Charisma: its power for good or ill in politics

My neighbor Grace is well educated, well informed and politically active. It’s her firm belief that one can be an effective president or governor only if one is charismatic. First charisma, then all other things can be considered.  She won’t vote for Biden because, in her opinion, he has no charisma. She won’t go for DeSantis for the same reason.  She has no time for Trump, but boy does he have charisma, as she sees it.

I imagine there are many more people like Grace.  Looks, voice, and that certain something that reeks of inspiring leadership is what attracts them to any political candidate.  It’s partly why I think presidential approval rating polls are a silly waste of time.  Approval or disapproval on what, about what?  Looks, voice, and that certain something?  In the words of Ecclesiastes, it’s all vanity, a chasing after the wind.  Nevertheless, whatever charisma is, it’s a powerful aphrodisiac in the world of politics, especially presidential politics. 

With that in mind, I listened to Sen. Tim Scott’s candidacy announcement speech.  The Republican senator from South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, provided powerful testimony to what charisma looks like.  But for his conservative Republicanism, he sounded a lot like Obama at his best.  He looks good, has a strong speaking voice, slips easily between standard American and cultured southern black English, and hits just the right cultural buttons to entice the crowd

Unlike Trump, he gave credit to his mother and a number of mentors for his successes and for his understanding of what is morally right.  He testified to his Christian faith in a way that would appeal to members of any denomination, and he showed respect for those of other religions or none.  He knew how to pump the crowd, even to generating an enthusiastic call and response cadence.  Of course he was talking to a home town crowd, but as Obama demonstrated, the same works well most anywhere, even in the stodgy Upper Midwest.

I imagine he is the kind of candidate that will appeal to Grace and her kind, regardless of his positions on issues.  For that matter, it’s hard to nail down where he stands, or might stand if elected president.  He seems to be a Reagan conservative who might gain the grudging support of tea party conservatives, without making enemies of Trumpians.  His moral convictions will seem attractive to a lot of centrists, and his take on issues will worry progressives, but probably not frighten them.  I think he looks like a conservative version of a cross between Obama and Clinton (Bill).

The pundits are united in calling him a low rated underdog who has very little chance.  He isn’t well known outside of South Carolina and the Senate, where he is well liked on both sides. The GOP primaries are stacked with Trump loyalists, according to the pundits at least.  Other underdog candidates with strong local support are likely to defeat each other in the primary process. Besides, there’s another South Carolina candidate, Nicki Haley.  So what chance does he have?  Democrats Clyburn and Booker say he should not be underestimated.  As for me, I have no idea, and am suspicious that his politics may be more right wing than independents and dissatisfied centrists would be happy with, should he be elected.

The point is not about Scott in any case.  It’s about the charm of charisma and its seductive power to acquire admirers and followers without any other qualification. Curiously, no one can define charisma with any certitude.  Social scientists try, and publish books with definitive explanations, but they capture only a few facets of what the members of the general public consider to be charismatic.  Each person seems to have their own sense of it.  What some find magnetically attractive, others find utterly repulsive.  Charisma seems to come down to the ability to appear honest and trustworthy to a large number of people, the sort of person they can trust to act in their best interest.  Charisma is not itself a virtue, it’s simply a facade that implies virtue that may or may not be real and has two weaknesses.  It hides the human fallibility we all share.  The most competent of us is lucky to be roughly right most the time, and always exactly wrong.  Failure cannot be avoided; perfection is not possible.  It can be a disillusionment to those who put too much faith in charisma.  Narcissistic charismatic leaders are especially skilled at making themselves  into idols whose manifest sins and wickedness are made to look virtuous.  They are the Bernie Madoff’s of the political world. 

It’s unfortunate that truly gifted leaders of great integrity are too often dismissed for lack of sufficient charisma, but that’s the way it is.  I don’t like to admit it, but I’m more like my neighbor Grace than I want anyone to know.  I also want national leaders who have the public persona to inspire trust and hope for the future, and I want them to be men and women of integrity who can be trusted to be the persons they appear to be.  I can name the ones who were.  I am unsure of who will come…  In the words of Peggy Noonan, trust but verify, don’t be too hasty to accept the appearance of charisma as a sign of virtuous competence. It may illuminate the real thing, or it may be nothing but a glimmering chimera hiding selfish greed.  Hope for the first. Anticipate the latter.

© Steven E. Woolley

2 thoughts on “Charisma: its power for good or ill in politics”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Steve. I come across the charismatic argument for political leadership in this form, usually in advance of primary elections: “Well, I believe in everything X stands for, and I think X would make a great president, but X is unelectable because of lack of charisma, so I’ll vote for Y.” Charisma is seen as a qualification, as important or more so, than understanding of policy and problems. (Andrew Jackson great early example of this.) I then wonder if it actually is, that Biden’s low approval ratings, in spite of his exceptional accomplishments, hamper his effectiveness especially in down-ticket politics, where he can’t promise his supporters in congress that his (the President’s) support at election time will be worth anything. Worrisome but perhaps necessary in any sort of democracy or electoral republic.

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