Studies in Leadership: Leadership and Democratic Action

By Alvin W. Gouldner | Go to book overview

Contexts: Political Leadership

DURING THE last century, American political leadership has undergone vast and sweeping changes. Among many changes, the decline in personalized forms of persuasion and leadership seems one of the most crucial. The day of great orators and memorable debates, the period of face-to-face agitation, lives on only in the interstitial areas of the culture where minor parties grapple for a foothold. The politician of today barely addresses himself to his opponent, or to his opponent's arguments--and thereby to the electorate--but, rather, appeals directly to the voters, often in blithe disregard of his opponent's announced position. In part, because of the use of mass communication media, the political leader can no longer posit a select, homogeneous audience to whom he can pin-point his message. The politician can no longer take for granted that he and his audience will share a detailed set of common assumptions. The era of the "glittering generalization" marks a transition from a politics with large doses of rational clarification to a politics nucleated with impersonal techniques of persuasion.

Unlike former periods, where questions of "principle" and "interest" were customary contents of political polemic, the modern politico seeks and seizes upon "issues." "Issues" seem to be devices of a multigroup politics with its shifting realignments, while "interests" and "principles" tend to be the devices of a class-rooted politics, reflecting concern about more enduring aspects of significant statuses in the culture.

These changes find their expression primarily in the national and state political arenas. For the present, as shall be noted below, political relationships in the neighborhood and local communities remain highly personalized.

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