Thursday, April 13, 2023

Using Large Language Models to generate democracy scores: An experiment

 In case anyone is still reading this, I have a big data-rich post on my Github site on using ChatGPT aka GPT-3.5-Turbo and Claude (the Anthropic AI bot) to generate democracy scores. It may be of interest if you read this blog!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Unscrupulous Flattery

(A footnote on Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel, “Cults of Personality, Preference Falsification, and the Dictator’s Dilemma”, Journal of Theoretical Politics 32(3) 409-434 [2020])

Charles Crabtree, Holger Kern, and David Siegel just published an article in the Journal of Theoretical Politics that models cults of personality as screening devices. Their argument is similar to arguments I’ve made in this blog and in academic papers, though much more formal, and with a different twist. So I can’t pass on the opportunity to comment.

I can’t say I understood all the details of their game-theoretic model, but the basic intuition is simple. The key idea in a screening model of a “cult” (for our purposes here, extravagant flattery of a political leader) is that extreme flattery has a cost for the flatterer, and willingness to pay that cost provides information about the kind of person you are, or the kind of loyalty you can give – information that the leader can then use as part of their “personnel management [strategy], helping [him] sort subordinates into their most useful regime roles” (416).

On their model, this cost is primarily psychic. Drawing on Timur Kuran’s ideas about preference falsification, they note that repeating barefaced lies or exaggerated praise (things like Hafez al-Assad is Syria’s “premier pharmacist”, or Stalin is “the coryphaeus of science”, or “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration … both in person and around the globe.”) has a cost for anybody with a shred of integrity. But those who are genuinely smitten with the leader, or those who are particularly unscrupulous and opportunistic will find this cost less onerous: the first because the barefaced lies are close to what they actually believe (or are at least consistent with their beliefs), and the latter because they have no problem with lying if they can get something out of it.

In my first paper on this topic, I thought this led to a problem, since a cult could not induce a separating equilibrium distinguishing the truly loyal from the merely opportunistic in the eyes of the leader. If there are sufficient rewards for participation or strong enough punishments for non-participation, both the opportunistic and the loyal will participate in the cult equally, leading to flattery inflation as particular forms of flattery get devalued when the opportunistic or scared imitate the loyal. In these circumstances the cult could at best serve to deter collective action from the disloyal, not to clearly separate opportunists from loyalists.

But Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel note that a dictator does not always want to exclude the opportunistic and unscrupulous, since they actually need such people in their governing apparatus. In particular, the repressive agencies of a dictatorship require people who have no qualms about torturing, killing, or expropriating others, enforcers who don’t trouble themselves much with their conscience to achieve the dictator’s goals; and people who are willing to repeat barefaced lies are likely to be good at doing other morally dubious activities. As the (likely apocryphal) quote from Napoleon they use as their epigraph puts it, “the man who will say anything will do anything”.

To be sure, the unscrupulous may also be dangerous to the dictator – they are more likely to be corrupt, or more willing to betray the ruler if the occasion arises. Unscrupulousness need not imply loyalty. By the same token, loyalty need not imply total unscrupulousness; the loyal may be willing to do distasteful things up to a point, but object that these things don’t really serve the interest of the ruler, or lose their loyalty if asked to do too many such things. Moreover, the loyal and the unscrupulous may be best fitted to different tasks within a regime’s apparatus of rule – perhaps the more loyal are best suited to propaganda or supervisory roles, while the more unscrupulous are best suited to enforcement roles. So there’s still an adverse selection problem here, even if it’s a bit less urgent from the dictator’s point of view. The main contribution of Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel is to show formally that, under some conditions – in particular, when the preferences of the loyal and the unscrupulous for roles within the regime match the preferences of the dictator – levels of cult participation can sufficiently separate those who are loyal and unscrupulous from those who are merely unscrupulously opportunistic, enhancing the utility of the cult as a screening device. The model thus depicts the cult as a boutique HR department for the needs of the discerning dictator.

A couple of explicit limitations and complications of the argument are worth noting. First, Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel indicate that their focus is on leader cults in dictatorships; extreme flattery in democracies is beyond the scope of their model, I assume because in principle democracies should not have great need for people willing to engage in repression (we’ll come back to this point). Moreover, they also explicitly limit the scope of their model to elite interactions. Their argument is not meant to be a guide to why ordinary people might participate in the rituals of a cult of personality, possibly because their activity is neither directly observed by the dictator, nor likely to result in a role in the regime. Finally, they also note that the model assumes the dictator only cares about the signaling value of cult participation; if they cared about, say, the ego gratification they got out of it, they would have a harder time distinguishing the loyal and unscrupulous from the merely unscrupulous. A rational dictator should not “believe their own hype” - they may end up like Ceaușescu if they do.

Models are maps. They need not be “realistic” representations of the underlying social reality as long as they are similar enough to it in some limited respect to guide inquiry, or to allow one to do some form of inferential play. So I am not going to complain about particular assumptions of this model; it’s fun to play with. But I do have some reservations, or rather I can see some limitations that are worth exploring.

There are certainly cases where the model does seem to help us make sense of historical patterns of leader flattery. For example, the top Bolsheviks around Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s were all ruthless people, though they varied in their level of commitment to the leader. Consider Lazar Kaganovich. Like many other Bolsheviks Kaganovich was capable of brutality in pursuit of revolutionary goals (crushing peasant uprisings or arresting “saboteurs”), but he was also unusually unscrupulous in support of Stalin (falsifying votes in the Central Committee in 1934 to help re-elect him as General Secretary), and seemed to be genuinely in awe of him, treating the latter “more reverently than Sergo [Orzhonikidze] or Mikoyan,” as Simon Sebag Montefiore recounts:
He so admired the Vozhd, he admitted, that “when I go to Stalin, I try not to forget a thing! I worry every time! I so worry every time. I prepare every document in my briefcase and fill my pockets with cribs like a schoolboy because no one knows what Stalin is going to ask.” (Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, p. 64)
(Stalin apparently reacted to Kaganovich’s “schoolboyish” adoration by “teaching him how to spell and punctuate” – Kaganovich was, like many other Old Bolsheviks, a self-educated autodidact, a cobbler with only minimal formal education).

“Iron Lazar” was one of the main promoters of the Stalin cult: he coined the term “Stalinism,” and was among the first to write paeans to Stalin in state media (a practice other senior Bolsheviks disliked in private but did not actively resist; Molotov once disdainfully said that Kaganovich was “200% Stalinist”). While Molotov, Orzhonikidze, Mikoyan, and others often argued with and disagreed strongly with Stalin well into the 1930s, and Stalin often had to apologize to them (at least in the late 1920s and early 1930s), Kaganovich was more pliable.

It might seem reasonable to infer that his high level of participation in the Stalin cult (indeed, his founding role in it) was one reason he survived the turbulent 1930s (he died in 1991!), while other Bolsheviks, who were certainly ruthless and unscrupulous (if deeply faithful to a certain ideal of revolutionary communism), sometimes had a harder time credibly signaling their commitment to Stalin (Orzhonikidze comes to mind). Their willingness to debase themselves to credibly signal their loyalty to Stalin certainly varied; these people had strong egos!

