The Herd Is Becoming Restless

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘Get one to go and they will all go.’ This means that if one sheep will move then the entire flock will follow. This is because of their gregarious instinct, the desire to stay together for protection.

​​​​​​ An Introduction to Sheep Behavior, ​ ​​​​University of Illinois Extension

There is a fine line between being herded and being led, and there has probably not been a time in our recent history when being able to discern the difference was more important.  

As we struggle with our viral fears regarding a new virus and hurtle toward economic and societal calamity as a result of our responses to these fears, we are facing a host of decisions that may well make or break our national unity and prosperity for many years to come.  The nature and purpose of leadership will be of critical importance to our nation as we make our individual and collective decisions about whom we will follow in these extraordinary times.

It first must be pointed out that the best leaders throughout history have always, to one extent or another, herded us.  The ability to convince a country full of individuals to act collectively requires methods that are occasionally less elevated than we would like.  It is neither possible nor desirable to turn every national discussion into a tête-à-tête.  In order to manage millions of people, the answer to “why” is often going to be “because” due to obvious constraints on both time and communication.  However, should the rules and requests seem reasonable, most of us can be easily convinced to follow right along with a minimum of difficulty.  We are, to this extent, perfectly willing to be herded if we perceive it to be in our best interests.

However, situations that fall outside the typical quotidian functions of government—whether these be operating traffic signals, enforcing building codes, or (in our new age) deciding just how much weed we can reasonably carry around in our pockets—push us into uncharted territories where leadership might be required.  Crisis management requires an entirely different skill set than scheduling a street cleaning and, quite naturally, prompts the question of what type of leadership we require when the going gets tough.

Only a few hundred years ago leadership was basically synonymous with military prowess.  Nation’s leaders marched at the heads of their armies into the heat of battle, and the very best of them have come down to us in the history books that few actually read today as dusty remnants of a forgotten and barbaric past when the strong and merciless routinely slaughtered the weak and defenseless.

Political leaders today do not lead armies into battle; we are not likely to ever see Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders charging into the fray on horseback with a bloody saber in their hand. 

Having decoupled the functions of military and civilian leaders over the past couple of centuries, we now expect a professional class of soldiers to do the killing and another distinct class of leaders—supported by their own vast civilian army of bureaucrats and advisors—to attend to those governmental functions that boil down to protecting us from both ourselves and others as deemed necessary.

Unsurprisingly, the big book of rules for our civil society has grown exponentially as this “civilian army” has imposed more and more restrictions upon our behavior in order to restrain our worst or most self-injurious impulses.  We likely have just as many conflicts as we did during our head-bashing past, but now we are encouraged to fill out a form or hire a lawyer instead of challenging our antagonist to a duel at sunrise.  Although violence still is a regular and depressing feature of the world we inhabit, no sane individual would argue that brutes and brute force should be allowed to reign supreme.

However, the unruly and unreasonable behaviors of our ancestors are still entrenched in our DNA, so appealing to the better angels of our nature is not always successful—and power must be exercised when persuasion fails.  Today we need not be concerned that a marauding band of howling state officials is going to sack our village or lop off our ear if we disobey, but the civilian armies of elected officials and their many functionaries have two enormously powerful weapons to deploy—cash and compulsion.  Although neither is quite as dramatic as a flaming arrow or Trebuchet hurling a boulder, both are likely much more effective when it comes to subduing a troublesome populace.

Cash and what it can buy has always been a handy tool for rulers.  Kings and Queens used to hand out loaves of bread and legs of mutton to secure the good will of their subjects; today lots of wonderful “free” goodies are doled out to the commoners to keep them placated.  The only difference between yesterday and today is that rulers were once expected to have the actual gold in their palace vaults—now government officials simply borrow and spend it.

Compulsion no longer requires a sharpened sword; laws, regulations, and codes—backed by an army of bureaucrats, police officers, and court officials—will ensure that those who dislike rules will discover punishments they will dislike even more.  Disobedience might still result in modern versions of a trip to the dungeon, forfeiting your land to your liege lord, or banishment from the realm.  We just know a bit more today about how to make it seem all nice and civilized.

The problems that are bedeviling our seemingly cozy 21st century world are two-fold: the cash is running out and the commoners are starting to suspect the rules don’t apply to everyone as equally as is claimed.

