Sunday, February 17, 2008

Culture Club


I notice that the NY Times has now caught on to the meme that the Obama candidacy has been accused of creating a cult of personality, a term redolent with overtones of Stalinism. (The "cult of personality" was the central theme of Nikita Krushchev's famous 1956 secret speech criticizing Stalinism.).

In raising the term "cult of personality," The New York Times article does a bit of a bait and switch: it dutifully cites to Max Weber and his concept of charisma (not quite the same thing). But it does not mention the implicit associations of Stalinism tied to "cult of personality". After all, people don't normally use "cult of personality" as a compliment. When I have said that a cult of personality grew up around George W. Bush after 9-11 (which has since largely dissipated), I was implying that there's something disturbingly authoritarian about his Administration: that people became so fixated on loyalty to the President in time of crisis that they weren't paying sufficient attention to the civil liberties implications of the Administration's policies.

In fact, the term "cult of personality" has become a full-fledged cliche in American politics. Despite my own past usage of the term, I fear that it no longer does much explanatory work. Nowadays anytime a politician demonstrates (1) charisma; (2) fervent loyalty from supporters; (3) slavish media attention; (4) religious rhetoric; or (5) more attention and less media criticism than his opponents would like, people associate him or her with a "cult" of personality. I've said it about George W. Bush (I'm not the only one); others have said it about Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and now Barack Obama.

If the term is to make any sense at all, it may be useful to separate out two different concerns. The first is the fear that charismatic leaders who inspire patriotic fervor and strongly emotional bonds of loyalty will produce authoritarian policies that people overlook because of their emotional connection to the leader and his claims to represent the national interest. That is the Stalinist implication of the term "cult of personality." And that is what people hint at when they use the term pejoratively. If so, then the real question to ask when the term is deployed is whether the speaker is claiming that politician's policies are or are likely to become authoritarian. Of course, people generally recoil from using the "A" word, but that's what's at stake. When I have used the term "cult of personality" in reference to George W. Bush, I have been invoking these concerns about his policies. Is *that* what people are worried about in the case of Barack Obama? If so, then they should say so directly.

However, there is a second concern that may actually be more important given the current features of American politics: the cult of personality around our leaders refers to the increasing disconnect between the politics of leadership (the methods of gaining and retaining power) and the actual mechanisms of governance.

Democracies tend to rally around charismatic figures; media culture organized around television tends to promote this because it makes character and appeals to character particularly important. People gain office through displays of charisma and appeals to character, seeking the right to rule by acclimation of the public. Yet once the leader takes office, the actual governance of the country is in the hands of large bureaucratic institutions like administrative agencies, the military, the intelligence services, and so on. When the new President takes office on a tide of acclimation and optimism, he inevitably promises what someone else will be delivering.

This is a distinct problem from Caesarism and creeping authoritarianism. The problem is that people are distracted from the way governance actually occurs because it is easier for them (and the press) to focus on personalities of leaders. To say that contemporary politicians form cults of personality means to say that they distract the public from the mechanisms of governance because that is how they gain the authority to rule. The problem is that if this authority does not translate into the ability to move the system forward, it is delusory and will, in time, breed cynicism and despair and successive waves of charistmatic politics each promising much but delivering little.

The long term fear about such a situation is that eventually electoral politics will become a sideshow to the actual forces that govern the nation, or, in the alternative, that popular discontent will grow so great that eventually a charismatic and unscrupulous leader will attempt to seize actual control of the methods of governance and rule by decree, thus ending democracy. This concern is not about any particular politician, but rather about the sustainability of popular sovereignty and the long term health of democratic republics. The framers of the American Constitution were worried that democracies eventually collapse and turn into dictatorships; that is why they tried to design a republican system of government that would make it difficult for power to be concentrated in the hands of any one person. (Their vision of the Presidency, it is worth noting, was very different from today's conception.) This larger question-- the long term sustainability of republican government in the face of changing circumstances and tendencies toward charismatic politics-- is probably not much on the minds of pundits and commentators who go on about "cults of personality," but it is probably more important than the question of whether either Obama's or Clinton's supporters are too loyal for the commentator's taste.


Obama is an example of a peculiarly American cult of celebrity, not a Stalinesque cult of personality.

Cults of celebrity share a fixation on personality with a cult of personality, but that is about all.

The cult of personality is meant to humanize and create a personal link with a totalitarian state.

The cult of celebrity is a superficial substitute to the substance of governance. It is the Oprah-ization of governance that only particularly wealthy and relatively care free societies can afford to indulge in.

Another example of someone who completely misinterprets a concept so that's it's more or less unrecognizable is Jonah Goldberg and his book "Liberal Fascism." Dave Neiwert of Orcinus does a marvelous job deconstructing Goldbergs mutterings and ramblings.

describing support for Obama as participation in a "cult of personality" is more the msm's attempt to downplay the extent to which support for Obama is a reflection of the public's disgust with the Herr Busch Gang (HBG).

I appreciate your concern, Jack, although I’m not sure that our not being able to ‘move the system forward’ best expresses it.

If I may, I think your greatest concern is that people in government, when under the leadership of a charismatic leader, will put the “man” before the law, so to speak. (sorry Brian, 'law' has meaning.)

My fear is that the NYTimes may be weighing-in on Hillary’s behalf and not reporting objectively. Why accommodate the unsupportable claim?

Indeed, I doubt Princeton Historian Sean Wilentz can support his claim with an Obama paragraph using the word ‘redeem.’ It’s not about the past, remember. Changing the way in which we do politics is about something we can do in the future, not that we were ever ideal in the past. He’s not listening.