But note that extreme flattery from top Bolsheviks could not give Stalin information about their ruthlessness or lack of scruples; he already possessed a better source of that information, as the top Bolsheviks had shown time and again what they were capable of. Task performance, not cult participation, was sufficiently informative about their capacity for violence in the turbulent 1920s and 1930s that willingness to debase themselves in front of Stalin could not add anything to what was already known about their lack of scruples in pursuit of revolutionary goals. In this sense the cult may have helped to separate the loyal and ruthless from the purely ruthless, though even here the separation may have been imperfect (the seemingly amoral Beria, who would have betrayed anyone if he had seen any benefit, ended up in charge of the NKVD).

This analysis could be pursued further; unlike in many other dictatorships, in the case of Stalin we have a lot of archival evidence about the motivations and interactions of those in the inner circle of rule. But I am not certain we would find that the main effect of extreme flattery at the top level of the party was to provide clear information to Stalin about the loyalty and unscrupulousness of senior Bolsheviks, or that Stalin encouraged or tolerated such flattery for for that reason. My unsystematic reading (and I’m no expert!) of the interactions at the top of the CPSU in the 20s and 30s suggests that the effect of the cult was more to deter collective challenges to Stalin as the latter consolidated power than to allow him to determine more clearly who was loyal and who wasn’t; in a sense the cult, by forcing the public recognition of Stalin’s superior status among top Bolsheviks and making it harder for them to coordinate against Stalin, diminished the importance of personal loyalty. In an environment that created a strong collective action problem for anyone wishing to defect, he needed to have fewer genuinely committed supporters like Kaganovich.

The Chinese case is even more equivocal. There the main elite promoters of the Mao cult during the mid to late 1960s, Lin Biao and the Gang of Four, were not themselves more obviously loyal to Mao than others; Lin Biao himself seems to have had no illusions about “old Mao” (Leese, Mao Cult, p. 90), and Mao himself remained utterly suspicious of their motivations. As in the Soviet case, moreover, participation in the cult did not provide additional information about lack of scruples; we can assume that at the top of the CCP there were no naifs. There the cult (= extreme flattery at the elite level) seems to have been used far more as an instrument of factional warfare (deterring collective action by opponents) than as a way of signaling exceptional loyalty or unscrupulousness to Mao.

There’s another problem, evident in the example of Saparmurat Niyazov that Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel use to open their paper, which is that many manifestations of a cult depend on large-scale uses of resources and bureaucratic power. When the Turkmen government spends millions on statues of Niyazov, uses its airwaves to promote the Ruhnama, and so on, the audience for these manifestations of power is not Niyazov (except incidentally), and the poor saps who had to attend the design meetings for the Neutrality Monument or coordinate the publication of Niyazov’s works were likely not being promoted for their loyalty and unscrupulousness. (I don’t know, and I don’t know if anybody does know, if people at the top of the Turkmen government elite were rewarded for enabling these things; perhaps one day we might understand more about the bureaucratic politics of cult-building in Turkmenistan, as well as about the elite interactions leading to these excesses).

In some ways, the Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel model of elite flattery seems to apply more to a context like that of the Trump administration than to the classic personality cults of the 20th century, which went far beyond elite flattery to incorporate not only large-scale uses of bureaucratic power but also mass participation. This is only idle speculation, but it seems to me that in today’s USA, extreme flattery of Trump among close associates of the President does seem to go hand in hand with a willingness to break other norms. Moreover, because the reputational costs of such flattery are reasonably large outside the Trump administration, it serves as a credible signal that one is tying one’s fate to the President. If Trump wants people to break norms that have constrained previous presidents, it thus makes sense for him to recruit precisely the people who flatter him outrageously; he can probably separate the loyal and unscrupulous from the merely unscrupulous or the disloyal in this way.

Thursday, December 05, 2019


In my corner of Twitter, I recently became obliquely aware of a kerfuffle about Michael Bloomberg saying that “Xi Jinping is not a dictator”. (Twitter is funny that way: sometimes all you get is a trace of some public person’s comment as reflected in memes or snark, and it takes some effort to find the original motivation for the jokes. It’s like a cloud chamber for political events). Not that this blog has any interest in current affairs, but I thought I actually had something to say about the question of the terms we use to talk about non-democracy, and I haven’t written here in a while.

At one level, this is an entirely unimportant and uninteresting controversy. The term “dictator”, like all political terms, can obviously be used as a weapon in the endless skirmishes for positional advantage in American politics and culture; and failure to label Xi Jinping as a “dictator” is easily equated with support for the crackdown in Hong Kong and repression in Tibet, Xinjiang, and elsewhere in China.

Similar controversies often arose when Chávez was alive (was he a dictator?), and still do occasionally with other people as well (is Orbán a dictator? Putin? Erdoğan?). They all have a similar structure: the person denying “dictatorship” status focuses on some attribute of the leader in question that seems incompatible with a standard “image” of dictatorship – e.g., the lack of violence against particular people, free election to the post of president or term limits, formal or informal accountability to selected constituencies, popularity – while those arguing for dictatorship tend to focus on the non-democratic aspects of the system over which the leader presides (lack of freedoms, use of violence, lack of formal accountability to other constituencies, life tenure). Though these disputes are ostensibly about correct descriptions – is this person a dictator or not? – their (usually obvious) point is coalitional – does the person making the descriptive claim belong in this or that group? (Unsurprisingly, Chinese leaders themselves prefer not to be called dictators, despite the fact that the Preamble of the Constitution of the People’s Republic still straightforwardly endorses the “people’s democratic dictatorship”).

This is unavoidable and to be expected; ostensibly descriptive terms have always been used in cultural and political struggles to increase or decrease the status of people and places, and their meaning is therefore “essentially contested.” Moreover, because they have long histories of use in these struggles, all such terms become sedimented with multiple valences that are impossible to “bracket off”. When we talk about “democracy” or “dictatorship” we invoke a plenitude of historically accumulated meanings and values that cannot simply be wished away by appeal to the dictionary. Yet alongside the political use of these words there is also an analytic use. (I’m a Weberian; I still see a distinction between Wissenschaft and politics, so sue me). From this point of view, the proper analytical use of a term like “dictatorship” should be informed by its historical roots, which in turn point the way to certain core ideas, but cannot be identical with its current usage in political struggles.

The history of the word “dictatorship” is probably familiar to readers of this blog; indeed, I sketched it here a long time ago, and then wrote about it at more length in chapter 2 of my book. The name of an ancient Roman republican magistracy, a person temporarily entrusted by the Senate to “save the republic” in emergency situations without being encumbered by procedural niceties, it already had a bad odour by the time of Sulla. These connotations were further cemented by Caesar’s assumption of the office in perpetuum, but none of this mattered for a very long time, as dictatorship was associated with republics, and republican forms of government basically ceased to exist for many centuries afterwards in the West. (The word for a bad ruler in non-republican contexts was tyrant or despot, not dictator; as Hobbes caustically put it, tyranny was “monarchy misliked”).

