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Celebrity Health: Can Democracy Handle Charisma?

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Celebrity Health: Can Democracy Handle Charisma?

Celebrity Health:

Sometimes
charismatic people don’t know their own strength. And sometimes they do. In private, charismatic people light
up a room and make each person feel beloved. In public life, they’re the ones who
convince us of unlikely futures, the big personalities who feel like friends,
the politicians who inspire joyful screams and hopeful votes and angry hollers.
How charisma relates to democracy is harder to describe. This is partly because
charismatic people appear so toweringly unequal, for democracy isn’t supposed
to have a class of superior beings. But it’s also because charismatic leaders set
our hearts racing, calling our emotions forth in public when we should–or so
we imagine–be thinking and acting rationally.


Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution

by David A. Bell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352pp., $30.00

Political charisma seemed less
dangerous, frankly, at the end of the twentieth century when all citizens really
wanted was to be inspired and Western democracies swooned regularly over boyish
heartthrob leaders. It was the age of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, after all, a
time when democratic leadership was
synonymous with the ability to feel voters’ pain, to make politics seem vital
and desirable and sexy. By the 2000s, it was easy to think that democratic
feelings were hollow but harmless: a consumerist thrill or a splash of
celebrity. 

Since then, the gentle portrait-studio
glow has dimmed. Populist authoritarians like Donald Trump, vulgar and hateful,
possess their own charismatic power. Trump’s most die-hard supporters regard him
as a superhuman business genius endowed by God with athleticism and brilliance
and compassion. To some, he is the nation’s unlikely savior. Yoking hopes and desires
to fear and resentment, Trump’s twisted appeal is the sort of psychic threat to
democracy that many had forgotten about or perhaps thought no longer existed.

Political emotions have come to seem
unsafe at any speed. But could democracy exist without them? And must our
public feelings always express themselves in relation to powerful men, or do we
have alternatives? Princeton historian David Bell’s book Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution helps
us wrestle with these questions by unearthing the forgotten history of
political charisma. An expert in French history, he argues that political
charisma was born with modern democracy just over 200 years ago amid the
Atlantic revolutions that put an end to the rule of kings and produced our
world. In many cases, political power in newly democratic states came to rest
on the shoulders of men like George Washington: heroic geniuses with military
expertise and virtuous reputations who seemed nevertheless familiar and
approachable. They ruled in the name of the people because they were adored,
not feared. The age of revolutions was fueled by this new model of political
leadership, Bell suggests provocatively, as much as it was shaped by ideas
about reason, liberty, and equality.

Charismatic celebrities built modern
democracies. They also broke them. Roving across the stormy Atlantic world from
the 1760s to the 1820s, from the early United States and Napoleonic France to Haiti
and Latin America, Men on Horseback contends that political charisma
emerged as an appealing style for democratic rulers and dictators alike. In
other words, charismatic authoritarianism has been wrapped around democracy
from the start, the “double helix” of our politics. Disentangling the two could
be harder than we think.


Many of the earliest democratic
leaders took inspiration from one another. In 1828, after liberating most of
South America from the crumbling Spanish Empire, Simón Bolívar paused to
reflect on the reasons for his success. He reported to an aide that in 1804, as
a young man in Paris, he’d witnessed the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as French
emperor. He’d been impressed, he remembered, “less because of the pomp than
because of the sentiments of love” that Bonaparte drew from his people. Sparking
those feelings, Bolívar thought, should be the “ultimate ambition” of politics.
“The crown that Napoleon placed on his head seemed to me a miserable thing,” he
recalled. “What seemed great to me was the universal acclamation … that [he] was
inspiring.”

By the 1820s, the citizens of South
America’s newly independent revolutionary states had come to adore Bolívar.
Popular biographies and poetry celebrated him as a “Genius of War and Peace,”
this great military figure and democratic leader who had brought freedom to a
continent. Cities honored him with Roman-style triumphs and processions. The adulation
was irresistible: Bolívar came to describe himself as “the Sun, immovable at
the center of the universe, radiating life.” After summiting the 20,564-foot
Mount Chimborazo, this man, who had legendarily led his armies across the high
passes of the Andes, declared that he had finally “risen above the heads of
all. I dominate the earth.”

The more arbitrary and personal his
authority became, the more Bolívar strained to present himself as a humble
servant of the people. “Colombia is not France,” he demurred, resisting popular
calls for him to become a monarch. “I am not Napoleon and do not want to be.” Bolívar
came to prefer the praise offered by Ecuadorean writer Vicente Rocafuerte, who
called him “the Washington of the South, the sublime Bolívar.” Framing himself
as George Washington, Bolívar wasn’t renouncing his greatness or his
psychological bonds with the people but rather swapping one charismatic template for
another: not the martial potentate of France but the adored, self-sacrificing
republican father of American democracy. Bolívar resigned the presidency in
April 1830. Tuberculosis killed him before year’s end.   

