Charismatic Politics LeaderCharismatic Leadership and its Effect on Politics in History
The role of charismatic leadership in modern political history can be considered a controversial topic. The subject has most recently come about in regards to Democratic Senator Barack Obama, and his campaign for the American Presidency, but can also been seen in smaller contexts globally. In some respects, charisma seems difficult to define or explain.
In theory, it would seem that if one should implement the appropriate policy and make difficult decisions at the right time, they should succeed in politics. It appears that this is not always the case, and that charisma does play a vital role in politics.
Robert A. Caro said in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, “You only have to look at the crucial moments in the history of our time to see how crucial it was to have a leader who could inspire, who could rally a nation to a standard, who could infuse a country with confidence…”. (Caro) It seems that charisma is an important aspect of being a political leader, yet defining and explaining exactly what makes the person so appealing, inspiring and trustworthy is not easily delineated.
Early sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as one of the three “ideal types” of authority, and rested upon a kind of magical power and hero worship. This definition was considered unsuitable for modern times, and its use became metaphorical – ultimately becoming a synonym for heroic or popular (Zernike). This leads us to the questions examined in this paper; to what extent is charisma necessary in politics and what are the positive and negative effects of a leader holding charisma as a political figurehead?
It is the belief of some that there is a high risk of charismatic leaders to be all talk and no real answers of substance. The charismatic leader seems to thrive in times of crisis or national hardship. Arthur M. Schlesinger referred to a “new mood in politics” in the 1960’s, in which there was dissatisfaction with official priorities and concerns with the character and objectives of the nation. It appears that this is the very same climate that supporters of Barack Obama feel now. It is here that the proposed negative effects of a charismatic leader come into play.
Some feel that Obama’s messages of hope and change are only talk, and lack serious substance and real answers on policy changes that would be required to make said transformations. “He speaks loudly and clearly and crowds flock to him like bees to honey. Many blindly follow a man who will lead them to dangerous waters. They fall for his words and not the policies he is going to use to run the nation” (Woerner).
Since charismatic leadership typically results in strong, unchallenged levels of obedience, there is also the risk of weak minded individual followers that do not employ their individual thought processes and are blindly agreeable (12-Manage). This can manifest into a more serious problem and can result in “group think”, especially in politics, where there is the need for constant re-evaluation and challenging of ideas. In politics, it is imperative to examine all angles constantly, as major decisions made for a country can be life or death and have an impact on the citizen’s lives directly.
On a smaller scale, the recent provincial election in Alberta exhibited some key issues pertaining to charismatic leadership. Alberta has been a strong Progressive Conservative province, in which the party has held power uninterrupted since 1971. The most recent reign of leadership has been under Ralph Klein, who was Premier of Alberta from 1992 through 2006. The retirement of this long standing leader has brought about some issues pertaining to charisma and their place in politics.
Ralph Klein was an outspoken leader, who eventually developed an overwhelming rapport with Albertans, his approval rating being 77% at the end of his run as Premier (Markusoff). The eventual devotion and loyalty of Albertans to Klein brings forth the issue of emotions and feelings of the voters towards the candidate superseding the importance of being informed about current issues and platforms being addressed by the candidate. Thomas Lukaszuk, Conservative MLA commented on this issue “You know, strong feelings in politics are dangerous, You want rational voters to vote on policies and on merit, not whether they hate or love an individual in a party or a leader” (Markusoff).
This leads us to the question of whether the majority of voters are actually informed on current issues, or if they tend to cast their ballot based on their personal feelings of the candidate. The Progressive Conservative party, currently headed by Ed Stelmach, won by an impressively substantial amount in the recent election that occurred in Alberta on March 3, 2008.
Many felt that the new candidate held little charisma or ground-breaking ideas compared to his predecessor, Klein. Dave Khalon said of Stelmach “Everything’s just formatted. I see him on TV, and he just reads off the script. But nobody else seems to stick out, either.” Khalon admitted that he planned to vote Conservative in the election because of family tradition and his fondness of the party’s prior leader, Klein (Markusoff). This leads us to consider that it is a very real possibility that Ed Stelmach’s win had little to do with his abilities and ideas as a candidate, but the charisma of the prior leader and the lack of other inspirational candidates as alternatives.
A major problem in current politics is voter apathy, which could be partly attributed to a lack of inspirational candidates. This said, too much emphasis on the charisma of candidates can be viewed as a downfall in politics, leading to uninformed voters. Some voters seem to be placing a great deal of weight on the personality of the candidate rather than the campaign platforms and plans, which, in theory, should be the backbone of the campaign.
The largest risk is posed by what is sometimes referred to “the black hat of charisma”. What this essentially encompasses is the use of charismatic power for self-serving purposes. The more charisma a potentially dangerous leader possesses, the greater the risk to society. This is emphasized because the base for charisma is emotional rather than logical or rational (Daft). Jerry Wofford says of this risk “If a person’s values are destructive, insane, then the more charismatic the leader, the worse off you are” (Tenenbaum).
