Every now and again, somewhere in the world, a politician comes along who is a supernova: a special astronomical event. Reacting to him or her, citizens feel a tingle in the spine, they become emotionally flooded, and they fill up with galloping hopes and effervescent dreams. In my adult life, I have yielded to the power of supernovas twice. Between the Special One and the followers, and amongst the followers themselves, you have a case of interpenetrating intensities.
Each of these cases is an instance of what Max Weber calls charismatic authority. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, charisma is: “a capacity to inspire devotion and enthusiasm.” And according to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “Charismatic authority exists where exceptional abilities cause a person to be followed or obeyed, and the ability is perceived as conferring the right to lead” [page 70]. Add formal power to charismatic authority and you have power and influence of a tremendous variety.
How do these situations arise? Nobody knows for sure. Clearly, it is a potent mix of a gifted person, some inner magnetism, and the specificities of the particular cultural and political context. What is clear is that for the leaders so blessed being a supernova is great for winning elections. It produces enormously enthusiastic, self-sacrificing efforts by millions of followers. It tends to produce big wins and powerful mandates. What fascinates me about the phenomenon though is what happens to governing when the leader is a supernova.
So, what does it do to governance?
For instance, does the phenomenon conduce to effective reforms? At first blush, it would appear so. You would think that the rock-star leader would be a powerful change agent. The evidence suggests that he or she can be, depending on where they want to take the country. Leaders with such enormous powers can use it for good or for ill. They can do serious damage to their countries; they can produce great outcomes too. It all depends on the two considerations that I would like to offer.
The first consideration is this: when a leader is a supernova she has available to her a move that most leaders cannot make. It is what I call the I-am-the-nation move. A hugely charismatic national leader can make the claim that she is the very embodiment of the will of the nation. It is a move that crushes opposition without the necessity of repression. Why is that? The reason is simple: public opinion conspires to isolate those who oppose the Special One, the Leader of the Nation. Opponents soon learn that unless they are sure that present company agrees with them, it is not safe to publically voice criticism of the Special One. This Spiral of Silence effect is more powerful than crude repression. In fact, the only stronger totally legitimizing move that a leader can make is the Divine Right claim: I am here because the Supreme Being of our religion put me here. It is the claim that kings made for centuries, and that some leaders still make, especially in theocracies.
The second consideration usually undermines supernova leaders, however. And it is this. The supporters/followers of the superstar leader often belong to what has been called the Harry Potter School of Leadership, where leaders are supposed to perform magic; and amazing things happen overnight…just like that. Deep seated structural challenges are supposed to be sorted out instantaneously. The reality that leadership is often distributed and many-layered, that there are many veto players in the political system, that blocking coalitions can thwart reform initiatives no matter how good they are, all these things are forgotten. The Special One simply has to ‘lead’ and all will be well. As a result, the coalition that brought the Special One to power often demobilizes. People go back to their lives, fully expecting the Special One to sort it all out, and all by herself. The heroine is in the arena of political combat, the people can sit back, watch and wait, pregnant with expectation.
We all know how these stories tend to end.
Photograph by Hamed Saber via Flickr
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