Accordingly, “dictatorship” came again into common usage in English and other European languages the mid-19th century, and more clearly at the beginning of the 20th century, when “democracy” (republics with universal suffrage) became more fully established; dictatorship is the pathology of republics, not of monarchy. And initially at least users of the word harked back to its “positive” or neutral sense; José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia in Paraguay even declared himself “perpetual dictator” in 1816. Dictatorship is also associated with the invention of terms like “Caesarism” in the 19th century to describe regimes like those of Napoleon III or Bismarck, which combined appeals to “popular” legitimation, republican forms, and authoritarian features; these were the first people in a long time that could be described as “dictators” in European politics, and writers looked back to the analogy with Caesar to think about them.

When Marx and Engels appropriated and positively valorized the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (a term coined by Marx’s associate Joseph Weydemeyer), which they contrasted with the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, they thus had already a rich cluster of meanings to draw on. There is the idea that dictatorship is rule without regard for law or traditional norms in special situations; that dictatorship is associated with republican forms, and can be extended, even “perpetual”, yet is not an inheritable office; and the idea that dictatorship (unlike tyranny) need not be, as a matter of definition, used for ill. To this I would say that they added the idea that dictatorship could be a system, not just an individual office, and the “dictator” could be a party or a class.

I’m guessing that this last conceptual addition made it possible for political scientists to use the term “dictatorship” to talk about all forms non-democracy – that is, to set up the modern opposition between democracy and dictatorship. In the age of democracy, even divine-right monarchy could be understood as a form of dictatorship, despite the conceptual opposition in classical political thought between these terms. But this came at a cost, insofar as the rich variety of non-democratic political forms became associated with the pre-existing connotations of the term “dictatorship.”

I think this is a bit unfortunate, not only because of the gap this opened between scholarly and popular uses of the term “dictator” (many people think of a “dictator” as the name for one particular kind of non-democratic ruler, not as a generic term for all such rulers) but also because it hides a number of important conceptual distinctions within non-democratic systems. (As you may have noted, I prefer the very general term “non-democracy” to talk about what many scholars call simply “dictatorships”).

In particular, we can distinguish, roughly, between how authoritarian control over society is (that is, how much of social life is patterned and directed by centralized uses of state power), and how much is the authority of a top leader divorced from control by norms, laws, or other elites more generally; and it is the latter dimension that many people tend to focus on when they talk about dictatorship. Implicit in Bloomberg’s comments, for example, is the idea of the dictator as the unaccountable or unbound leader; and having taught a course on dictatorships for many years I can testify that many of my students come in with the same idea. (I talk about this in my book at more length - this is just the capsule version).

These two “dimensions” of non-democracy often go together, but they can also be decoupled. Consider a place like Vietnam today (where I just visited, so it’s on my mind). A one-party state, most of my readers would be unlikely to call it a democracy, despite the fact that its constitution asserts the principle of democracy, Vietnamese media has been significantly liberalized since the early 2000s, and there’s even some competition in elections to the legislature and within the VCP – certainly more so than in China, and potentially with implications for economic and other outcomes. After all, this is still a country that tightly restricts competition for state power and where independent political organization is not allowed; it is authoritarian in the sense that a great number of activities – especially those connected with the competition for state power – are tightly restricted by the state.

Yet it would be difficult to name a single leader as the “dictator” of Vietnam; specialists in the politics of Vietnam talk instead about a “troika” (the General Secretary of the Communist Party, the President, and the Prime Minister) of mutually accountable and similarly powerful figures, all of whom are ultimately answerable to the Central Committee of the party, which has not been a rubber-stamp body since probably the death of Le Duan. While one could bite the bullet and say that Nguyen Phu Trong, the current General Secretary of the VCP, is Vietnam’s dictator, since Vietnam is a “dictatorship” (= “a non-democratic regime”) and he is by common consent the most powerful figure in the regime, this would sound a bit weird. Better, in my view, to say that Vietnam has an authoritarian regime where the leadership is more or less constrained by formal and informal rules, and so there’s no single “dictator”.

In this framework, what you get is a two-dimensional space where non-democratic regimes vary along the two dimensions of social control or “authoritarianism” and elite accountability or “personalism” (or “dictatorship”). In theory, you could have regimes where social control is fairly extreme (on the “totalitarian” side of the spectrum) but top leaders are tightly constrained by norms of collective leadership, for example, and vice-versa. We can even use data to get a rough picture of these regimes. Using a measure of “personalism” in non-democratic regimes from the latest book by Geddes, Wright, and Frantz (How Dictatorships Work, about which more in a later post perhaps) and a measure of civil society control from the Varieties of Democracy dataset we can get this picture (this is interactive, hover over a dot to see the name of the leader):

Now, this is a purely illustrative picture. I don’t have space to delve into the construction or quality of this data, and I certainly don’t believe all of it. Moreover, the “personalism” data only goes to 2010, so it does not allow us to see what Xi Jinping would look like here. The numbers do not have a real scale either - they represent an arbitrary index. But it does show that there is a lot of variation along these dimensions. Consider China:

According to this measure, the peak of “dictatorship” in China (Mao in the 1960s) is during the Cultural Revolution, which is also the peak of social control. But Mao did not always have this degree of power; earlier he was more of a first among equals, and as the cultural revolution dragged on he also lost prestige, though social control remained high throughout his tenure. In the 1990s, Deng and Hu represent lower levels of personal power – collective leadership eventually became more established at this time – as well as an opening of social control.

The graph's four quadrants represent four distinctive patterns. The “dictators” – leaders with high personal power, unbound by norms, institutions, or the elite – are at the top of the graph. These are the people we might expect: Trujillo, Mobutu, Qaddafi, Franco, the Duvaliers, the Kims, etc. Their regimes take their name from them; they are “dictatorships” in the sense that they can be identified with their dictator. But in some cases (e.g., Compaoré in Burkina Fasso, Kérékou in Benin, Eyadéma in Togo) they did not manage to get the state to exercise much social control (at least by this measure! results may vary on other measures!). Or consider Venezuela, which Geddes, Wright, and Frantz code as a non-democracy from 2006:

Here Chávez appears as a ruler with high personal power, more so than the military dictator Pérez Jiménez, who was constrained by a military Junta. But control over civil society was not extraordinarily high during his tenure, unlike during the military regime (note Pérez Jiménez was overthrown in 1958 - hence that “low social control” point in 1958, since V-Dem data is coded at the end of the year).

At the bottom of the graph, by contrast, we have non-democratic regimes that are not defined by their occupants, because their rulers are much more tightly constrained by norms, institutions, or other elites. In the lower-right corner, in particular, we have regimes that are sometimes confused with democracies. These are places like Taiwan in the early 1990s, or Mexico in the 1980s and 90s (where the President was term limited and constrained by the PRI, other parties existed and were able to organize and compete in elections). Some of these regimes engaged in targeted repression, but it would be a bit weird to say that Zedillo, for example, was the “dictator” of Mexico – though Mexico at the time was authoritarian (even if only in the mild “competitive authoritarian” sense coined by Levitsky and Way).

There is an interesting question here about how leaders come to have personal power – i.e., how they become full-fledged “dictators” in the popular sense of the term. This is a question that Geddes, Wright, and Frantz explore in their book in some detail, and about which I hope to say more later. For now, however, note only that a leader who is unbound by legal or traditional constraints either has what Weber called “charismatic” authority (e.g., Mao in the mid-1960s), or the kind of control over resources that allows them to bypass such legal and normative constraints (e.g., Mobutu in his later years). But that's a story for another post.

