Politics & Policy

Goosebumps on the Trail

Obama's got charisma, sure -- but what else?

A young New Hampshire voter interviewed earlier this month on NPR’s All Things Considered explained her enthusiasm for Barack Obama thus: “he gives me goosebumps. I don’t often get that feeling.” A Massachusetts newspaper columnist describing an Obama campaign appearance in the Granite State observed, approvingly, that the whole audience “rose as one” — testimony to how the candidate had inspired them. Young liberal blogger Ezra Klein, writing in The American Prospect, said of the Illinois senator, “He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh,” and that his speeches “enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by and, just for an instant, contracted around you.” Although Obama lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton, he significantly outpolled her among younger voters, who report being inspired by his message of “hope” and “change.” Are these developments a ground for optimism about how Obama is restoring people’s confidence in the political process — or a cause for concern?

The Obama phenomenon — long on attractiveness and enthusiasm, short on substantive ideas for improvement — is hardly a new one. A century ago, German sociologist Max Weber characterized the phenomenon as “charismatic” leadership. Weber described the charismatic personality as “set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” A charismatic leader elicits “complete personal devotion” from his followers as a result of “enthusiasm . . . and hope.” This kind of leadership is very different from authority that is grounded in tradition or in calculating reason: it is “outside the realm of everything routine.” In other words, it promises “change.”

Unfortunately, history provides little ground for thinking that this sort of authority is compatible with, or conducive to, the ends of constitutional, liberal government. Yes, there are times when a democratic populace needs to be roused to efforts of heroic self-sacrifice through noble and elevating rhetoric — think Lincoln and F.D.R. Wars of survival may be lost without charismatic leadership. But Obama has had little or nothing to say about how to meet the danger of jihadism — the mortal threat our nation now faces. Instead, his rhetoric has been devoted almost entirely to vague promises of change and hope. It is as if by losing themselves in his “message” of optimism, his supporters are able to drive out the demons that most gravely threaten us; as if uttering the magic word “change” will make our troubles disappear. Obama’s appeal is so airy and undifferentiated that his campaign website asks voters “to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington . . . I’m asking you to believe in yours.” (Whatever that might mean.)

Although Obama is from all appearances a likeable and decent man, the enthusiasm expressed by his supporters is far more troubling, even ominous. In the past century, the most extreme instance of a parallel sort of political enthusiasm — complete with “goosebumps” and the sense of losing one’s individuality in a collective body (albeit for thoroughly malign purposes, unlike Obama’s) — was that elicited by Adolf Hitler. (See Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film The Triumph of the Will for insight into how the Nazi leader achieved such a response. It was also famously analyzed in Eric Hoffer’s postwar, cautionary classic The True Believer.) In other words, passion is a grossly insufficient basis for choosing a government.

The American Founders designed our Constitution so as to discourage popular “leadership,” which they tended to equate with demagogy: in The Federalist, it has been noted, the term “leader” is almost always used in a pejorative sense. The Framers did not design the U.S. Constitution — with its elaborate devices of separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and federalism — to facilitate rapid “change” in accordance with sudden shifts in the popular mood. Under the American system of government, it was to be the people’s “deliberate sense,” not their transient whims or “humors,” that governed us through our representatives. As James Madison observes in The Federalist No. 49, it is the people’s reason, not their passions, “that ought to control and regulate the government”; government, conversely, is needed precisely in order to control the people’s passionate collective behavior, rather than to stimulate it.

However the primaries may turn out, let us “hope” that in the ensuing presidential campaign, each party’s nominee will be compelled to spell out his or her program and demonstrate a preparedness for addressing the greatest problem that faces us — the survival of freedom and constitutional government in the face of the threat of Islamist terror. A message of “change” is far from sufficient. And choosing our president on the basis of the goosebump test would be most unwise.

– David Lewis Schaefer is professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition.

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