Last week’s focus on democratic backsliding incorporated many different themes from polarization to personalist leaders. This week’s focus narrows its scope to discuss charismatic leaders and their movements. The emergence of a charismatic leader often brings about democratic erosion. However, many of us struggle to understand why people so easily fall under the spell of personalist leaders. It’s not an easy question to answer, but it is very relevant for today’s politics. Personalist leaders have emerged in democracies and authoritarian regimes. From Donald Trump to Narendra Modi to Xi Jinping, charismatic leaders have emerged in very different cultures and political systems.
A recent book, The Emergence and Revival of Charismatic Movements, from Caitlin Andrews-Lee explores more than just charismatic leadership. Andrews-Lee studies the movements the leaders leave behind when they disappear from the political scene. She finds charismatic movements survive the death of their leaders. Moreover, they reemerge during moments of crisis to find a new leader with similar qualities. In other words, the emergence of a charismatic leader often makes future charismatic leaders not just likely, but almost inevitable.
For some readers, this conclusion may hit a little too close to home. The United States just survived its own period of charismatic leadership in the Presidency of Donald Trump. Andrews-Lee’s analysis implies America has not overcome personalist leadership, but rather merely seen its first incarnation. Her book argues charismatic movements find ways to reincarnate personalist leaders even after the founder’s death. Let me explain…
Perhaps it helps to start with the idea of charisma. Scholars have long described religious leaders as charismatic. It takes an almost overwhelming attraction for a prophet to attract followers. Max Weber translated the idea of religious charisma into other aspects of society particularly politics. However, Weber believed charismatic leadership was a temporary aberration. He wrote, “Charisma is a phenomenon typical of prophetic movements or of expansive political movements in their early stages. But as soon as domination is well established, and above all as soon as control over large masses of people exists, it gives way to the forces of everyday routine.” In other words, charismatic movements eventually settle into institutions with ordinary forms of leadership.
Andrews-Lee argues charismatic movements never completely disappear. The followers retain their affection for the founder long after she/he disappears. Perónists keep shrines to Juan Perón while Chávistas do the same for Hugo Chávez. In other words, charismatic movements do not stabilize or institutionalize. Rather they continue to destabilize the political system and its institutions long after the leader has left the political scene. It’s a frightening thought. Andrews-Lee explains, “Charismatic movements have the potential to survive, generate instability, and undermine democracy for years to come.” So, the threat to democracy from a leader like Trump or Bolsonaro do not disappear, but rather reoccur almost like a series of waves.
Charismatic Leadership and Succession
At the same time, charismatic leadership is almost paradoxical. The charismatic leader never plans for their departure, because any potential successor represents a challenge to their authority. Instead, they surround themselves with sycophants and yes-men. They promote weak and ineffective successors who can never overshadow them. Perhaps the best example of the weak successor is Nicolás Maduro. His legitimacy depends on his connection to Chávez. As a result, he finds himself tied to the policies of Chávez even as conditions have required reform. His hold on power depends on increasing degrees of authoritarianism as many Chávistas have gradually turned against him.
In contrast, Perónism survives through a series of self-starters rather than anointed successors. Leaders like Carlos Menem and the Kirchners arose from within the movement, rather than from a direct line of succession. They had to prove their own form of charisma even as they built on the legacy of Juan Perón. However, these new charismatic leaders represent an almost diminished version of the founder. They have significantly greater autonomy to reinterpret the movement, but still struggle to break free from the founder’s shadow.
Perónism has long confused political observers, because it does not fit cleanly into any particular ideology. Perón himself blurred the line between the right and the left. In many ways, Perón’s ideological ambiguities opens plenty of room for interpretation for his successors. Carlos Menem, for example, pursued neoliberal reforms, while Néstor and Cristina Kirchner adopted statist policies. Nonetheless, they all claimed Perón as their inspiration. Ultimately, Perónism depends on the charisma of its leaders rather than on any sense of ideological continuity.
In the final analysis, Andrews-Lee has a dark view of charismatic movements. She writes, “The fitful trajectories of charismatic movements infuse democracies with illiberal tendencies and expose them to serious authoritarian threats.” Moreover, she is not alone. Most political scientists today have negative views of personalism. At the same time, nearly all leaders possess charismatic qualities. The difference is whether they reinforce institutions or strive to transcend them. Andrews-Lee focuses on the dark side of charismatic leadership, but it raises the question of whether a broader theory might exist that explains charisma as a quality that has the capacity to also reinforce democracy. Of course, it is also possible that the nature of charismatic authority can only undermine democratic legitimacy.
Andrews-Lee argues charismatic movements require a reinterpretation of democracy. She explains, “Charismatic movements promote a “disfigured” form of democratic representation that rests on unfaltering devotion to beloved and overbearing leaders rather than the welfare and interests of the people “ Perhaps the challenge from charismatic movements is not from the charismatic leader, but rather the way they reimagines politics. It leads to a form of governance inherently antithetical to what we call liberal democracy. If this is true, the rise of personalist leaders around the globe indicates an even more serious challenge to democracy than anyone dares to imagine.
Caitlin Andrews-Lee joins the podcast tomorrow to discuss charismatic movements, personalist leaders, and her book The Emergence and Revival of Charismatic Movements.
Caitlin Andrews-Lee (2021), The Emergence and Revival of Charismatic Movements
Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Carisa Nietsche, and Joseph Wright (2021) “How Personalist Politics Is Changing Democracies,” Journal of Democracy
Carl Friedrich (1961) “Political Leadership and the Problem of the Charismatic Power,” The Journal of Politics
Ernesto Laclau (2005) On Populist Reason
Noam Lupu, Virginia Oliveros, and Luis Schiumerini (eds.) (2019) Campaigns and Voters in Developing Democracies: Argentina in Comparative Perspective
Chantal Mouffe (2018) For a Left Populism
Cas Mudde (2004) “The Populist Zeitgerst,” Government & Opposition
Takis Pappas (2016) “Are Populist Leaders “Charismatic”? The Evidence from Europe,” Constellations
Max Weber (1922) Economy and Society
Kurt Weyland (Forthcoming) “How Populism Dies: Political Weaknesses of Personalistic Plebiscitarian Leadership,” Political Science Quarterly