In his unfinished treatise Economy and Society, Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality in an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber was able to do little more, before he died in 1920, than give a pseudoscientific élan to an idea that had been kicking around for centuries. Most of what he said about charismatic authority was stated more cogently in Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, which described the great-souled man who “may truly be deemed a God among men” and who, by virtue of his greatness, is exempt from ordinary laws.
What both Aristotle and Weber made too little of is the mentality of the charismatic leader’s followers, the disciples who discover in him, or delusively endow him with, superhuman qualities. “Charisma” was originally a religious term signifying a gift of God: it often denotes (according to the seventeenth-century scholar-physician John Bulwer) a “miraculous gift of healing.” James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, demonstrated that the connection between charismatic leadership and the melioration of suffering was historically a close one: many primitive peoples believed that the magical virtues of a priest-king could guarantee the soil’s fertility and that such a leader could therefore alleviate one of the most elementary forms of suffering, hunger. The identification of leadership with the mitigation of pain persists in folklore and myth. In the Arthurian legends, Percival possesses an extraordinary magic that enables him to heal the fisher king and redeem the waste land; in England, the touch of the monarch’s hand was believed to cure scrofula….
Barack Obama, in taking up the part of regenerative healer, is the latest panacea. As a society, Obama says, we are hurting. Our schools are “crumbling.” There are “lines in the emergency rooms” of the hospitals, and our corporate culture is “rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed.” He points to the millions of Americans who, in struggling with life’s difficulties (“high gas bills, insufficient health insurance, and a pension that some bankruptcy court somewhere has rendered unenforceable”), have become bitter and unhappy. Obama finds a scapegoat for the present discontents in politics—a politics, he argues, that breeds “division, and conflict, and cynicism” and that has become a “dead zone” in which “narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth.”
The solution, he says, lies in a political reformation. Unless we “begin the process of changing politics and our civic life,” we will bequeath to our children “a weaker and more fractured America” than the one we inherited. Hence his mantra, “Change we can believe in.” Like the Nicene Creed, Obama’s doctrine begins in belief. Credo. Once we believe in the possibility of a transformative politics, “the perfection begins.” The selfish politics of the present yields to the selfless politics of the future. We discover that “this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one.” So believing, we can replace a politics that breeds division, conflict, and cynicism with a politics that fosters unity and peace. In Obama’s “project of national renewal,” government can become an expression of “our communal values, our sense of mutual responsibility and social solidarity.”
Update: Woops, it would be much easier if I gave you a link to the City Journal article I just excerpted. I added a link above and here it is again. My apologies.