What Happened to American Leaders? The Digital Age Has Changed Their Impact

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor

It has been a little over 60 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, a rally of over 200,000 Americans seeking action on civil rights. This was by no means the beginning of King’s activism and influence, but it stands as one of the shining moments of his work as a civil rights organizer and moral leader. It’s a moment that’s taught and remembered decades later. This isn’t particularly surprising; the causes that civil rights organizers fought for were undeniably just, and their campaign has critical relevance to the story of America and today’s policy decisions. As one of the movement’s most prominent leaders, it was only natural that King’s words would be immortalized. However, it’s difficult to imagine any speech or single leader becoming equally ingrained in the American psyche today. Even if some of King’s ideas have been oversimplified or misconstrued, his name is recognized, and most can loosely explain what he stood for, even decades later. Today, though, it’s as if there’s a void where he once stood, a departure of moral leadership within America itself.

Leadership always has value, especially in the most trying of times. Faced with crises, moral and otherwise, many Americans have often found solace and guidance in those willing to offer their voice. There have often been people who can stand for something or simply provide guidance and clarity in uncertain times.

Recovering from a global pandemic, faced with increased social tension and with dire concerns at home and abroad, many Americans may be looking for such an individual — yet they don’t seem to exist. But, where have they gone?

A possible explanation lies in the intense division of today. Americans are more divided, particularly along political lines, than they have been in decades. With such strong disdain for “the other side,” it’s unlikely that any politically-adjacent figure could bridge the divide and have broad enough appeal to become a widely well-regarded leader. Taking any stance on political and social issues today almost inherently involves losing the admiration, or at least the ear of, large swaths of the public.

However, such an argument does not stand up to scrutiny, especially when one considers why people like Dr. King became such pivotal leaders. While some wish to paint a more rosy picture of the civil rights movement as a campaign met with open arms and willing minds from the public and government, such a story neglects the truth: that the civil rights movement was deeply controversial and faced significant, aggressive opposition. Civil rights organizers, including King, were met with condescension and contempt, the kind of reaction motivated by nothing but blind hatred. There was no legitimacy in this vitriol, but it was strong. During the 1960s, there was never a moment where a majority of Americans supported King; in August 1966, only 33% of Americans had a positive opinion of him. His cause was undoubtedly morally correct, but he wasn’t embraced in the way one might hope such a leader to be.

Perhaps that is part of why he succeeded in becoming a leader. King explicitly took a controversial but important stance and advocated for it day after day. Fighting an uphill battle, he emerged as someone who stood for something, gaining positive attention because of the moral clarity he could offer despite crushing repression and backlash. Muhammad Ali is another obvious example of this phenomenon. While public opinion regarding the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam had begun souring when Ali became a conscientious objector, his draft refusal was met with exceptionally strong backlash and a slew of death threats directed at him and his defenders. However, this moral dissent cemented Ali as a leader, someone who would be looked up to and listened to, even if it was not by everyone.

So, while increased division means it’s harder for people to unite behind an aspiring leader, it doesn’t preclude the existence of one. If anything, the strife of today has offered many Americans the chance to take a strong, moral stance that could cement them as a leader. Yet, while there are always people taking such stances, they don’t have the same pull today that they did in the past, and polarization isn’t a sufficient explanation.

A more compelling answer is the dilution of attention. The digital age created a world flooded with information. There’s simply too much to engage with, even for one who wishes to stay informed. There are so many avenues to receive information, and there is a lower barrier to entry for those who wish to distribute it. Thus, our attention is diluted; we’re engaged with and focused on more information than ever.

The relative level of attention that one can receive is far lower than it once was; gone are the days when a single person could receive months or years of media coverage and public attention for staking out a position on a moral or political issue. There are too many issues and people to focus on for individuals like King or Ali, even when taking a bold stance, to reach and retain as much of the population’s attention.

Perhaps the question of “where have the leaders gone?” is misguided; the same sort of platforms that it once did. It’s much easier now than it was 60 years ago for someone to reach a million people — the trouble is that there are so many ways to reach such an audience that it prevents any one person from becoming a commanding figure in the way that King and Ali were.

There are and will continue to be individuals willing to fight for a just cause, even if they are in the minority. There are still leaders, but not ones who will rise to as much prominence as they once might have. This may seem like a negative, and in certain aspects, it is; however, if it’s also easier to become a leader, there’s more room for individuals across the nation and within specific communities to take a stand and call for change on whatever issue matters to them. Interconnectedness is a strength for organizing; even if the influence one individual can wield is lower, one can reach so many more like-minded people who want to make an impact. Making a narrower but potent differ.

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