Friday, December 21, 2018


Happy solstice, everyone!

I have not been very consistent this year about writing in this blog, despite my resolution last year. After a flurry of posts in January (Flattery at the Money Cage, Stalin as Reviewer #2, Democracy Data, Updated, and Charisma and Representation), I only wrote one other thing - my piece Against Renaming Victoria. (About which - the no change position won, at least for now; and I’m proud to have been an early participant in the “stick with Vic” campaign). The “Charisma and Representation” piece was the most popular of these posts; and I’m currently working on a more academic version of the arguments there. Thank you all for reading!

I also published a paper of potential interest to this blog’s readership: “Two Models of Political Leader Cults: Propaganda and Ritual” (ungated version here); but my other research projects took a bit of a beating at the hands of increased administrative responsibilities. (Still, more is coming - and perhaps will be previewed in this blog if I can find the time next year).

In the spirit of the holiday season, here are some reading recommendations:


  • Possibly the best book I read (or rather, finished reading) this year was Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government. It’s not an easy book – it’s more like 3 or 4 books in one, including an essay about the Bolsheviks as a millenarian sect, an interpretation of pre-WWII Soviet literature, a history of the private lives of the residents of the “House on the Embankment” told through their letters and personal reminiscences, and a tribute to Yuri Trifonov’s work – but for readers with some background about the history of the period the overall effect is magnificent. I’ve been mulling over writing a long post about it, which will probably never get written.
  • Slezkine’s work also led me to read some of Trifonov’s novels – The House on the Embankment and Another Life, both of which I found powerfully moving in their reflections about memory and identity. I also finally read The Master and Margarita, a book that I finally feel I understand a bit. (I had tried reading it years ago, and never got past about the halfway point). Lots more “serious” literature this year than last! Perhaps I enjoyed these now only because I could understand some of their background better; and yet I still feel like I barely know anything about Soviet society. (This is how historians must feel all the time).
  • I did lots of other communist-related reading this year, including A. James McAdams’ Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party (a sort of global history of communist parties - I learned a lot from this!); Kevin Morgan’s International Communism and the Cult of the Individual (a history of communist leader cults in the West); Wang Shaoguang’s Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan (a really interesting analysis of what I might call the “irrelevance of charisma” in the Cultural Revolution, written by a former Red Guard turned political scientist). If I had some time, I would write more about all of these; though these books are primarily for specialists, they are all quite interesting…
  • I finally took a crack at Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism; I found volume I really useful in thinking about what was utopian in the communist projects of the 20th century. (And the fact that I had to give a public lecture on Marx spurred me to actually read it).
  • Lest you think I actually have any taste, I also read I lot of sci-fi. I enjoyed Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, though I thought the third volume flagged a little. And I always enjoy anything by Charles Stross - this year’s Dark State and The Labyrinth Index were great fun. (I’m a fan of the Cthulhu+bureaucracy genre that Stross has perfected).

Other Stuff Online

As usual, there’s a lot more worth sharing, but this is probably enough for now. Happy summer solstice / winter solstice / Christmas / Festivus / Yule / Newtonmass / Toxcatl to all!

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Against Renaming Victoria

(Of mostly local interest. I speak only for myself, not for my colleagues or anyone else associated with Victoria University of Wellington, my employer. TL;DR: I would prefer not to change the name of my University, for classically or perhaps just cranky conservative reasons.)

The Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, where I work, recently proposed to simplify the name of the institution to “University of Wellington” or “Wellington University.” Professor Guilford, the VC, argues that Vic’s name is easily confused with the many other universities around the world that include the word “Victoria”, and that a name change would be beneficial to the prestige of the University, allowing us to rise in the rankings. He builds his case carefully and addresses many possible objections fairly; I was impressed by his presentation. Moreover, one must grant that he has made a genuine effort to consult with students, faculty, and alumni, taking their views seriously.

The proposed “name simplification” is not particularly objectionable in itself; no one is suggesting we become the Charles G. Koch University of Wellington or the Wellington People’s Friendship University. The VC also seems to envision the name change process as a sort of gradual retreat from, or a controlled forgetting of, “Victoria” (changing things a little bit at a time, via the normal maintenance budget?), obviating any objections based merely on the potential cost of the name change; no multi-million dollar “rebranding” campaign seems to be planned. Yet I still find myself opposed to this proposal; and I thought it would be good to articulate why here, in part because some of my reasons concern themes I have sometimes explored in this blog, and may therefore be of some slight interest to people not connected to Vic.

Conservatism and value

The philosopher G. A. Cohen, in a lovely essay published after his death as “Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value,” opens his discussion of conservatism with a joke that perfectly captures my feelings about this proposal:
“Professor Cohen, how many Fellows of All Souls does it take to change a lightbulb?”
It’s not that Cohen was generally averse to change; he was, after all, a socialist who claimed that “injustice lacks intrinsic value” and hence cannot be worth preserving. A proponent of analytical Marxism, he was in theory committed to the abolition of capitalism - certainly not a small-scale change. But he also defended a certain conservative disposition of “accepting the given, of valuing the valuable, and of valuing the valued”:
Just as you may love people because of who and what they are, rather than just for the value of what they produce and for the value of what they instantiate, so you may love a lovable institution because it is the institution that it is and it possesses the character that it has. So if you seek to set the agenda for an institution, you must ask not only what its goals are and should be, and how it may best achieve them, but also what it, the institution, is. And you have, once again, additional personal reason to do so, reasons of specifically personal value, when you, collectively, constitute the institution in question. (p. 148)
Cohen does not claim that a conservative disposition (of valuing existing valuable things) should always trump all other considerations, but that such a disposition does provide reasons to keep valuable things as they are, even if changing them might produce somewhat better things:
The conservative impulse is to conserve what is valuable, that is, the particular things that are valuable. I claim that we devalue the valuable things we have if we keep them only so long as nothing even slightly more valuable comes along. Valuable things command a certain loyalty. If an existing thing has intrinsic value, then we have reason to regret its destruction as such, a reason that we would not have if we cared only about the value that the thing carries or instantiates. My thesis is that it is rational and right to have such a bias in favor of existing value, that, for example, if you happily replace a fine statue by a merely somewhat better one, the production of which requires destruction of the original statue, then you mistreat the now destroyed work as (so to speak) having had the merely instrumental value of being a vessel of aesthetic value. (p. 153)
It may be objected at this point that Cohen’s claim is inapplicable to this name simplification proposal. Changing the name of the University hardly amounts to destroying the institution! Moreover, the kind of change envisioned does not appear to trigger standard conservative considerations about unintended consequences and the difficulties of changing complex systems (about which I’ve written here). But a name is not nothing either; and for long-standing institutions, it seems to me, there are good reasons for leaving names as they are, since they come to summarize and even embody the stories that tie people to them. Let me try to articulate these reasons further.

Why Victoria?

According to the University’s website, Victoria got its name as a result of the parliamentary skills of Premier Richard Seddon. In 1897 Seddon proposed the creation of “Victoria University College”. This was not the first choice of the other proponents of a University in Wellington (e.g., Sir Robert Stout); but it was accepted because it was the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the House was “loath to disagree” with Seddon’s proposal. (It looked bad to intentionally go out of your way not to honor the reigning monarch).

