Lead from the bottom



People are so used to the concept of “leadership” as essentially top-down, bureaucratic, managerial administration, sometimes with charisma, that imagining a more democratic model of leadership can be difficult.

The fundamental difference boils down to this: giving orders versus making proposals.

This is a formal difference, not a stylistic one, though the lines can blur.  However, this is not to say a democratic leader merely “throws an idea out there.”  No, a democratic leader can stand behind their ideas very forcefully.  The key difference is the structure that surrounds the leader, and whether the leader supports or undermines that structure.

In a top-down situation, the administrator gives instructions, and any argument is seen as some kind of aberration, with the subordinates in the wrong for even raising their voices.  In a democratic situation, a leader brings forth an idea, and discussion and even debate over the issue are absolutely normal and expected.

This means that a democratic leader has a hurdle which administrative leaders do not: they must persuade the group of their ideas.  In fact, in democratic movements, leadership essentially boils down to having good ideas, having good plans to carry those ideas out, and being able to persuade the group to vote for your ideas and plans.  Vision, execution, and communication.  Also, depending on how intelligent your group is, persuasion can mean just giving an emotional speech, or it can mean actually providing sensible reasons for something.  Providing reasons and evidence for your ideas and proposals is critical for a democratic leader.  This may mean that a leader has a lot of research to do!

Depending on how much you want leadership to emerge in others (which makes for good democracy), a democratic leader needs to also know when to allow the visions and plans of other people to come forward.  Rather than having all the answers, a leader can act as a facilitator for a group discussion which collectively seeks answers.  It’s important not to lean too far in either direction – if you propose nothing, the group can become directionless, but if you dominate the conversation you can shut other voices down.

Administrative leaders don’t need to be so good at communicating.  Giving orders is easier than persuading people that those orders are a good idea.  Administrative leaders may be judged in similar or different ways, by similar or different groups of people.  Who does an administrative leader answer to?  Sometimes they may answer to an entire group, similarly to a democracy.  Not always.  Bosses command workers while answering to shareholders.  Politicians command their office staff, while answering to voters or campaign contributors.  However, something that both administrative and democratic leaders have in common is that they are typically expected to maintain group momentum toward the group’s goals.  So while administrative leaders may not be required to have good communication, they still share the democratic leaders’ requirements to have vision and execution, or ideas and plans.



Often democratic groups will have formal leaders who play the administrative role, while allowing everyone to informally lead by proposing ideas and plans.  Often this is done for saving time – executives can take plenty of actions which most people in the group wouldn’t mind, but if disagreement arises, the group can override decisions next time the group is in session.  Other times, that’s how it’s supposed to be but in practice it’s a top-down organization where the administrators rule, with the chain-of-command overriding the democracy instead of the other way around.

Even people in positions of administrative power can continue to lean on democratic methods instead of giving commands, merely using their position as something which gives them a little prestige so their arguments are more likely to be heard.  Essentially they may be free to give commands, but choose not to, instead providing ideas and plans, backing them up with good reasons, and putting them to a vote.

As noted earlier, the lines can blur.  If someone has accumulated a great deal of authority within a democratic organization, they can undermine the democracy of that organization.  If someone disagrees with a leader and that leader becomes verbally aggressive, it can signal that they will not tolerate debate.  How things proceed from there depends on how the people in the group behave.  A leader may start ignoring democratic procedure and giving commands.  People are free to raise the issue of democracy and reassert collective control, and there is little one leader can do to stop them.  However, if enough people in the group cave in to the leader’s abuse, democracy can die.  Leaders who try to kill group democracy can use much more subtle methods of doing this, like whisper campaigns which ostracize a dissenter.

Making the effort to lead from the bottom will inevitably force you into a head-on collision with any undemocratic tendencies in the groups or organizations you work with.  The attempt to exercise your rights can end up proving you never had them to begin with.  It can get you kicked out or just treated like shit so much that no continued productive relationship is possible.

Sometimes there are ego issues as formal leaders face being contradicted.  They may have gotten used to giving commands, or having their proposals approved without debate, maybe because nobody objected most of the time.  Ultimately something comes up.  Leaders may become accustomed to having their vision shape group direction.  This can make them feel like the group is their private pet project.  If a group is truly democratic, they must always be willing to accept that sometimes it will be the opposite.  The process of reminding them of this can be ugly, but as administrators in a democracy, it is their duty to get over it and accept the fact that they aren’t dictators.



Who determines policy within the Republican and Democratic parties?  It’s pretty chaotic.  Rarely does any party come together and collectively decide on a set of principles or goals.  Since each politician is open to deciding policy on their own without a collective platform, this opens things up to the rightward drift created by the corporate campaign contributions each politician must seek.

My hope is that a future socialist party is more cohesive than that.

I don’t want a party where everyone has to agree on everything, but there should be a minimum – especially for the elected officials!  We should be able to hold socialist officeholders to this minimum.  Otherwise, if the party is just going to wander in any random direction, I don’t see the point in having one.  If we can’t decide as a party that we want all of our representatives in Congress to vote for universal healthcare, and realistically expect them to follow through, it will all have been for nothing.

Note I said decide as a party.

Typically, people view their officeholders as the party leaders.  Do the Republicans get together and decide what platform their presidential candidate should have?  No, not really.  It’s more like, a presidential candidate decides what platform they want to have, and then that becomes the theme of the Republicans.  There is a primary race, but it’s usually a farce which merely re-imposes “mainstream” ideological requirements, and only the players with corporate money even make it there.  Same with the Democrats.

A socialist party should function in the exact opposite fashion.  We should own our candidates.  They shouldn’t tell us what to think.  Instead the party should decide what they do, vote, and say – if they start acting like Democrats, we should disown them, refuse them future funding, and run challengers in the next election.  And who should control and lead the party?  All of us, its ordinary members.  We should lead it from the bottom.

Yes, all of us.  Our stereotype of leadership is that one person does it.  Me, I want a chaotic clusterfuck of ideas being promoted, exchanged, compared, and selected – a cacophony of leadership.  That is what free debate and democracy really are.

Have a blog?  You’re leading.  Do you speak up in meetings?  That’s leading also.  Do you openly state why you are for, or against, whatever is being handed down from the formal administrative leadership?  That’s leading too.  Actually, the most important, fundamental action you can take in order to practice the model of leading from the bottom is thinking for yourself.  Rather than ideas being handed from the top down, they should flow from the bottom up, from the membership to the administrators.

This is a very different kind of party.  Whereas the mainstream parties’ internal politics revolve around trading favors, our internal politics will revolve around a mass debate among ordinary citizen members.  Rather than being decorative, this will actually determine policy at the highest levels, down to how elected socialists vote or govern on major issues and maybe even some minor ones.  Instead of party bosses being bureaucrats who act as undemocratic gatekeepers over party resources, the party bosses of the future will be participants who don’t even possess any formal position, who are most influential because their ideas are good enough to be widely respected by the party’s membership.


PS: this post was inspired by watching House of Cards and realizing I have some differences from Mr. Underwood.  I would rather stay out of the spotlight of the executive branch, which turns you into a walking target.  I would rather own a majority “from below,” ie in this case the legislative branch, and force the executive to govern within the framework and limits I/we impose.  Like a shop steward with backing from my membership, I don’t need to be formally in charge.  I just want to build the power base which forces the people in charge to bend our way.

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