Essay:On Legitimate Authority on Conservapedia

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Summary: The following essay is an analysis of the nature of authority on Conservapedia, on the basis of the structure suggested by Max Weber in his Economy and Society, Part 1, Chapter 3. It argues that despite the assertion by the Conservapedia leadership that they administrate the site according with a set of rules, their authority is actually based on mostly charismatic legitimacy. The essay was originally posted as an entry on my blog, the Conservapedia Column.


Leadership is in my opinion the one point where Conservapedia has failed most miserably, and leadership problems seem to be behind the majority of the problems that plague the site. For that reason, it would be interesting to make a closer analysis of the style of leadership or "government", if you will, that is being used at Conservapedia. For that purpose, we shall take our point of departure in the book Economy and Society by the German sociologist Max Weber.

In Economy and Society, Part 1, Chapter 3(i,2), Weber supposes three fundamental sources for legitimate domination, i.e. an exercise of authority that meets with at least some level of approval from those who are subject to it. These three types are rational/legal grounds, traditional grounds, and charismatic grounds. Rational grounds are those "resting on a belief in the legality of established rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands", traditional grounds are those "resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them", and charismatic grounds are those "resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism and exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him". In other words, domination can be legitimate because viz. "it speaks with the force of law", "it has always been that way", or "I trust this guy to do the right thing".

According to Weber, any given government gains its legitimacy from one or more of these sources. It can (rarely) be purely of one type, or it can be mixed to different degrees from two of or all three of the different sources. Briefly explained, the purest type of legal/rational authority is the strict bureaucracy. Only the supreme official is elected, and even he is limited by a "sphere of legal competence". Everyone else in the administrative staff are appointed. The purest type of traditional authority is the patriarchy found in e.g. tribal societies and early medieval monarchy. It is based on personal loyalty to a ruler who acts on the basis of ancient, or supposedly ancient, rules. The purest type of charismatic authority is more difficult to describe precisely, because it is very dependent on the charismatic ruler himself. However, Weber explains that, "An organized group of subject to charismatic authority [...] is based on an emotional form of communal relationship." And that, "There are no established administrative organs. In their place are agents who have been provided with charismatic authority by their chief, or who possess charisma of their own. There is no system of formal rules, of abstract legal principles, and hence no process of rational judicial decision oriented to them. But equally, there is no legal wisdom oriented to judicial precedent. Formally concrete judgments are newly created from case to case and are originally regarded as divine judgments and revelations." In contrast to the rational/legal and traditional authorities, which are both heavily oriented towards rules, although different types of rules, charismatic authority denies such rules - it is "specifically irrational" and "repudiates the past".

We shall now examine how the administration of Conservapedia fits into this structure. We can dismiss traditional authority right away. Conservapedia has only existed for six months, which even in the quickly-changing environment of the Internet is too short a time for traditional authority structures to form. That leaves us with rational/legal and charismatic authority.

At first sight, Conservapedia may seem to fall pretty squarely in the rational/legal category. It has a set of rules and guidelines, to which the leader is theoretically also subject, and it has a bureaucratic staff in the form of the sysop team. However, a closer analysis and a comparison of the modus operandi on Conservapedia with the description in Economy and Society shows certain important differences.

According to Weber, "Legal authority rests on the acceptance of the validity of [...] mutually interdependent ideas." Among these are that, "the typical person in authority, the 'superior', is himself subject to an impersonal order by orienting his actions to it in his own dispositions and ideas." And in conformity with this point, "it is held that the members of the organization, insofar as they obey a person in authority, do not owe this obedience to him as an individual, but to the impersonal order. Hence, it follows that there is an obligation to obedience only within the sphere of the rationally delimited jurisdiction which, in terms of the order, has been given to him." And further, "Each office has a clearly defined sphere of competence in the legal sense," and "[the official] is subject to strict and systematic discipline and control in the conduct of his office."

As I have discussed extensively in previous columns, and will likely continue to do so, none of this is true for Conservapedia, however. Conservapedia has rules and guidelines, but these can hardly be said to constitute an "impersonal order", and for the most part, they aren't being followed by the administrative staff in any case. There are no clear demarcation of competences, no clear processes for anything, and very importantly, no structural means of recourse in case of possible mismanagement. In case of e.g. an unjustified block, the only means of recourse available to the average member of the group is an appeal to the blocking official or to the supreme authority, mr. Andrew Schlafly.