At least that’s what the Vic website says; a quick skim of the relevant pages of Hansard and of Rachel Barrowman’s history of the University suggests the disagreement seems to have been less about the name of the University than about the specific form the new college would take. But Seddon did use the occasion of Victoria’s jubilee to break the deadlock in a debate over whether to fund a college that had been going on, inconclusively, for about two decades. Wellingtonians were pretty commercial-minded in the late 19th century, and many didn’t think this would be a good use of public funds; but Seddon successfully argued that the establishment of a University would be “a fitting way for the colony to mark the Queen’s jubilee year”.

The historian John Plunkett has argued that the “cult” of Queen Victoria – the widespread circulation of her image, the naming of institutions after her, the production of stories and poems about her, the construction of statues and busts, the grand ceremonies on her anniversaries – was one of the means through which an Imperial imagined community was knitted. She was the first “media monarch,” a great beneficiary of the age of mechanical reproduction whose circulating representations kept the monarchy socially potent long after its political power had gone into terminal decline, an effect that was particularly important in the colonies. It’s worth noting that the symbols connected to “Victoria” did not always have an unambiguous meaning, and could also be used by colonial subjects to assert their distinctive identities and even to criticize Imperial practices; Plunkett has some fascinating quotes from Indian nationalists who “appropriated” the matriarchal discourse surrounding Victoria’s feminine virtues to criticize British imperialism and its martial values.1 But in this case the choice of “Victoria” for the University’s name did serve as a symbolic link to the empire.

Today there are hardly any reminders of Queen Victoria at the University. There is one statue of her, tucked away underneath the stairs at the Hunter building; but it dates from the 1990s (see my photo below), and like many such statues, it has long since faded into invisibility. (I did not even remember it existed until I watched the VC’s presentation; this is a classic example of those “monuments without viewers” that Paul Veyne talks about). The name “Victoria” for the University no longer commemorates a distant Queen, or points to the Imperial community. When students or staff at the University talk affectionately about “Vic”, the name is merely an anchor for all the stories connected to the place; its everyday usage no more implies a reference to a 19th century monarch any more than the name “Chicago” implies a reference to wild onions today, or “Wellington” to the Duke of Wellington for that matter.

Queen Victoria statue at the Hunter Building

To change this particular part of the University’s name after 121 years thus seems to me then to devalue important parts of many people’s identities – the parts tied to the stories they tell about themselves in the places they’ve inhabited. I’m not saying that the University’s name is a crucial part of its identity – all institutions change constantly while retaining their general character – but it is well enough connected to its members’ identities (many live and work, and have lived and worked, “at Vic”) that changing it without a sufficient reason violates the idea of “accepting the given, of valuing the valuable, and of valuing the valued”.

The name is important because it represents an inheritance of stories, even if the institution would not otherwise change very much by changing its name. Students, alumni, staff, and academics are not simply connected to an institution that happens to be named Victoria (and could next week be named something else without too much fuss), but to a particular named place with its associated history. As Cohen puts it, more generally:
We are attached to particular things because we need to belong to something, and we therefore need some things to belong to us. We cannot belong to something abstract. (168)

Reasons for Renaming

Perhaps a name change might be ok if it could be shown to produce large benefits, or if it were necessary to wipe away the offensiveness of the colonial past. Cohen himself suggests that the sort of conservatism he defends is only a kind of “bias”, defeasible if we can show that much greater value would be produced by change (even if one would still regret such change), or if change were necessary to rectify injustice. And one could add here Michael Oakeshott’s impeccably conservative idea that sometimes change is justified as the “pursuit of an intimation,” the development of a seed that is “already there.” But none of these reasons seem to me to apply here.

The case for renaming assumes that the University’s name recognition will improve following a name change, especially in those markets (primarily Asian) where Victoria is trying to recruit students, and the VC is betting that a name change will (eventually) lead to our rise in international rankings, with all its attendant possibilities for increased revenues and academic recruitment. The VC has assembled data showing that people outside New Zealand do sometimes confuse Vic with other universities, and consulted with branding experts who suggest that the best University names consist of two words, one of which must be “University” and the other the name of the place where the University is located. He also points out that Victoria University of Manchester changed its name to “University of Manchester” without apparent ill effects. Support from the Mayor and other city worthies seems to suggest that it’s now time for the name change; the seed is already there.

All of the listed costs of Victoria’s name, and all of the claimed benefits of changing it, seem to me to be nebulous and uncertain. A quick trawl through the marketing literature on corporate name changes and corporate rebranding does not suggest that there are many clear prestige or financial benefits to renaming; on the contrary, folk wisdom in the field seems to be that companies should nurture their names and brands unless they are somehow tainted. From my admittedly superficial scan of a number of these papers (and remember I’m not in this field!), the most one could say is that “renaming” seems to work best in conjunction with other organizational changes, and that successful rebrandings tend to be expensive affairs. In any case, a substantial number of corporate rebrandings seem to be ways for the organization to distance itself from bad publicity or scandal; a notorious example is Blackwater, ridiculously renamed Xe Services in 2009 and then the even more ridiculous Academi in 2011 to try to escape association with the company’s unsavory role in the Iraq war. (This didn’t work too well; many people still refer to “Blackwater”). None of this applies in the Victoria case.

The best case scenario for renaming, that of Victoria University of Manchester, is perhaps less applicable to Vic’s case than meets the eye. There the University was renamed following a merger with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, which fits in well with the marketing literature’s advice that renaming works best after major reorganizations. Moreover, it appears that Victoria University of Manchester was already known locally as the University of Manchester; so the seed for renaming was there (no “Vic” to contend with). This would have justified its renaming as “the pursuit of an intimation.” None of this is the case for Vic; as far as I know, there was no great dissatisfaction with the University’s name (and various nicknames) among those people most connected with the institution, namely, its current students, alumni, and staff.

In politics and academia, the other renaming practices I’m most familiar with usually come in two varieties, which we might call “patronage” renaming and “revolutionary” renaming. Patronage renaming involves changing the name of an institution to please a patron or a donor; see, e.g, the Soviet examples discussed here, or, for a more recent academic example, the renaming of the School of Law at George Mason University after Antonin Scalia. Revolutionary renaming is the act of changing the name of an institution to honour new leaders or erase the hated past; a classic example is the renaming of Petrograd to Leningrad, or Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad to Volgograd. But the same impulse not to honour a hated past exists at a smaller scale and in academic contexts; witness the discussion about the renaming of Calhoun College at Yale.

Patronage renaming is clearly inapplicable here; the University is not being renamed in gratitude to a specific donor. But one could perhaps make the case for a “revolutionary” renaming of Vic, breaking its connection with a colonial past that is not cherished by Māori, among others. In principle, I don’t think this is wrong. All politics is at least 60% symbolic politics. (I’m willing to go higher with this number, but let’s be conservative). But I don’t think this applies to the case at hand either; nobody seems to be making the case that the name Victoria is a symbol of a hated past that should not be honoured. In any case, as I noted above, by now the name mostly refers to itself – the accumulation of stories and people associated with, and indeed constituting, the institution – not to Queen Victoria.