The herd is getting restless as we watch the security and comfort we were promised collapse like a house of cards during today’s Coronavirus craziness, and the fragility and inequity of a nation that is floating on an ocean of debt and many times is run for the convenience of political insiders and the well-connected few is starting to become uncomfortably obvious.  The high ideals of our nation have often been more aspirational than real, but watching our elected officials in action over the past month is putting the shortcomings of our nation’s leaders into sharp—and discomforting—focus.

During times of relative calm, we can better tolerate poseurs and charlatans; when a crisis is upon us, our patience for idiots evaporates.  The need for leadership becomes urgent, but we are often unsure how to recognize the difference between those who can lead and those who are limited to simply prodding us.

The main problem is deciding what leadership really means in America today—and whether it is now even possible.

The Coronavirus crisis we are now facing is an incredible object lesson regarding the enormous power of government for both good and bad.  On the one hand, government officials have shown their ability and willingness to shut down most of our economy and, quite literally, lock us inside our own homes.  On the flip side, the same government that put us on the unemployment line also demonstrated the power to inject a $2 trillion gusher of cash into both our pockets and the broader economy—tossing around tens of billions of dollars as if it were mere pocket change.  

The defenders of today’s nearly unlimited governmental powers would argue first killing our economy and later attempting to resurrect it provides ample proof of the enormous beneficence of government because each of these actions were meant to protect us from harm.  However, what might actually have been demonstrated is just how little power we now have over our own lives and decision making.  Moreover, watching our “rescue” from a government-created economic catastrophe transform into a deeply partisan exercise in handing out cash to favored businesses and political causes only served to further emphasize the stark divide between the interests of ordinary Americans and those who live within the penumbra of governmental power and privilege.

Being an American today is sort of like living with the crazy parent who routinely punishes you for no apparent reason but still buys you a shiny, new car for your sixteenth birthday.  It’s easy to have conflicting emotions when you’re being whipsawed by an abuser who manages to combine domination and neglect in the most toxic possible manner—and (as you later discover) buys you that wonderful birthday present by stealing your allowance.  We are, to use the popular psycho-babble of our age, in a controlling and manipulative relationship from which we must escape for our own good.

Our nation’s leadership is, therefore, confounded by the very size and nature of government today.  Americans now surrender unprecedented power and control over our lives to imperfect humans who will make many damaging and expensive mistakes, put their own fears and insecurities on parade, and be captive to intellectual and moral myopias that are an inescapable byproduct of the concentration of power in just a few, seemingly unsteady, hands.

If government were less omnipotent and closer to the original intentions of our nation’s founders, we might be more prone to trust it—and less suspicious of its true motives.  We will alway be on our guard around a moody and muscle bound giant—even if he claims only the best intentions and continually whines about being misunderstood.

Leadership is impossible without trust, but (just to point out the sheer perversity of this political puzzle) it will likely be impossible to regain our trust unless true leadership is somehow demonstrated.  

I suspect the only way we will ever be able to trust our government enough to be willing to be led—or at least gently herded—is if we can somehow manage to pare back its enormous powers, which would involve the starkest and most profound reversal of control back to ordinary Americans imaginable.  Were this to happen, it would be a change whose closest analog in our history was our original 13 colonies telling King George III to take a long walk off a short pier.  The phrase “Power to the people” and its many variations, which we often associate with the 1960’s counterculture, is actually about 200 years older than we typically realize.

Governments and leaders have come and gone for many thousands of years, but what has not changed is we prefer there to be a direction we can all follow that offers a promise of protection and yet still allows a sensible degree of freedom.  Tyrants have certainly had their heydays, but we have seen, again and again, that humans are adverse to being herded against our wills.  As a result, human history has been marked by resistance, revolution, and regrouping into new, and hopefully better, forms of government where we have at least the comforting illusion that we are being led with our consent.

It is true that we instinctively seek a leader to follow.  This might sometimes make it seem that we are content to be sheep.  However, we are quite unlike sheep insofar as we are ready and willing to turn on the shepherd—tearing him limb from limb should it be necessary—if we believe that our own safety and well being are at risk.  This is a fact worth remembering as we face the very uncertain future lying just ahead of us today.

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