence and of freedom of choice, which rests its power on assertion of authority and appeals to blind loyalty, and which ruthlessly crushes minorities of dissenters. This democratic tradition is our greatest treasure here in America. To preserve it we must not only fight for it, we must fight under it. Those of us who have lived in America for a few years, however, are vividly aware that the actualities of our nation do not conform in every respect to our ideals. We know that our society is permeated by Little Caesars running families and businesses, heading colleges, schools and parishes, Red Cross Chapters, boys' clubs, playgrounds, benevolent societies, and Shakespeare Clubs. Indeed, wherever two or three are gathered together, there is at least the peril of minor dictatorship. Moreover, one has an uncomfortable feeling that the number of our Führers is increasing. This can not be proved but I doubt if many will care to deny it. Why is this so? Why does the tradition of democratic leadership seem to be imperiled in the United States? I believe that it is because democratic leadership is based on respect for personality, whereas during the past two or three generations our society has grown increasingly more impersonal. With urbanization, industrialization, and the increasing mobility of our population, individuals by the millions have lost touch with intimate groups: the local church, lodge, and school—above all, with the neighborhood in which they learned to know their fellows as human beings.

Let me say parenthetically that I am not talking about the alleged decay of the much maligned American family which is, I think, the strongest element in our national structure. It has never seemed strange to me that Europe produced Fascism when nearly every home in Europe has its Fuhrer in Papa. There are, of course, exceptions in European families, but by and large Papa holds autocratic domination over his wife and children. Even when the father of the family is its weakest member, he is maintained by public opinion and by legal authority in his position of dominance. In this country we have heard much about the so-called disintegration of the American family, but such comments seem usually to bebased on the assumption that in some way the European patriarchal family is morally superior and that the "decay" of the American family is a recent disaster. We should recognize, however, that the American family is a sociological phenomenon quite unlike anything to be found elsewhere. It is a product not merely of the distinctive American conditions of the frontier but also of our basic American respect for personality. The American family is not, like the European family, a triangular authoritarian structure dominated by the father. On the contrary, it is an informal debating society which begins with two members, the father and mother, into the discussions of which the children are gradually admitted. Indeed, they are admitted before they have any real capacity for participating in the debates for exactly the same reason which leads us to extend the suffrage even to the least developed members of our whole society: we believe that with children, as with citizens in general, it is more important to give opportunity for the exercise of reason and of free choice than it is to reach the best possible solutions for the immediate problems under discussion. At times, of course, the debates get a bit furious, the crockery flies, and the debating society dissolves. Nevertheless, I believe that there are more happy marriages and happy families in the United States than in any other country which I have observed, primarily because the American family structure is based upon respect for the personality of every individual member. Despite the shocks of our time, the institution of the family is far more stable than the other small groups in which in the past we have learned to know human nature.

The decline of democratic leadership is largely based upon a decline in the feeling for the importance of the individual. This, in turn, is rooted in the loneliness of millions who have lost all sense of being part of a community, part of a neighborhood, who have become the listless window shoppers of our city streets. If we are to stem the tendencies towards the decay of democracy which we observe among ourselves, we must frankly face the problem of giving the drifting millions a sense of belonging to an intelligible community. The big city, as at present organized, is the greatest enemy of the democratic tradition.

There are, of course, optimists who maintain that the big city is doomed. They point to the obvious fact of the tendency to decentralize industry, the drift of population toward the suburbs, the decline of land values in the heart of our great urban agglomerations. After the war, they say, the helicopter is going to accelerate decentralization at a tremendous rate. Transportation lines will be freed from the limitations of topography. Settlement will be spread with great evenness over wide areas, probably concentrating on the ridges of mountains where the view is better. And who will deny that if the single family helicopter becomes commercially possible it may have far more effect on our pattern of living than the automobile ever had? Yet eagerly as I personally anticipate the blessed age of flight, it seems highly improbable that our great cities will shrivel and fade at once in the shadow of heavenly wings. The tendencies toward urbanization are first clearly visible in the late tenth century of our era: they have been operative for a thousand years. If, as is probably the case, a new set of decentralizing factors has come into play, the evidence is as yet inadequate that their force is sufficient to overpower the older urges toward centralization. In our time there will continue to be great cities which by their vast impersonality will continue to undermine the sense of the importance of individual personality and consequently to corrode the basis of democratic leadership, unless we do something to reform their structure.

At this point, many of you may throw your hands in the air and avow that the great city is so inherently perverse that it can not be brought to the mourners' bench. But even though we recognize the great difficulties of social planning, we should not despair. A somewhat analogous problem, on a much smaller scale, was recognized nearly forty years ago in our American universities. They were growing and diversifying, losing all sense of pattern, coherence, and intimacy. Like our cities, they were becoming unintelligible. Students were losing personal contact with their professors and even with one another. That extraordinary man, Wood row Wilson, formulated the problem at Princeton and offered as solution a plan for breaking Princeton up into a group of small residential colleges. As you know, he failed in his project. The alumni of Princeton expelled him into immortality. But the problem remained. After the first World War, hundreds of thousands of students rushed to our great universities which lost even more of the personal atmosphere, an atmosphere which our best educators have always recognized as essential to truly liberal education. In the late '20s and early '30's, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Harkness, both Yale and Harvard went through social revolutions according to Wilson's plan, and by prodigious efforts those two universities have in fact regained much of the intimacy which was lost in the period of indiscriminate and uncontrolled growth. Unfortunately, no other great university was financially able to follow their example, and, as we all know, our country is filled with educational Willow Runs. The significance of small colleges like Pomona and Mills is that they stoutly insist on the crucial importance—for the development of a truly educated man or woman—of the intangible values generated in personal contact.

