Features of conservative history II: enduring charisma

Max Weber identified three types of authority:  traditional, rational (bureaucratic), and charismatic.  Roughly speaking, conservatives defend the first, and liberals advocate the second.  Both will tend to distrust personal charisma, because it gives someone authority based on his personal qualities, rather than his social roles.  Conservatives would prefer that the relevant roles be traditional; liberals would prefer they be rational-bureaucratic.  Charismatic movements could disrupt either system.

Nevertheless, charismatic leaders can be extremely important at crucial moments in history, and so both liberals and conservatives have at times resorted to them.  The difference is that the charismatic figures that liberals have supported–Benito Juarez, FDR, Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Zedung, Martin Luther King Jr, etc.–have been genuine leftists.  They were really dedicated to socialism, and so leftists have seldom had cause to regret their alliances with such figures.  In fact, communism seems to only advance under the leadership of a “great leader”.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have generally been driven to supporting anti-socialist charismatic figures who were not conservative, but were just seen as being the only forces able to check the Left.  In other words, the embrace by the Right of charismatic figures is rarely a true marriage of wills, but an attempt by conservatives and the leader to manipulate each other.  There are many examples of this:  Napoleon III, Mussolini, de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan.  These alliances sometimes do accomplish their immediate goal of forestalling a Leftist takeover, but conservatives often live to regret, or at least be very ambivalent, about them.  Of the above, only Reagan still has any popularity on the Right, even though he was obviously a classical liberal and not a conservative at all.

Why can’t conservatives find any charismatic leaders who actually share their beliefs?  Perhaps it’s because the techniques of mass popularity are even more inimical to the conservative mentality–to whom they seem to be demogogy–than they are to the liberal mentality.  After all, to whip up an enormous chanting mob is already to erase social organization and hierarchy.  It is a fundamentally anti-conservative thing to do.  Thus, the conservative who refuses to encourage men to coalesce into a mass is at a distinct disadvantage in mass politics.  No one would say that a figure like Franco or Dolfuss or Adenauer had charisma, or that he was especially loved (as opposed to being respected).  Desperate conservatives may, however, feel driven to support someone who does possess this magic over the crowd, thinking they will be able to influence the Leader in their direction.  More often, though, the Leader accepts the support of conservatives and gives them nothing in return, except to share with them the hostility of the public when his popularity wanes.

2 Responses

  1. History is replete with the vagaries of politicians who are feted and lambasted with the winds of change. “…The British public did not see Winston Churchill as a charismatic leader in 1939, but a year later, his vision, confidence and communications skills made him charismatic in the eyes of the British people, given the anxieties they felt after the fall of France to the Nazis and the Dunkirk evacuation. Yet by 1945, when the public turned from winning the war to building the welfare state, Churchill was voted out of office. His charisma did not predict his defeat. The change in voters’ needs was a better predictor (Nye 2008, para 6).” These sentiments are echoed within James Madison’s Federalists Papers, # 57. Under this guise, human nature cut both ways. On one hand the people would elect representatives to be stewards for their interests. On the other hand, the ego and self-interest of the politician would keep him aligned with his constituency to gain re-election.

    Charisma is effective in connecting a politician to the emotional security of voters, but ultimately, politicians must effectively meet the needs of constituents. This back and forth does make logical sense for public policy in conjunction with the nuance of human nature. It is the astute politician who uses charisma to skew favor to his side. Understandably, there will be times when a principled politician won’t be able to satisfy the needs of his collective constituency. Being adroit and adept at saying “no,” but allowing it to go down easily is the hallmark of effective politicking. This is the advantage charismatic politicians have over adversaries. The ability to use charisma as a tool to strategically ensconce difficult policies within the soft belly of visceral and practical realities. If played well within the media, such maneuvers suggest that the politician is “getting things done.” Even when policies act unfavorably to some constituents, this won’t necessarily be a deal- breaker, because constituents know when a line has been drawn between their individual greed and the overarching interests of a collective agenda.

    Edward Brown
    Core Edge Image & Charisma Institute


    Nye, J. (2008 May 6). The mystery of political charisma. Wall Street Journal.

  2. Dear Mr. Brown,

    Thank you for your reflections on the nature and utility of charisma. I think we both agree that personal charisma can have a powerful effect on politics; the thing that strikes me as strange is that it seems to be more useful for pushing policies in some directions than in others. Communism and fascism, it seems, can hardly get anywhere without a great, inspiring leader. Such figures seem to be useful but not necessary for the advance of liberalism, while to conservatives, they are at best a necessary expedient for slowing the liberal advance.

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