As one revolution followed another
and European monarchs fell like overripe fruit, the public tried to understand
the nature of their new leaders. Classical references helped to heroes like
Pericles or Julius Caesar. But these modern democratic titans also resembled
one another. One of Napoleon’s earliest biographers called him France’s
Washington; a French journalist eulogized Washington by praising Bonaparte. Toussaint
Louverture, who was born into slavery and led the Caribbean colony of
Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to freedom from French rule, was described to
European audiences as “the Washington of the colonies” and “the Bonaparte of
St. Domingo.” The French writer Chateaubriand called him “the black Napoleon.” Bolívar
cast himself as the heir to Washington, Napoleon, and Louverture all at once.
Each of these men, in turn, was compared with Pasquale Paoli, a magnetic
Corsican liberal made famous in the English-speaking world by Scottish
biographer James Boswell in the 1760s.

Leading revolutions and building new
states in the name of the people, these men seemed larger than life,
“world-souls” enriched by God with a range of skills and entrusted with grand
destinies. But they were loved and respected on the basis of their personal
qualities and achievements, not their titles or inheritances. They earned the adoration
of the people in four principal ways. First, they all possessed wartime
victories and impressive tactical abilities—intoxicating qualities in an age in
which war was seen as a glorious alembic, testing the strong and rewarding the
courageous. Second, they were saviors, appearing at times of national crisis to
rescue a country from violent chaos, emancipate a people from slavery, or fend
off tyrannical monarchies. Third, they were usually founding fathers who, after
ushering in new states or remaking societies, stood above the daily maelstrom
of factional conflict. Finally, they were men: Structured by late eighteenth-century
social norms, charisma was understood as an essentially masculine virtue.


Print made all of this possible:
cheap print, gutter print, highbrow print, an explosion of images and writing
that circulated among increasingly literate publics in Europe and the Americas.
It was in the eighteenth century that readers began consuming novels and biographies,
two genres that banked on revelatory personal details to create the illusion of
closeness, thus evoking strong emotional responses. By the century’s end, apocryphal
stories about these heroic leaders spread like wildfire: Washington was said to
have been so honest that he reported his own arboreal crimes; Napoleon, it was
whispered, had restored a child to life during his military campaign in Egypt.
As “creatures of print,” charismatic rulers also used pamphlets and newspapers
to speak directly to the soldiers under their command and the citizens in their
thrall. Images of these men on horseback or in classical profile began
appearing on posters and handkerchiefs and even crockery, the pinup boys of the
revolutionary age–virile and virtuous and handsome.

It was the gutter press, after all,
that had destroyed the reputations of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and made
the French Revolution imaginable. That same world of print, thriving on
salacious private anecdotes and arresting images, built up figures like
Washington and Bolívar into approachable divinities. These men were adored
because they felt like friends. The bonds may have been fictional, but the
emotions generated were real. Perfect timing for a kingless age that needed new
engines of national cohesion and political legitimacy.

This charisma was a truly popular
source of authority: If the people stopped believing or feeling that a ruler
possessed it, charisma vanished. But it wasn’t necessarily liberal or
democratic. How political enthusiasm might be constrained by law or rationality
was a puzzle that kept observers up at night. Washington, in the final
reckoning, was a deeply responsible steward of his own charisma, uncomfortable
with the personality cult that grew up around him. Bell makes a convincing
argument that his heroic stature and fatherly appeal helped consolidate
American freedom, that he “put warm flesh on the cold abstractions of
republican political principle.” But even Washington had his critics. “Are you
sure,” wrote founder Benjamin Rush in the summer of 1779, keeping a wary eye on
the president’s enthusiastic following, “we have no Caesars nor Cromwells in
this country?” Washington relinquished his own power in 1797. Other
revolutionary men on horseback were less self-effacing. Napoleon, Bolívar, and
Louverture each used their charismatic reputations to subvert constitutions and
become authoritarians. The “despotism of love,” Bell notes, led to “despotism,
pure and simple.”

It’s impossible to read Men on
Horseback
without the post-2016 world intruding upon your consciousness.
Bell knows this and offers twin conclusions. First, he reminds us, charisma is
as old as modern politics itself. It has been there from the start, powering dictatorial
impulses as often as democratic ones. “A potentially authoritarian charisma is
as modern a phenomenon as any of the liberal ideas and practices that arose in
the age of revolutions,” Bell writes, “including human rights and democratic
republicanism and constitutional government.” We should resist the temptation,
then, to see emotional appeals as primitive or premodern, to see Trump as an
aberration from the norm.