I am not opposed to attempting to increase the prestige of the University; all things considered, it’s nicer to work at a more prestigious institution. My colleagues do this by producing excellent research, doing great teaching, and engaging with the public in a wide variety of ways; and the leadership team does it too by securing resources and managing them well. But the benefits of changing the institution’s name seem to me to be likely to be too small (how many spots in the QS rankings?) and uncertain (especially when we think about the length of the transition period) to defeat a conservative bias.

  1. This is in an unpublished paper I’ve read, though Prof. Plunkett might have written about it elsewhere. ↩︎

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Charisma and Representation

(Reflections on the nature of charisma and charismatic authority. Applications to current events and people are left as an exercise for the reader. Warning: long.)

I. Charisma as Talent

One problem I’ve been concerned with in recent times is the question of charisma in politics. What does it mean to say that a leader is “charismatic”? And how does charisma matter in politics?

Most people, I suspect, conceptualize charisma as an attribute of persons. A leader is charismatic if they have a special talent for the mobilization of others. This talent is, furthermore, described in terms of (irrational) persuasion: the leader can tell just the right stories, and use just the right symbols, to emotionally bind others to him, regardless of the actual merits of what he proposes. Charisma is thus sometimes likened to a kind of magical power: the truly charismatic leader keeps his followers “spellbound,” and can therefore ask of them sacrifices that go beyond what material incentives or threats could achieve, or that seem to actively work against their interests.

This talent for “spellbinding” may be partly inborn – some kind of personal magnetism that cannot be taught – and partly a matter of technique, showmanship, PR, whatever you want to call it. (There are even self-help books on how to become charismatic). But whatever its roots, its possessor convinces others to follow and obey them not (just) because of the rational power of their arguments or their ability to command material resources with which to reward or punish, but because of their capacity to emotionally “connect” with them.

I think some people do possess a talent along these lines. For example, the late Hugo Chávez, whatever may be said against him, certainly happened to have the knack for emotional mobilization in large-scale settings, while his successor Maduro appears to lack this talent, despite slavishly imitating many of his mentor’s mannerisms. Many other “populist” leaders and demagogues – of the left and the right – have had it. And there is something to the idea that charisma has to do with the ability to persuade others, though its effectiveness may be tied to highly contingent situational factors. (People who are effectively charismatic for some are simply boorish for others). I’m sure many of us know people who have this kind of “performative” talent for connecting with some groups.

Charisma in this sense does not necessarily depend on a talent for demagogic oratory. Not every “charismatic” leader fits the image of the great dictator riling up a crowd, and some can inspire extraordinary devotion without ever giving a public speech. This is “backstage” charisma instead of “frontstage” charisma, to use Randall Collins’ terminology. And while “frontstage” charisma is the one we are most likely to associate with the idea of the charismatic political leader, backstage charisma can be powerful too.

One of the strangest examples of backstage charisma I know of is found in Robert Crassweller’s very readable 1987 biography of Perón. The example is not about Perón (who had perfectly standard “frontstage” charisma), but about an earlier Argentine president, Hipólito Yrigoyen, who was first elected in 1916:
As a man of intrigue, Yrigoyen developed a secretive, molelike style for which no precedent seems available. He was soon known as “The Peludo,” after a burrowing species of armadillo whose underground life resembled Yrigoyen’s. He gave no speeches. His entire history before he became president in 1916 reveals only one public talk, and that was a very short one given at a very early stage in his career. For many years no pictures of him were available. He talked with many followers, but always with one at a time, meeting the solitary coworker in a small, darkened office and consulting with him in hushed tones. Even at a political convention he would not make an appearance, but would direct events from a tiny, hidden office nearby. He lived in Spartan obscurity in a small house as badly in need of refurbishing as was his meager wardrobe of rumpled clothing, it being his habit to give away the suits he was not wearing, which in any case had been tailored in the style of twenty years before.
To this furtive manner was joined the mystical element derived from his obscure religious dogmas. He viewed the Radical Party as a moral movement, a state of mind or spirit. He viewed his own role in terms of apostleship. Visitors admitted to his darkened chamber would hear from him, as from an oracle, metaphysical utterances so impressive and so incomprehensible that they left with the sure conviction of his sainthood. Amid the fascination and the soaring spiritual ideas that were thus communicated in the softest of tones and in the most unintelligible of rhetoric and syntax, something akin to a cult began to grow. Soon Yrigoyen was the undisputed political caudillo of Buenos Aires Province, and the Radical Party was beginning to take on a national dimension. (pp. 58-59)
Yrigoyen had developed a performative talent that kept some of those who interacted with him “spellbound”, even though this talent did not help him give public speeches. Yet this talent does not fully explain why he (and many other leaders) inspired extraordinary devotion at some times and not others. And because both frontstage and backstage charisma depend on recurring face to face interaction rituals to work their magic, such talents can hardly explain the importance of charisma for politics in large and complex societies where participation in public rituals is mostly optional. And indeed Yrigoyen’s “charismatic” persona did not survive contact with the Argentine presidency.

II. Charisma as Authority

Instead of looking at charisma as a talent a person has, let’s take a cue from Max Weber (who first popularized the concept as a tool of sociological analysis) and think about charisma as a form of authority others attribute to a person. Roughly, for Weber, the charismatic leader is simply the leader who is believed by their followers to have charisma, i.e., some extraordinary talent or power relevant to the (existentially threatening) problems of the group, and which therefore justifies complete submission to their authority.

The apparent tautology here indicates that the source of a charismatic leader’s hold over a group is not so much the presence or absence of some specific talent capable of compelling others to follow them (as Weber stresses, actual instances of charismatic leadership stem from vary different sources: prowess in war, persuasive speech, prophetic vision, etc.), but the act of “free” recognition by others of the leader’s unbounded personal authority. Insofar as enough people believe a particular person is the possessor of an extraordinary “gift of grace” (=“charisma”), they are willing to trust their decisions completely and follow them without hesitation. Charisma is thus primarily a pathology of collective trust: a leader is charismatic when they have followers who trust them so fully to do what is right for them, for whatever reason, that they submit themselves to their authority without reservations.

This idea is in keeping with the theological roots of the concept as the “gift of grace”. At the extreme, charismatic authority is simply personalized sacred authority, and submission to it entails complete faith in the providential wisdom of the leader. The followers may not fully understand the leader’s plan or vision, but they trust completely that the plan will work out for the best, and are not necessarily fazed by apparent setbacks, because the leader is seen as “anointed” by god.

This of course makes charismatic or quasi-charismatic authority resistant to refutation or argument (witness the kinds of justifications followers provide for their hardships under a charismatic leader’s rule); since the leader is thought to have extraordinary gifts, then there is always a reason for what they do. In Stalin’s time, people would sometimes say that “if Comrade Stalin made the decision, it means there was no alternative” in response to apparently harmful and incomprehensible policy changes; for these people – not everyone – Stalin had a kind of charismatic authority.

The “charismatic bond” between leader and followers is not in practice unbreakable, however. Weber rightly stressed that charismatic leaders need real successes, or else their followers eventually abandon them. To paraphrase Renan, charisma is a daily plebiscite. A sufficient accumulation of failures (or one big failure) may lead to a complete loss of faith in the leader. (Contemporary social theory speaks of “success charisma” as opposed to “frontstage” or “backstage” charisma). But in the ideal-typical case the leader’s charismatic authority should be strong enough to withstand a lot of setbacks.

