Who is the highest authority in a society?
One of the consequences of the disenchantment that was one of the by-products of the Enlightenment and the collapse of the ancien regime was the loss of a clear locus in the society of a supreme authority. Absent such a locus, the struggle to achieve and to take for oneself that position of supreme authority turns into a free-for-all. The ensuing havoc can undo entire civilizations.
Whether or not the people submit themselves to a divine ruler it would seem crucial to the orderly administration of a society that the mitigating institutions of sanctity be always and everywhere put into place, lest the society implodes in an orgy of disenchantment.
When Am Yisroel demands an icon like the eigel masseikha they are reacting out of their need for a clear and manifest authority figure in their social organization.