Does America need a charismatic President?

Comment posted by Yours Truly:  “Cathryn has some very insightful views, but it’s gonna be really hard to implement this in an age where everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE (not just Americans), LOVES MONEY MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF. … The United States will need a President with a lot of character and charisma to get things movin’ in a real positive direction.”

I agree.  Moving a society against its core religious values (i.e., money) is difficult.  I have two comments on this.

First on good sign:  that the military still recruits so many good young men and women.  Esp. the Marines, which offers only small recruitment bonuses.

Second, it depends on what you mean by “charisma”.  We have debased the term, commonly applied to a slick talker with strong but empty rhetoric.  As Allan Bloom says in The Closing of the American Mind (p211, in the chapter “Values”):

In America charisma is not just a description but something good that has to do with leadership.  It even seems to confer an extralegal title to leadership by virtue of “something special” inhering in the leader.  Although Weber was thinking of Moses and Budda, or of Napoleon, the gang leader formally suits his definition of charisma.

Weber sought to make a place in politics for things that political legalism excludes and that claim to have a title to attention although they are not founded on reason or consent — the only title to rule in a liberal democracy.  It is not to be wondered at, then, that all the demogogic appetites frustrated by our constitutional system should latch on to a word that appears to legitimize and to flatter them. 

Moreover, democratic individualism does not officially provide much of a place for leaders in a regimewhere everyone is supposed to be his own master.  Charisma both justifies leaders and excuses followers.  The very word gives a positive twist to rabble-rousing qualities and activities treated as negative in our constitutional tradition.  And its vagueness makes it a tool for frauds and advertising men adept at manipulating images.

Charisma, as Weber knew perfectly well, is a God-given grace, which confers leadership through God’s sanction. 

Why is charisma alluring and powerful?  It is the source of political authority.  Conceived by Max Weber a century ago, based on the insights of Nietzsche, this profoundly anti-democratic has become established wisdom in our society.  This is the source of a key passage from the new COIN manual (FM 3-24):

3-63. Authority is legitimate power associated with social positions. It is justified by the beliefs of the obedient. There are three primary types of authority:

  • Rational-legal authority, which is grounded in law and contract, codified in impersonal rules, and most commonly found in developed, Western societies.
  • Charismatic authority, which is exercised by leaders who develop allegiance among their followers because of their unique, individual charismatic appeal, whether ideological, religious, political, or social.
  • Traditional authority, which is usually invested in a hereditary line or particular office by a higher power.

3-64. Traditional authority relies on the precedent of history. It is a common type of authority in non-Western societies. In particular, tribal and religious forms of organization rely heavily on traditional authority. Traditional authority figures often wield enough power, especially in rural areas, to single-handedly drive an insurgency. Understanding the types of authority at work in the formal and informal political systems of the AO helps counterinsurgents identify agents of influence who can help or hinder achieving objectives.

Consider FM 3-24’s sterile description of the three kinds of authority (above), and the depths beneath it as described by Boom.

Of the three, charismatic legitimacy is the most important. No matter what conservatives may think, traditions had a beginning that was not traditional. They had a founder who was not a conservative or a traditionalist.

… The tradition is the continuing half-life of the charmed moment when a happy few could live on the heights of inspiration with the creator. Tradition adjusts that inspiration to the ordinary, universal motives of man, such as greed and vanity; it routinizes the charisma. … So charisma is the condition of both the charismatic and the traditional legitimacies. it is also the splendid form of legitimacy.

The rational is not informed by charisma, and the civil servants — bureaucrats — are therefore unable to make real decisions or take responsibility. They cannot, as we would say, determine the broad outlines of policy or, put more classically, establish ends. Mere competence can only serve already established goals and decide according to the established rules. it must be at least supplemented by charismatic leadership in order to be pointed in the right, or any, direction. So again charisma comes out on top.

Value creation, the activity that writes the table of laws by which a people is constituted and lives, is, as Nietzsche tells, the nut in the shell of existence.

… They {Weber’s 3 types} expressed his vision of the crisis of the 20th century. … The tradition-based regimes had exhausted their impulse and were simply becoming the administration for the “last man,” the intolerable negative pole. Imperative, then, was a stab at some form of charismatic leadership in order to revitalize the politics of the West.

… The problem with charismatic politics is that it is almost impossible to define … Charisma is a formula for extremism and immoderation. … And, finally, genuine charisma is so difficult to judge.

… Just over the horizon, when Weber wrote, lay Hitler. He was a leader, Fuhrer, who was certainly neither traditional nor rational-bureaucratic. He was the mad, horrible parody of the charismatic leader hoped for by Weber.

This is an ugly trend in our social evolution, one of those that might lead to the end of our political regime.  Ideas have consequences.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about the candidates for President

1. How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other (7 February 2008) — Now we have McCain, the leading Republican Presidential candidate, talking of an open-ended commitment to victory in Iraq.