The chief problem of America is how to do to our cities what Yale and Harvard did to their organization. It would be very simple to conclude at this point, but I can not permit myself the luxury of ending on nothing more tangible than a question mark. It is so very easy merely to pose the problem: it commits one to nothing, prevents criticism, and saves one's reputation. However, I feel that any speaker is taking unfair advantage of his audience if he fails to follow his question mark with any answer, however tentative, which he personally may have reached.

In fact, the problem of restoring the values of personality to the lives of the millions of people herded together in our great cities does not seem so insoluble today as it did a few years ago. I shall not insult you by presenting any panacea, for no one in this disenchanted age believes in cure-alls. Nevertheless, the exigencies of war thrust an experience upon many of our cities which seems to hold possibilities for the future.

After Pearl Harbor, particularly here on the Pacific Coast, there was a well grounded fear that we might be bombed by the Japanese. A highly centralized urban organization is not fitted to deal adequately with a bomb. When it falls you can't go to the telephone, call up the Mayor, and ask him what he is going to do about it, why he doesn't send the police, the ambulances, and the fire engines. It is a local crisis which requires immediate local measures carried out by a local organization. This was so evident that almost overnight neighborhood clubs and block clubs were formed to organize air raid protection. Neighbors who had not heretofore recognized that they were neighbors got together for first-aid courses and instructions in how to extinguish incendiaries. Somewhat to their amazement people discovered that they liked more of their neighbors than they didn't like. That in itself was a victory of the first order. People who had lived side by side for years without speaking, now became friends. Families uprooted by the exigencies of war and settling in a new community quickly associated themselves with the air raid defense and learned to know the people living

about them. Quite by accident, quite without the aid of any grandiose theory, the peril of war temporarily restored the sense of the neighborhood, the sense of the village, the sense of a community which is intelligible as no great city is intelligible. Imperceptibly the activities of the neighborhood clubs extended to include scrap and paper salvage drives. Scouting troops and recreation organizations began instinctively to adjust themselves to the newly discovered neighborhood. Social workers suddenly awoke to the fact that here at last was an entity in the city which had form and substance, which could assist them in tackling problems of delinquency, child care, and the like. A social structure which was born spontaneously of war may perhaps become one of the greatest forces for the betterment of our American life in peace time.

As with all things human, there are, of course, potentialities for evil inherent in the development of neighborhood clubs. The ward system of the political bosses of the late nineteenth century was in many ways similar to the neighborhood clubs, and its success, I believe, proves the validity of our newer experiment in friendliness. The unscrupulous politicians of New York, Philadelphia, and our other great cities of two generations ago were trying to control the votes of millions of peasant immigrants who had come from tiny, intimate villages of Southern and Eastern Europe, and who felt famished for neighborliness. The ward boss provided a social center where these people could gather. He provided food and medical assistance to the needy. In times of grief he organized funerals with a pomp adequate to solace grief. In return, the grateful immigrant peasant, nostalgic for his village, voted as the boss wished. If our modern neighborhood clubs should fall into political hands, the results might well be dangerous, but if the danger be recognized it may be avoided. It is not inconceivable that in the years to come a network of neighborhood clubs, each with a social center and an informal, autonomous organization, may be as much a part of our civic organization as the school system, the utilities, or the network of parks and playgrounds. Nothing human will solve all our problems, but a system of neighborhood clubs, adequately developed, would do much to recreate in our society the intimate sense of neighborliness which would cure at its source the loneliness out of which so many of the lamentable tendencies of our age arise. They would foster once more that sense of personal relationship within a community small enough to be understood which is essential to the development of any feeling for the worth of personality. Above all, they would provide a medium for the development of democratic leadership, a leadership which, as I have said, is based essentially on respect for personality.

You, as undergraduates of Pomona College, have spent four years in a singularly fortunate environment, deliberately designed not merely to develop you as persons but also to develop in you a respect for persons. From now on, many of you will be living in less congenial environments which will seem at times dominated by bleak impersonality. Often you will look around you and recognize that loneliness, in the sense of being unattached, is the greatest curse of our modern world, and that from it springs a loss of self-respect and a loss of respect for others which is devastating to the human spirit. We must replace what Nicholas Berdyaev has called the "sandy atomism" of our twentieth century with a rich loam of inter-relationships which will prevent the water of life from seeping uselessly into the depths but rather will retain it so that the fruits and flowers of the spirit may spring up. We stand in the midst of a crisis regarding the nature of the leadership which will control the future of America, but that crisis is not an isolated phenomenon. It is intimately related to the forms of our society. Let me urge you to spend your coining years, wherever you may be, whatever you may be doing, in the effort to build an American society so infused with respect for individual personality that it will be capable of sustaining that most personal of political systems, American democracy.