We might say that a leader has charismatic authority when the followers develop an extremely strong “prior” that the leader will act in their interests. One could then speak of a continuous space here, with charismatic authority at one end and purely “contractual” authority at the other end, depending on both the strength of this prior and the decisionmaking contexts where it is relevant. The greater the strength of the prior, the more charismatic the bond between leader and followers; and the more extensive the decisionmaking contexts where the prior applies, the greater the scope of this charismatic authority. And of course the stronger the prior, the more the leader can withstand setbacks before losing their authority.

The person who says to a group experiencing a social crisis, “I alone can fix it”, and is strongly believed by enough of them, has made a successful charismatic claim to authority. Sociologically speaking, then, the important question is what makes such claims credible – indeed, what makes them likely to produce such strong beliefs in the providential authority of the leader that the followers are willing to forgive them all kinds of failures and overlook otherwise disqualifying traits. Here Weber pointed to social factors (situations of severe crisis) rather than performative talents for emotional connection or persuasion.

In the typical “charismatic situation”, existing leaders of a group (“insiders”) suffer a catastrophic loss of credibility due to a severe social, political, or symbolic crisis. The group’s status is declining, or its material prospects are worsening, in ways perceived to be existentially threatening. Insiders are believed to be responsible for this condition, and hence cannot command sufficient support for their proposed solutions. Yet decisive action may seem inescapable and urgent: something must be done! I may prefer my view about what should be done to that of others, but the appropriate course of action is highly uncertain, and I may be willing to gamble on decisive action by anyone who can command sufficient support to actually coordinate people’s responses. (Functionally speaking, leaders are mostly coordination devices).

Among the “outsiders” peddling solutions to the crisis some exceed expectations in initially gathering support or ameliorating the situation. Perhaps they win elections that few others thought they would, or help make members of the group feel better by violating norms that lowered their status, or maybe even preside over improvements in the group’s material situation. This reduces further the credibility of insider “models” of the crisis while increasing the credibility of the outsider’s views. Moreover, these early successes in turn lead them to gather more supporters (nothing succeeds like success), which makes it possible for them to achieve further apparent successes.

Social proof helps here: the more others connected to you support a particular leader, the more it looks like they are succeeding, and the more it seems that you should support them too. (And the more others connected to you participate in rituals of support that amplify emotional connections, the more likely you are too). After a while, the outsider may acquire a reputation as a miracle worker, at least among members of a particular group, and may accumulate a capital of credibility large enough to tide them over some lean periods before their incompetence or hubris betrays them. From this point of view, the emergence of charismatic or quasi-charismatic leaders can look like a broadly rational process of belief adjustment. (Someone with the right skills may even be able to write down a more formal model of the Bayesian updating going on here).

The period after World War I in Europe is the key example of such a “charismatic situation”, when a number of people made charismatic claims more or less successfully. The most famous of these people was Hitler, in Ian Kershaw’s classic interpretation. If we conceptualize charisma merely as a sort of talent, Hitler was an unlikely candidate for leadership. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a loser. To be sure, he did have some qualities, including “massive overconfidence”, that would help him later in his rise to power, and he was well-served by the fascist genius for ritual spectacle; but none of these qualities, by themselves, explain his later charismatic authority over millions of people. (At best, they would have made him a moderately successful rabble-rouser – what he in fact was in the early 1920s).

What really invested him with charismatic authority among many Germans in the 1930s were his successes, including his unlikely electoral gains, his astonishing diplomatic and military victories after he gained power, and perhaps most of all the taming of German unemployment. It did not matter much whether some of these successes were actually attributable to Hitler, or based on illusory assessments, so long as he was visibly associated with them. And because Hitler wildly exceeded initial expectations (he was, after all, a perfect outsider), too many people adjusted their priors “too much” in the direction of “miracle worker.” But by the same token, when his decisions led to a massive failure that he had to take responsibility for (in particular, the defeat at Stalingrad) his charismatic authority started to ebb. (It had to be a massive failure, by the way: minor failures would not have dented his reputation much, as they would have been easily rationalized).

Similar stories could be told for other classic cases of charismatic leadership in this period. A common thread in these stories seems to be that leaders who are later said to be charismatic are successful bluffers, outsiders who make unlikely gambles and win. Mussolini with his “March on Rome” is another case in point. The march represented no big threat to the Italian state (Prime Minister Luigi Facta was ready to impose martial law to prevent it, and would likely have succeeded), yet king Vitorio Emmanuele III folded and gave Mussolini the prime ministership. This success was one event that helped construct Mussolini’s charismatic authority, complementing the ritual dimensions of fascist rule. Fascist spectacle by itself was insufficient; Mussolini, another paradigmatic outsider, required unlikely, striking successes for large numbers of people to greatly increase their trust in him as a leader. But again, when he failed, his charisma quickly ebbed, and he came to depend more and more on the legal authority of the state rather than on his personal authority as a charismatic leader.

III. Charisma as Representation

Because charismatic authority emerges from the trust of the followers in the leader, it can also be analyzed as a form of representation. The followers believe, very strongly and for whatever reason (and often wrongly!), that the leader will pursue their interests or promote their values; but if he fails in sufficiently spectacular ways, they may abandon him. In this sense charismatic authority appears quasi-democratic, since it is “freely” given by the followers, who recognize something in the leader that they think makes him likely to represent them, and who can hold him to account (by deserting him) if he does not do so. (Of course, a formerly charismatic leader may come to control other sources of authority, so “exit” may be harder than it sounds. But this problem concerns the fungibility of authority – its potential transformation into other sources of power – not the voluntary nature of the charismatic relationship).

Charismatic representation is like a pathological version of the trustee model of representation, where the “constituents” (the followers or the “base”) implicitly trust the leader to a much greater extent than is wise. To be sure, charismatic representation does not depend on fixed constituencies or on institutionalized selection procedures. Only those who flock to the charismatic leader feel genuinely represented; the rest do not. And there is something arbitrary about the way in which followers authorize their representation by “seeing” some implausible gift in a person that supposedly qualifies them to promote the group’s identity, values, and interests. But charismatic relationships still retain many of the characteristics of more institutionalized representative relationships.

Just as in institutionalized relationships of representation, charismatic relationships contain moments of authorization (the equivalent of “voting”), when followers “recognize” the leader’s charisma and submit themselves to the leader’s authority, and moments of accountability, when the base decides that some failure of the leader is sufficiently large that they no longer recognize his charismatic gift (they must have been “mistaken”). And charismatic leaders appear to be successful “representatives” to the extent that they mirror or amplify the identity, values, and interests of their base (just as we might say that an institutionalized representative succeeds when they genuinely promote their constituents’ interests). Take this example from a 1927 book on Mussolini:
the Italian people feels … that Mussolini is its purest expression. In Him we find the sum of those that are the characteristic virtues of an admirable race. He is the soul, the voice, the conscience of an admirable people. The crowd listening to him confusedly understands this, and its clapping is a cry of joy for having found such an interpreter of its deep feeling (this is from Ida Avetta’s “Mussolini and the Crowd”, cited in Falasca-Zamponi, ‘The “Culture” of Personality: Mussolini and the Cinematic Imagination’, p. 100)
We find similar language in Chavismo (see, e.g, the “Yo soy Chávez” phenomenon). It was common in both scholarly and journalistic accounts to link Chávez’ success with his personal (“charismatic”) ability to “represent” the excluded, the poor, etc. And we find it also in the justifications of the charismatic leadership of Lenin or Stalin, where the charismatic leader represents the proletariat, for example. The point of these examples is simply that followers in a charismatic relationship understand it as a particular kind of representation of themselves – a form of representation that, unfortunately, often feels more intense and authentic than institutional forms of representation.

