“…[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”–Max Weber on Charisma.
“The cult of personality surrounding George W. Bush was abominable. It might have been even worse than the one engendered by Barack Obama. The United States has suffered three consecutive administrations of Presidents with severe narcissistic disorders: God knows we don’t need another.”–Christopher Knight, proprietor of The Knight Shift, recounting the recent history of U.S. elections.
A cult of personality must have at its center a person of extremely high charisma. Indeed, it is one of the defining aspects of charisma itself that it engenders this cult-like behavior in those surrounding the charismatic person.
As I have tried to establish on this blog, charisma is also key to winning elections in the United States in modern times, just as Paul Graham observed in his excellent essay. This being the case, however, it is all too likely that cults of personality will continue to form around Presidential candidates. Indeed, in this day and age, it’s almost a prerequisite.
I think Matt Taibbi was on to something in his bleak, cynical profanity-ridden tirade “Mad Dog Palin” when he wrote:
“…huge chunks of American voters no longer even demand that their candidates actually have policy positions; they simply consume them as media entertainment, rooting for or against them according to the reflexive prejudices of their demographic, as they would for reality-show contestants or sitcom characters.”
It is fitting that Taibbi used the analogy of television shows. Back before radio, and especially television, charisma’s impact on elections was considerably less than it is today. But nowadays, a less capable individual with charisma will get noticed and adored, while a more capable, non-charismatic individual will be passed over. History seems to have decided that the great turning point was the Presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy’s charisma, they say, won over the television audience, and provided him with the edge he needed to win a close election.
Of course, charisma was a factor long before modern technologies enhanced the distribution of it. But, in times past, it was used to greatest effect mostly by prominent military leaders. Caesar and Napoleon achieved power through instilling fierce loyalty in the men under their command, and using their military force to gain power.
But now, mass communication makes it much easier to “transmit” the charisma, and so, in the developed world at least, military coups have been replaced with charismatic leaders who sell themselves as appealing individuals to the populace at large. Hence, the television analogies.In some ways, then, it is not humans who have changed but rather our technology that has facilitated the charismatic domination by these individuals. And, in its way, it is better that it should be so; after all, is not the endless conflict of these cults at least now being fought with votes instead of swords, guns and bombs?
All the same, it seems that Democracy is now reliant upon endless personality cults to sustain itself. I do not know if the current and past two Presidents really did have “severe narcissistic disorders”, as Knight believes, but to a large extent that is irrelevant. They must behave as leaders of a cult to maintain their power. In the end, they must use the worshipful tendencies of their ardent supporters, whether they want to or not, in order to achieve their goals.
This is, I feel, a dangerous situation. The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.
What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time. Therefore, rooting for the most appealing personality, as Taibbi says, is the only way most people can hope to participate in the political system at all.
So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.