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A System Problem for Democracy


In 1956 William H. Whyte published a book entitled The Organization Man. Basing his findings on a large number of interviews with CEOs of major American corporations, Whyte concluded that, within the context of modern organizational structure, American “rugged individualism” had given way to a “collectivist ethic.” Economic success and individual recognition was now pursued within an institutional structure – that is, by “serving the organization.”

Whyte’s book was widely read and praised, yet his thesis was not as novel as it seemed. “Rugged individualism,” to the extent that it existed, was (and is) the exception for human behavior and not the rule. We have evolved to be group-oriented animals and not lone wolves. This means that the vast majority of us (and certainly not just Americans) live our lives according to established cultural conventions. These operate on many levels – not just national patriotism or the customs of family life.

What Whyte ran across was the sub-culture of the workplace as followed by those who set themselves upon a “career path” within a specific organization. The stereotypical examples are those, to quote Whyte, “who have left home spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life. [They adopt an ethic that] rationalizes the organization’s demand for fealty and gives those who offer it wholeheartedly a sense of dedication.”

Today, some private sector organizations have moved away from the most extreme demands of such conformity, but some other career lines have not, two examples being the military and career party politics. For insight in this we can turn to the sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose famous book The Power Elite was published the same year as Whyte’s The Organization Man. Mills’s work narrows the world’s ruling bureaucracies to government, military and top economic corporations.Those who make their careers within these entities, especially the military and the government, are ideologically conditioned to identify their well-being with the specific goals of their chosen organizations. That means they must bind themselves not only to the goals, but also to the ethics of their workplace. Those who balk are eventually punished and cast out of the organizations. Those who guide these organizations, and essentially decide how rules and ethics will be interpreted and applied, are Mills’s “power elite.”

How this works out in the military is pretty obvious. There is a long tradition of dedication to duty. At the core of this dedication is a rigid following of orders given by superiors. This tradition is upheld even if it is suspected that one’s superior is incompetent.

It may come as a surprise to the reader that party politics as practiced by many of the Western democracies is quite similar. The “power elites” who reside at the top of the so-called greasy pole, holding positions as the head of ruling and contesting parties, are likely to demand the same sort of obedience to orders as any military officer.

The Organization Man or Woman in Politics

Running for and holding office in countries like the United States and Canada often requires one to “take the vows of organization life.” Does this support democracy or erode it? Here is one prescient answer: the way we have structured our party politics has given us “an appalling political system which is a step-by-step denial of democracy and a solid foundation for a ‘soft’ dictatorship.”

Those are the words of the late Rafe Mair, a Canadian politician, broadcaster, author and a good friend of this writer. Rafe spent years in Canadian politics, particularly in his home province of British Columbia, and his experience led him to the conclusion expressed above. How does this translate into practice?

Rafe explained it this way: “In a parliamentary [or other form of representative] democracy the voter transfers his rights to his member of parliament [congressperson, senator or state legislator] to exercise on his behalf – the trouble is, by running for his political party the [elected person, in turn, is led to] assign your [the voter’s] rights to the [party] leader for his exclusive use!” There is no law that makes the elected official do this. However, the inducements to do so are very powerful.

Leaders of political parties can control their organizations in dictatorial fashion. They have power to reward or punish their party’s cohorts in a fashion that can make or break careers. For instance, they control the dispersal of party funds from monies for elections right down to one’s office budget, they determine whether a candidate will have to face a primary challenge, they make all committee assignments, they can promote and demote within the party ranks. As Rafe Mair observed, the possibilities for both reward and punishment are almost endless. In this way elected officials become bound to the diktats of their party’s leaders. They cannot normally vote their conscience or reliably represent their constituency unless doing so coincides with the desires of their party’s leadership.

Democracy in Danger

What is described here is a ubiquitous system problem. To one extent or another, this problem of centralization of power within organizations, particularly those that demand loyalty from their members, is commonplace – whether they are political organizations or not.

This being the case, there should be no surprise that many Western democracies are suffering from this system problem. Nor is it surprising that correcting the problem is very difficult, if for no other reason than those who control the corrupted system must be willing to participate in its reform.

What is surprising is that while many citizens sense a problem, few really understand what is going on and where it can lead. Rafe put it this way: “though the way the system fails is simplicity indeed, I daresay scarcely one in 100 voters understands that the consequences are fatal to anything but a charade of democracy.” Why is this so? It might be that beyond the classic town hall meeting, the distance between the average citizen and government bureaucracy is too great to hold the former’s interest. In normal times, apathy, and a sense of powerlessness, seems to be the default response to anything that does not impact our daily lives.

Nonetheless, increasing unresponsiveness on the part of government and a growing awareness of official corruption and mismanagement can lead to widespread citizen unease and frustration. At some point the voters may start looking for alternative politicians who claim to know what the problems are and how to fix them. Usually such claims are themselves no more than campaign hot air. However, in their ignorance, voters may well respond to such hot air, and the result can be a jump from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. U.S. voters seem to have taken just such a leap when they elected Donald Trump president.

Rafe Mair sounded the warning about this system problem and its ability to erode our democracies. He is gone now, but we and the problem he identified remain. Can we deal effectively with it? It is possible, but it will require overcoming mass apathy and ignorance and avoiding the deceptive messages of irrational leaders. I am not sure that history is on our side.

More articles by:

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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