Authority in 2012: Who’s in Charge?
Have you seen the movie 2012? It’s an action film in the tradition of The Day After, Waterworld, and Independence Day, yet it has some characters and plot lines that reminded me of Max Weber's concept of authority. Spoiler alert: I will reveal details that may ruin the movie if you haven’t yet seen it.
In 2012, Dr. Helmsley, a geologist, informs White House Chief of Staff, Mr. Anheuser, about the impending doom for the planet. Things happen, including secretly building arks to ensure survival for important or wealthy patrons. Then geologic Armageddon happens, as well as the death of the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, and most other elected officials.
As the ark boarding commences, Anheuser is in charge and assumes he will continue as leader of the neo-American contingent. There are many people who are barred from boarding as the flood approaches and Helmsley gives an impassioned speech to allow all humanity on board. The other leaders agree and most of the people board the arks with only seconds to spare.
The movie ends with a budding romance between Helmsley and the deceased President’s daughter, Laura Wilson, and the suggestion that Helmsley would be assuming leadership instead of Anheuser.
The elected officials all held office and had elements of rational-legal authority. Our bureaucratic governmental rules about office holding include how people are elected president, vice president, and to Congress. These are rational and legal processes that are well documented.
The order of succession when high office is vacated is clearly delineated. While the Chief of Staff isn’t on that list, it was assumed in the movie that most elected officials didn’t make it on board the ark. Anheuser assumed that he was next in line and he relished the thought.
Anheuser had a tenuous claim to be president based on tradition, since he was the one remaining member of the last elected administration. He did not have rational-legal legitimacy, since his position was not on the list of succession and he was not elected. While Oliver Platt, the actor playing Anheuser, has some degree of charisma, his character Anheuser does not.
It quickly became clear that Helmsley was a more viable candidate for leadership. As he warned of the geologic meltdown of the earth and tried to save those who remained, his charisma and passion impressed people who gave him more and more to do in higher and higher positions of authority. He also got Laura’s attention after his predictions came true and after his impassioned plea for saving as much of humanity as possible.
While Helmsley gained leadership through charismatic authority, he was assured of the position by his connection to Laura. With their partnership, his claim to traditional leadership was much stronger than Anheuser’s. Marrying the previous president’s daughter connected him with the family who had previously held power – ensuring a traditional base of legitimate authority.
The only type of authority Helmsley lacked was rational-legal, although the viewer could assume their first election would remedy that. If Helmsley and Anheuser ran against each other, one could surmise that Helmsley would win based on his multifaceted claims to legitimate authority.
What other movies or books have characters whose leadership experiences could be assessed with Weber’s ideal type of legitimate bases of authority? Perhaps Harry Potter’s Dumbledore? Gandalf in Lord of the Rings? Margaret Tate in The Proposal? What other examples can you think of?