History has emancipatory power. It teaches
us that the world isn’t fixed, that its most stable features actually came into
being under strange and specific circumstances, that things were not always the
way they are today. To learn that political charisma was born in this Atlantic
revolutionary crucible, that its lifespan has been startlingly long and
distinguished but not eternal—these historical discoveries permit us to think
beyond it, should we so choose. But this isn’t the destination to which Men
on Horseback
leads.

Bell concludes that we’re basically
stuck within the confines of the heroic masculine model of political charisma
that he has so imaginatively traced. Charismatic rulers, he contends, are not
just longstanding fixtures of political life. They are also “inescapable” as we
move into the future. “We will always have charismatic leaders,” he writes.

They are
part of the fabric from which our political societies are woven. Our task is to
choose these charismatic leaders wisely, by judging as carefully as possible
both the individuals themselves and the causes for which they stand.

That is to say, the best we can do, as democracy buckles and powerful elite institutions fail us, is find ourselves
a Washington and hope for the best.
 

If those lines feel
underwhelming to you, it could be because charisma is ultimately unsalvageable
for democracy. The charismatic relationship is always hierarchical: The masses
venerate a single individual. Ordinary people express real feelings toward their political idols and get a fiction in return. Love frees charismatic
leaders to act with great latitude, while citizens are bound by their loyalty
and devotion. Bell doesn’t give us a full taxonomy of charismatic feelings, but
it seems true that even the most responsible kind of charismatic love is
adulterated by awe, veneration, infatuation, even subjection. In every
permutation, from generals and liberators to late capitalist celebrity-politicians
like Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau, charisma is an unbalanced emotional
exchange. It can never be democratic in spirit.

We can hope, as Bell
does, for charismatic leaders who will use their powers for good. But the
reason that feels unsatisfying is that it doesn’t resolve the tension we sense
between the structure of charismatic feeling and the equality that’s supposed
to define democratic life. Two hundred years ago, that conflict could be
overlooked: The very first modern democratic states needed legitimacy, and
post-revolutionary citizens hungered for facsimile kings. Our situation and its
psychological demands are different. In the twenty-first century, we’re tasked not with
creating democracies from scratch but rather sustaining them under pressure, healing
their wounds, and falling back in love with each other as citizens and friends.


Charisma isn’t the
only model we have for deciding how and when and which political emotions are
legitimate, although it’s easily the most familiar. The hierarchical structure
is hard to escape. In postwar West Germany, elected officials and academics–determined to avoid another Hitler–embraced constitutional patriotism, or Verfassungspatriotismus.
Philosophers like Jürgen Habermas wondered if citizens couldn’t find a safer
and more worthy object of their strong feelings: not a great personality, but
rather the liberal state, the democratic constitution, the idea of public
reasoning itself. Transfer your enthusiasm to the procedures, not the person.

It’s also possible for
us to direct our political feelings horizontally: not to heroes or abstract principles,
but toward one another. Writing during Reconstruction in 1871, for instance, Walt
Whitman argued that the most essential ingredient for democracy was a feeling
of “intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of
man to man.” He sought a kind of political friendship among citizens that was “fond
and loving, pure and sweet, strong and lifelong.” Whitman was an admirer of
Abraham Lincoln, surely as close to Bell’s ideal charismatic democrat as it’s
possible to imagine, but it was these lateral emotions that the poet thought “more
weighty than the engines there in the great factories, or the granite blocks in
their foundations.”

Solidarity and
compassion and friendship and mutual concern—these are universal feelings that
flourish among equals, no superhuman inspiration needed. They connect us
crossways, not as subordinates. The most crucial difference, though, is that social
democratic emotions like these tend to be expressed as habits more than grand
gestures or effusive declarations. Democracy, of course, is supposed to be
habitual, too.

During his 2020
campaign for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders regularly asked his supporters “to fight for someone you don’t know.” He
was calling for American voters to extend their circles of care, to feel
emotionally invested in the welfare of fellow citizens they might never meet.
The Covid-19 months have made this all much clearer. Faced with true catastrophe,
neighborhoods and communities have fallen back on each other. Expressions of
gratitude and concern, not for leaders but for healthcare personnel and
essential workers, are now colorfully chalked on sidewalks and bannered on
garage doors. To the extent that new charismatic leaders have emerged as focal
points of our many pandemic feelings, they are women like Bonnie Henry, the
provincial health officer of British Columbia, or Jacinda Ardern, the prime
minister of New Zealand—figures who use their platforms to strengthen feelings
of solidarity among citizens, asking people to be kind and caring and
collaborative. They are guiding us, like Sanders, beyond charisma to alternate
ways of feeling democratic.

How to make political
charisma work for democracy, then, might be the wrong question to ask. The more
exhilarating questions are these: If we invented charismatic leadership at a specific
moment in human history, can’t we uninvent it? Shouldn’t we?

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