Leaders described as charismatic are sometimes very different demographically from their followers. And so people sometimes wonder how others can identify strongly with leaders who don’t look like them, or don’t share any of their life experiences. I think the word “identification” may be misleading here: the leader who can credibly channel or mirror the group’s desires and aspirations is engaging in a kind of representation, and can therefore command the trust of the group. If the degree of trust is large enough, the resulting relationship looks like strong identification. But charismatic representation is not “descriptive”, since by definition the charismatic leader has some extraordinary gift that exalts them above their followers; it is the recognition of this “gift” that matters, not whatever apparent similarities there may be between leader and followers.

Charismatic representation, like institutional representation, also has its communicative rituals. Descriptions of charismatic leadership tend to emphasize the communion of leader and “people” in large-scale rituals where the followers communicate with the leader as well as vice-versa. The followers shout out questions or encouragement, the leader answers; it isn’t all passive. One sees this in descriptions of meetings with Chávez (who took this one step further with his “Alo Presidente” show), or Perón (there’s the famous rally at the Plaza de Mayo of 17 October 1945, described by Crassweller as a sort of “dialogue” and “town meeting”), or Mussolini (who followed in the footsteps of D’Annunzio). This is of course a fiction; no genuine two-way communication can exist in mass rituals, and the “questions” in such situations are typically softballs. But there can be a feeling of communication that cements the representative bond, even where the followers’ views have no any real impact on the leader; and a good charismatic leader can “read” a crowd well enough to understand the forces he must channel. (This is connected with the idea of charisma as a specific talent).

IV. Charisma and Democracy

Charismatic leadership claims are more likely to occur when institutional representation appears to be failing. This was clear to observers of the interwar period, when charismatic leaders benefited from a “crisis of representation”, with deadlocked parliaments and fragile coalitions seemingly unable to act in the public interest; and to observers of say, 1990s Venezuela, who also attributed the rise of Chávez to unresponsive and unrepresentative parties there. Concerns about poor representation are a common theme in the “charismatic situations” of the 20th century. Conversely, wherever most people feel institutional procedures for representation work well enough, charismatic claims are unlikely to be made, or to be successful. So there’s a clear sense in which charismatic representation is opposed to institutionalized representative government – “democracy” in the familiar sense of the term.

But the opposition between charismatic leadership and institutions goes deeper. As Weber saw, all genuinely charismatic leadership is destructive of institutions, opposing the personal authority of the “prophet” or “warlord” to the institutional authority of the existing order, whatever that order may be. The characteristic pronouncement of the charismatic leader is “you have heard … but I say unto you”; in its purest form charismatic authority is thus revolutionary. One could give Weber’s point an Arendtian gloss and say that while other forms of authority (law and tradition) reproduce themselves, strangling the spontaneity of human action, the charismatic leader breaks through the routine of everyday politics, seeming to promise “new modes and orders”. Because the leader’s followers ex hypothesi trust him to an extreme degree, he can often overcome the authority of existing norms and institutions, whether simply to destroy them or to replace them with new ones.

And yet Weber was uncommonly sanguine about charismatic or quasi-charismatic leadership in democracies. (I make this case in more scholarly detail in chapter 18 here – ungated version here). Modern democracy, with its emphasis on what Weber did not hesitate to call “demagogic” mass persuasion and its plebiscitary aspects, is fertile ground for the emergence of charismatic and quasi-charismatic leaders. In his view, modern democratic politics structurally selects for people capable of emotionally “bonding” with the electorate; demagogy and charismatic appeals are baked into the cake of modern representative government. (Weber’s opinion of the electorate’s intellectual capacities was very low). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing for him!

The personal authority of the demagogic leader seems to Weber to be the only way to break through what he saw as the bureaucratization and ossification of modern social life. Only charismatic leaders – people who are freely recognized as such by many others, not simply people with particular performative talents – are able to genuinely articulate resonant visions of public values and interests. (He does not give much thought to the alternative where collective bodies or parties embody this charismatic appeal; for him parties are essentially selection institutions for leaders). A charismatic leader is no mere mirror of a group’s desires; they “represent” (my word, not Weber’s) particular causes, not just the immediate interests of a group, and they are able to fight for these causes fiercely in the political arena. Weber’s ideal leaders have a vocation or a “calling” for politics, and are not just in search of empty popularity.

The idea that one ought to support democratic politics because it selects for genuinely charismatic leaders with a calling for politics better than other political systems is a bit of a “pact with the devil”, to use another Weberian phrase. Democratic contests do not necessarily distinguish between Cleon and Pericles, and of course charismatic leadership didn’t exactly turn out well in the Weimar Germany of Weber’s time. (Though he didn’t live to see the whole story; he died in 1920).

Weber’s view also depends on the ultimate effectiveness of institutional accountability, not just on the possibility of exit from a charismatic relationship. When constrained by electoral institutions, Weber thought that the quasi-charismatic demagogue leader cannot escape responsibility. But there’s something paradoxical in his search for a “responsible” charismatic demagogue. After all, charismatic authority is often too strong for the rule of law; it can erode and destroy even basic accountability institutions.

Nevertheless, I think Weber provides probably the most powerful account of the inescapability and importance of charisma in modern democratic politics. It is a double-edged case, yet not so easily dismissed.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Democracy Data, Updated

(Of interest mostly to political scientists or other users of country-year democracy data)

Quick announcement: I’ve just updated my democracyData and QuickUDS R packages (described in this post at more length) to incorporate the latest data from Freedom House (Freedom in the World 2018) and most recent update of the voice and accountability index from the Worldwide Governance Indicators. The democracyData package ( allows you to download, tidy, and use a wide variety of datasets with regime and democracy indicators, while the QuickUDS package ( the construction of Unified Democracy Scores-style latent variable indexes of democracy.

Here’s what Freedom House’s latest data (use with care!) says about the average level of freedom in the world (all countries equally weighted):

Or aggregated by status (free, partly free, not free):

Not so much evidence of a democratic recession, but some evidence of stagnation.

And here in some selected countries:

For contrast, here’s what my version of the Unified Democracy Scores (which incorporate the Freedom House scores as one of their inputs) says about the average level of democracy in the world:

This measure shows a bit more evidence of a decline in the average level of democracy in the world over the past few years, at least according to the indices commonly used by political scientists. This may be simply because only REIGN and Freedom House have data for 2017 so far, so best not to take that dip for 2017 too seriously.

And again the extended UDS for selected countries:

Finally, here’s what the Varieties of Democracy dataset, which I consider to have the best and most flexible set of measures, says:

Here there is only a hint of a downturn in the average level of democracy in the world (but note V-Dem has not yet been updated with 2017 data).

And here is what this data looks like for selected countries: