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.

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