2. What do blogs do for America? (26 February 2008) — As our problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern.

3. A look at the next phase of the Iraq War: 2009-2012 (1 March 2008) — What is next in Iraq? None of the leading candidates have expressed any intention of leaving Iraq – except in the distant and vague future. McCain intends to fight so long as (or until) we suffer few casualties, then stay for a long time (perhaps a hundred years, as McCain said here and here) ). On the other hand, Obama has been quite explicit…

4. Our metastable Empire, built on a foundation of clay (3 March 2008) — We can elect leaders with vast ambitions (foreign for McCain, domestic for Obama), but can no longer afford them.

5. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents? (21 March 2008) — The Presidential campaign rolls on in the seventh year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being in which nations America should fight. We see this even the speeches of the most “liberal” candidate, Senator Barack Obama.

6. President Obama, an Muslim apostate?  (2 June 2008) — Nope.

7. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties (18 May 2008) – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.

8. Is Obama running for the office of Chief Shaman?  (6 June 2008) — Weirdness from our next President.

9.  More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series)  (16 July 2008) — About charisma:  know it before you buy it!

For the articles from other sources, see About the candidates for President of the United States.

Other posts about America’s political regime

6 thoughts on “Does America need a charismatic President?”

  1. A motif assoiciated with charismatic leadership is deus ex machina.

    ( Googling charismatic and “deus ex machina” yields several cites that apparently support this thesis. However, these are links to academic, restricted access type websites – so I cannot verify that they actually support this thesis. )

    Deus ex machina ( literaly “God from the machine. )is most famously associated with Euripides. Many of his plots involve hopelessly complicated scenarios which – at the last moment, a god arrives, swinging down from a machine, to set everything aright.

    In the Renaissance and Baroque, many princes played this role. E.g., in Moliere’s Tartuffe Louis XIV sets everything aright in the end.

    A famous modern example is Shakespeare in Love, where Judi Dench’s Elizabeth sets everything aright at the end. And the Gloriana cult was an exemplar of the Renaissance prince as charismatic leader. Legal applications involved the elevation of the Court of Star Chamber and the Chancery of Equity over the Common Law Courts.

  2. Thanks for bringing up this interesting issue. The last two American presidents and the current democratic nominee certainly illustrate the dangers of it. Bush I and Carter seemd to be the opposite, and their short tenure may prove the point as well. Would Eisenhower, by his military role, be considered a charismatic leader, or by his style in office, a non-charismatic one?

    George Lakoff’s observation that people vote their “values” not their “interests”, would seem to say that a rational politics (based on interests) starts off with a handicap. Even when an interest” is so obvious is can’t be ignored (unemployment, inflation, recession, etc.) it is easily exploited by a charismatic politician.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe that few US Presidentes were charismatic leaders, including the greats. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Johnson — all had different styles, all accomplished much, but all within the traditional American democratic framework of leading people where they already knew they wanted to go.

  3. “This is an ugly end in the trend of our social evolution,one of those that might lead to the end of our political regime.IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES (My emphasis).”

    I’d hate to see one of my comments snowballing & metamorphosizing into the formation of The Imperial States of America.(i.e.:the death of the Republic).

    I think I should’ve emphasized that the candidate’s CHARACTER of more import than mere charisma.

    Why do I get the nagging feeling that I seem to be living in times reminiscent of the Birth of the Roman Empire?Pax Romana Redux.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Every period in history is unique, due to the large number of variable factors. However, there are similarities between our era and theirs. Read a great book about the era — like Caesar, by Christian Meier — and this leaps out at you. The primary fact of our era is, in my opinion, that the American people grow weary of governing ourselves. Unless this changes, others will take this load from us.

  4. The citizens of the United States of America WILL NEVER WANNA RELINQUISH THEIR RIGHTS TO GOVERN THEMSELVES, I’ll tell ya that.

    I grew up in a draconian/totalitarian regime,& despite all its supposed glamour/grandeur, I’ve always felt there was somethin’ missin’…free speech perhaps?

    Of course, I do realize that all 50 states of the U.S. have their own laws & prohibitions. But it’s still a blessin’ to be able to express your thoughts without people knockin’ on your front door the middle of the night.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I have bad news for you. We have no right to self-government, in any meaningful sense. A political regime can grant rights to its members, like free speech. There is no higher power that grants the right to a given political regime — such as self-government. That must be taken from the primordial chaos, fought to be taken and held.

    The question is not “do Americans enjoy their rights, their wealth, their ample meals?” Of course we do. The question is are we willing to bear the burden of self-government — take responsibility for our nation’s actions, exert ourselves to hold our freedoms (at any cost)?

  5. “I have bad news for you. We have no right to self-government, in any meaningful sense.”

    The only rights you have are those you will fight to keep. All else is delusion.

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