Personalism: A Podcast Primer

Putin with U.S. President Donald Trump at the summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, 16 July 2018

Personalism in Politics

Timothy Frye in his recent book, Weak Strongman, describes Russia as a personalist autocracy. He distinguishes it from other forms of autocracy such as military dictatorships or single party states. Moreover, he emphasizes how different autocracies behave differently from one another. It can be a bit cliché to say institutions matter, but they do. Indeed, the type of autocratic regime has an enormous impact on the types of policies and the incentives of its political leaders. 

New scholarship has focused on the role of personalism in autocracies. Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Joseph Wright, and Xu Xu found “personalization explains increases in repression within an authoritarian regime over time.” They argue personalist autocracies become more repressive than other nondemocratic regime types. They describe a personalist dictatorship as a regime where “the leader exercises power with little restraint; other institutions often exist, such as a political party, but they do not operate independently of the leader.”

The personalization of politics reverses the relationship of authority between institutions and individuals. Typically a position legitimizes authority. For example, a President has constitutional powers and prerogatives. But as politics becomes personalized, charismatic leaders instead legitimize institutions. Some leaders do not even need formal positions to legitimize their authority like Deng Xiaoping who was never President of China or General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Vladimir Putin also held onto substantial political power when he became Prime Minister during the brief Medvedev Presidency. A very early example is Augustus Caesar who was called princeps or “first citizen.” He ruled Rome in most years without a formal position like consul or tribune. 

Personalism in Autocracies

Personalist regimes rely on weak institutions. Other authoritarian regimes use institutions like a political party or the military to legitimize their authority. However, a personalist autocrat deliberately weakens institutions to centralize their authority. Moreover, weak institutions limit the sources of new elites to challenge their authority. Over time their own authority depends entirely on the force of their personality and their ability to manage the state. But it also leaves the leader vulnerable to political change. Timothy Frye notes, “After losing power, leaders in military regimes can retreat to the barracks and heads of one-party dictatorships can retire to a post in the party, but personalist autocrats have no soft landing pad. They enjoy their wealth and influence only if they hold office.”

Nonetheless, personalist leaders typically find their options limited. Using Putin as an example, Frye argues, “Policy choices in Russia are often the result of difficult trade-offs among and between political elites and the mass public.” Moreover, the trade-offs in Russia resemble similar trade-offs in other personalist regimes around the world. The leader balances the need to retain public support with the necessity to satisfy political elites. In the end, they often depend on repression when they can no longer thread the needle between the two. Unfortunately, Frye emphasizes, “Using coercion is not as easy as it seems. Any security agency that is powerful enough to put down a popular revolt is also powerful enough to overthrow a leader.” So, even repression represents a potential threat to the personalist autocrat. 

Personalism in Democracies

Perhaps a more disturbing trend than the proliferation of personalist autocracies has been the rise of personalism in democracies. Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright along with Carisa Nietzsche have extended their work on personalist autocracies to identify similar trends in democracies. Moreover, they identify how personalism threatens the health and stability of democracy. They write, “Greater personalism in democracies brings with it an elevated risk of political polarization, incumbent power grabs, and ultimately democratic decline and collapse.” From Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, the personalization of politics has threatened democracies around the world. 

Many writers have blamed the rise of populism for the decline in democracy and the rule of law. But personalism offers a more precise label. Too often critics will label politicians and policies as populist almost as a slur. It refers to a political approach rather than an ideology. Personalism pinpoints the destructive tendency present in what theorists describe as populism. It refers to the charisma theorists believe is essential for a populist leader to thrive. 

Other writers believe polarization has undermined democracies. Milan Svolik has shown how polarization leads voters who believe in democracy to support undemocratic candidates. His studies have shown how Chávez undermined democracy in Venezuela despite widespread support for democratic ideals among its population. Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright link polarization back to personalism. They write, “Personalism increases political polarization, suggesting that polarization may be a symptom of personalism and one of the endogenous mechanisms through which personalist leaders undermine democracy.”

Final Thoughts on Personalism

Russia has become an almost paradigmatic example of a personalist regime. Vladimir Putin has centralized political power out of ambition, but also political necessity. Frye notes how “political life in Russia is inherently uncertain because Russia lacks strong institutions like the rule of law as well as free and fair elections to resolve political disputes that inevitability arise.” Speaking about a different personalist leader, Christophe Jaffrelot has said, “If Modi did not exist, they would need to invent him.” Putin is also in many ways a creation of Russia itself. He is a symptom of the weakness of Russian political institutions. It’s important to note this does not mean Russian culture demands autocracy nor does it mean it cannot democratize. But it does mean Russia faces multiple challenges in any process of democratization. 

Of course, the personalization of politics has infected regimes around the world. Researches have identified personalism in the politics of Israel, India, the United States, China, and many other political regimes. In some ways, personalism is a response to the inadequacy of political institutions to respond to the challenges of a new era. But at the same time, personalism further weakens political institutions. It’s a regression from the progress made during the modern era. As Gideon Rahat and Tamir Sheafer note, “Modern democracy developed when the rule of law, based on legal-rational grounds, replaced the rule of man, based on traditional and especially personal-charismatic grounds.” In this light, the personalization of politics threatens the very foundations of democracy itself. 

This week’s podcast features Timothy Frye in a conversation about Vladimir Putin, Russia, and personalist autocracies. Subscribe today or look for it on September 7th. 

Further Reading

Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright (2021), “Personalism in Democracies: A New Index Luminate Report,” Luminate Working Paper

Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright (2017), “The Global Rise of Personalized Politics: It’s Not Just Dictators Anymore,” The Washington Quarterly

Timothy Frye (2021), Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia

Carlos Gervasoni (2018), “Argentina’s Declining Party System Fragmentation, Denationalization, Factionalization, Personalization and Increasing Fluidity” in Party Systems in Latin America

Cas Mudde (2004), “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition

Gideon Rahat and Tamir Sheafer (2007), “The Personalization(s) of Politics: Israel, 1949–2003,” Political Communication

Susan L. Shirk (2018), “The Return to Personalistic Rule,” Journal of Democracy

Milan W. Svolik (2020), “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science

Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Carisa Nietsche, and Joseph Wright (2021), “How Personalist Politics Is Changing Democracies,” Journal of Democracy

Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Joseph Wright, and Xu Xu (2020), “Personalization of Power and Repression in Dictatorships,” The Journal of Politics

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