This would seem to have very little to do with authority based on rational/legal grounds (although the site management has been very eager to argue otherwise). And because of the relative youth of the site, we have already ruled out traditional authority (with which it has very little to do in any case). That leaves us with only charismatic authority, and we quickly find that the management of Conservapedia does indeed share many similarities with that type of authority.

As quoted above, a significant characteristic of government by charismatic authority is the lack of administrative organs and processes, and of judicial precedent. Further, "There is no hierarchy; the leader merely intervenes in general or in individual cases when he considers the members of his staff lacking in charismatic qualification for a given task." This is all consistent with what we see on Conservapedia.

We can conclude that the management of Conservapedia is based in charismatic authority with some aspects of rational/legal authority added (but often disregarded). What does this mean for Conservapedia? It means that the site can count on the loyalty of those who agree with the purpose and who believe that the leader is the right man to carry out the project that he has set for himself. But it also means that site has nothing to attract the loyalty of those who do not agree fully with the project and with the leader. The leader will effectively have no authority over these members of the group, and this will result in problems as soon as the first conflict arises with them.

In Weber's explanation, "It is recognition on the part of those subject to authority which is decisive for the validity of charisma. This recognition is freely given and guaranteed by what is held to be a proof, originally always a miracle, and consists in devotion to the corresponding devotion, hero worship, or absolute trust in the leader. But where charisma is genuine, it is not this which is the basis for the claim to legitimacy. This basis lies rather in the conception that it is the duty of those subject to charismatic authority to recognize its genuineness and act accordingly. Psychologically this recognition is a matter of complete personal devotion to the possessor of the quality, arising out of enthusiasm, or of despair and hope."

(It should be mentioned that while this refers extensively to divine revelation, charisma is by no means limited to religious leaders. Napoleon was just as much a charismatic ruler as e.g. Moses. Also, while this point is beyond the scope of this Column, it is interesting to note that Conservapedia has many similarities with a religious group. It is based in charismatic authority, it has an administrative staff with the power to "excommunicate" (i.e. block) members, and it is developing something that closely resembles a mythology (such as a foundation myth, the opposition to Wikipedia, and the great "Icewedge" enemy)

And later, Weber adds that, "The only basis of legitimacy for [charismatic authority] is personal charisma so long as it is proved; that is, as long as it receives recognition and as along as the followers and disciples prove their usefulness charismatically." Those members of the group who do not recognize the charisma of the leader will almost necessarily have to reject the legitimacy of his authority and either place themselves in opposition to him or separate themselves from the group.

This is exactly what we have seen on Conservapedia in the recent month: A massive crisis of legitimacy. The great amount of media attention that Conservapedia attracted in early March resulted in an influx of new members to the group that were attracted by general interest or curiosity, rather than by a strong belief in the project or by the charisma of the leader. These new members did not recognize the charisma of the leader, and, because of the absence of other sources of legitimacy, therefore rejected the legitimacy of the site management's authority as a whole. Parts of management responded to this rejection with a high level of belligerency, thus further escalating the crisis. The rest is history.

We can draw a few conclusions from this. Firstly, as long as Conservapedia is based on charismatic authority, mr. Schlafly will most likely maintain complete control of the project, but it will only be able to draw members from a very small pool of people who can unreservely agree with the project and its current form of government. It must resign itself to relative obscurity, except for the occasional spike of interest from the media. It is possible that this is what management wants, and in that case, nothing ought to change.

If it is not, and at least they openly state that it is not, there must be changes. The management of Conservapedia will need to base its authority less on charisma and more on one of the other types. Traditional legitimacy is by its nature not really viable for an Internet project, especially one so young as Conservapedia, so the only option is to move towards a greater reliance on a rational/legal basis: Clear processes, reasonable rules that are actually being followed, and, in general, greater accountability and transparency in the exercise of authority. This will be a difficult process, but I would be happy to offer my services in helping the Conservapedia management to achieve it. They have only to ask.

Note: This essay was written in the summer of 2007, and much has changed since then, both on Conservapedia and in the author's opinions. For one thing, I think we have all abandoned any hope that Conservapedia is going to change for the better, so such optimism was clearly unwarranted. More generally, I would probably not be as quick to dismiss traditional legitimacy as relevant to an Internet project now (January '09) as I was back then. While it is not exactly the same as what Weber had in mind, clearly a social group will over time develop a set of informal norms and processes - through emergent behaviour if nothing else - and this is probably quite similar to the 'traditional legitimacy'. Interestingly, there may have been some signs of this happening at Conservapedia, particularly in certain attempts to create a greater degree of cooperation among the sysops, but needless to say, these have not met with any significant success.