Unfortunately, these types of leaders have existed throughout the history of politics and continue to exist in present day. Adolf Hitler’s reign as fuhrer of the German Reich is a prime example of what can happen when power is in the wrong hands, and the accelerated negative effects that can occur if that person exhibits any sort of charisma that has the potential to be used for the wrong purpose. As mentioned, charismatic leaders seem to come about in times of crisis, as was the case with Hitler. Germany’s economy was in a precarious position after World War I and Hitler “wooed” the German people with his charisma, promising to fix the problems and make everything better.
Meanwhile, he had his own agenda, which was elimination of all people he didn’t think met the criteria of “ideal” (Shay). This turn of events ended up being one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. More recently, charismatic leadership was exhibited in Osama bin Laden and his terrorist group al-Qaeda. In this case, the group was considered more of a cult, where brainwashing tactics were used. Charismatic power was used at the forefront, during recruitment of members to the group.
The recruits were usually young idealists, recruited under the facade of “liberation” and “Islamic beliefs”, initially unaware of the real commitments of the group. The underlying concept that is common of those falling under the category of cults, or alternately “the black hat of charisma” is when a charismatic leader increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power (Ross).
This leaves the dangerous charismatic leader to their own agenda. The values that the people originally stood for become irrelevant and the situation becomes personality driven. Ultimately, it is a risk that will always be prevalent pertaining to charismatic individuals. This risk is driven even higher with an uninformed, easily influenced society of voters.
The only possibility of mitigating this risk is for each individual to stay as informed as possible and look for the warning signs of a leader that possesses ulterior motives. Charisma can be seen as an ingredient in a recipe for disaster, based on the charismatic leaders that have been prevalent in recent history.
The other side of this story starts with uninformed, uninspired citizens. It is the view of some that these individuals need a charismatic leader to light a fire under them and get them believing that the political process is not just a big waste of time. This is especially prevalent in America’s youth, in which approximately a quarter of the eligible population actually makes it out to vote (Dashek).
Even if a candidate has a strong position and ideas, they may be viewed as the typical uninspiring politician if they do not have the charisma to bring their campaign and ideas to life and get the general public excited about the proposed changes. Barack Obama and rival democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have the similar stands on a large portion of their policies. Gabe Pressman says “She claims experience.
He promises change. As the race for the Democratic nomination for president intensifies, the differences in policy between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seem less than the images they project and their shortcut slogans.” (Pressman) It seems then that it comes down to charisma as a deciding factor in what will set them apart, and the ability to reach and inspire those that most need inspiration.
It is the belief of some that Barack Obama will be able to provide a balance of substance and inspiration to the American people. Tom Butcher, a sophomore at the University of St. Louis says “In contemporary politics, it is not enough to have merely style or substance alone. Mere substance will have no one caring about your policy (think Al Gore). Style alone leaves the vacuous impression of an incandescent bubble. Obama is in the unique position of offering the combination” (Butcher).
From the views examined above, the conclusion can be reached that charisma is a necessary element in politics, but can be extremely dangerous in the hands of the wrong leader. It has been noted that the general public needs to be aware of the substance behind the charisma in order to cast an informed ballot.
It is also crucial that voters separate their personal feelings of the candidate from the facts behind the policies in order to make an informed decision. Skepticism is actually an important quality for voters to bring into play to ensure the initial issues are being focused on, and that the leader is not shifting the focus to ulterior motives. Finally, it was noted that although charisma brings about many risks, it is necessary in a political figurehead in order to inspire the people. Encouraging the people to get involved and believe in something is the only way to avoid voter apathy in a political environment where democracy is undeniably underutilized.
12-Manage. Charismatic Leadership (Weber). 3 March 2008
Butcher, Tom. “Charisma in Politics: Not an Empty Promise.” Student Life 27 February 2008: 1.
Caro, Robert A. The Path to Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1982.
Daft, Richard L. The Leadership Experience. Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western, 2005.
Dashek, Ryan. “Apathy is Unacceptable for American youth vote.” The Daily Cardinal 18 February 2008: 1.
Markusoff, Jason. “‘Charisma Gap’ mires parties.” Edmonton Journal 20 February 2008: 2.
Pressman, Gabe. “Gabe’s View: Will Charisma Carry the Day?” WNBC 18 February 2008: 1.
Ross, Rick. Cult Education and Recovery. November 2001. 9 March 2008
Shay, Virginia. The Virtual Voice. 6 March 2008
Tenenbaum, David. The Character of Charisma. 15 July 2004. 20 February 2008
Woerner, Tom. Helium.com. 3 March 2008
Zernike, Kate. “The Charisma Mandate.” The New York Times 17 February 2008: 2.