And I’m not sure about scholars, but I’ll bet that for ordinary Americans names like Jim Jones, L Ron Hubbard, and Fidel Castro are more likely to come to mind than Stalin. He’s been dead awhile.

But I would agree that authoritarianism is the key connection. But again, Obama doesn’t signify that for me. We’ll see.

It’s a little wicked traveling in Cuba, because you will hear people (Fidelistas) preface what they say by first saying, “our leader says...” wicked for me because as a [d]emocratic, I refuse to utter such a phrase in a serious manner. Doing so would be antithetical to my being. So, yes, there is a charismatic component, at the very least.

But who would disagree that Fidel is an authoritarian using his authority to deny individual liberties of his own followers?

For Obama’s part, encouraging his campaign to avoid policy discussions as they canvas is not sufficient to support an implicit claim of authoritarianism.

Nor is it inconsistent with Obama’s political agenda, which is to make a character argument against Hillary without sounding negative.

The policy difference between the two candidates are not worth discussing. What they’ve chosen to do under pressure is.

Guy Benson of Chicago's 560 WIND-AM notes the cult of celebrity combined with the convenient implosion of every one of his opponents to date which propels Obama.

The cult of celebrity is a superficial substitute to the substance of governance.

You mean like senile "B-movie" actors running a country into the ground?


For HWSNBN, I suggest these posts on the Republican "strategy" as an approprate place to continue any 'discussion'....

Believe me, folks, it's just going to get worse and worse as the Republican sight in their slime cannons on Obama, as he looks more and more the prospective nominee.


Is this how the Pied Piper got his start?

Consider the cult of celebrity with respect to the pundits, the opinion makers, in contrast to the politicians. (I witnessed the reunion of the Capitol Gang on Meet the Press yesterday: old PUndits never die, they just smell that way.) Who reads in depth any more when there are bumper stickers and sound bites and celebrity endorsements available to "educate" us as we spend more time looking for our own personal happiness, unwilling to sacrifice?

The Prof's comments notwithstanding, am I the only one who (lovingly!) remembers this band and song? All the funnier with Jack's title for this post. But here's my question, does this make it a race thing?


Classic video from the MTV era! Nothing like music videos to add to a blog...

Professor Krugman worries.

@Bart: Have I finally managed to connect with you on something? ;) I still love the tune but them outfits are dated. Yeesh but I'm glad that decade is behind us.

Still unexplored are my thoughts about the unconscious mind, Freudian slips, the title of JB's post, this band's appropriation of the phrase, application of the phrase to the Obama campaign, how it all seems to put an ineffable racial subtext to the matter. Would I have gotten there if JB hadn't primed me with the (probably unintentional) Boy George reference?


The 80s have nothing on the 70s when it comes to UGLY clothing.

Then there was a certain pair of plaid bell bottoms I used to wear...


How many of you youngsters from the 1970s and '80s still wear clothing with prominent identification of the designer/manufacturer? Or with bumper sticker comments? Or with religious/political emblems? Or with the logos of Ivy League schools not actually attended?

Froma Harrop jumps on the "cult of personality" train:

Sophisticated commentary now notes the growing creepiness of the Obama campaign: Its aversion to substantive policy discussions. The sermonizing -- "In the face of despair, we believe there can be hope." And the messianic bit -- "At this moment in the election there is something happening in America." (That would be he.)

Volunteer trainees at Camp Obama are told not to talk issues with voters, but to offer personal testimony about how they "came" to Obama. Makes the skin crawl.

Centrists generally do not find cults of personality entertaining. The mass hypnosis reminds them of the mortgage frenzy -- all these people buying into a dream and not caring about the fine print.

I wonder if the Clintons started this whispering campaign...

@Bart: Get over your Clinton fetish, this sounds much more like your beloved KKKarl's work.

Plaid bell-bottoms? Yeesh indeed. ;)


@Bart: Get over your Clinton fetish, this sounds much more like your beloved KKKarl's work.

The GOP thinks that Obama would be the easier of the two to beat. The conservatives view Obama as a shallower version of McGovern. They have no incentive to play this card now and allow Hillary to win. The GOP is holding their fire until after the Dem pick is clear. BTW, Karl is making money on the speaking circuit and as a pretty darn good election analyst over at Fox.

In contrast, the Clintons are fighting for their political lives and got down and dirty with Obama after Iowa shattered the inevitability illusion. Remember Barrack HUSSEIN Obama, Obama the drug dealer, Obama the plagiarist and my personal favorite Obama the kindergarten presidential hopeful?

The "cult of personality" talking point is just par for the course for the Clintons.

Plaid bell-bottoms? Yeesh indeed. ;)

Yeah, my teenage fashion sense and hair style left a whole lot to be desired. I tried to hide my teen photos from my future wife when we were dating.

I wonder if the Clintons started this whispering campaign...

My answer at my links above. I agree with Robert; the Rethuglicans are sighting in their slime cannons.

Anyone who would "wonder" about such a thing without the slightest effort to find out the truth of the matter, is of course engaging in precisely the nasty type of slime that the Rethguglicans are known for. IOW, what "Bart" did here is essentially the very "whispering campaign" type tactic he seems to be decrying on the surface.

[Sez "Bart"]: The GOP thinks that Obama would be the easier of the two to beat.

Yeah. But "Bart" thought the Rethuglicans were going to mop up in 2006, so WGAF?

I have thought it curious that Democrats would be even the slightest interests in what the likes of stellar RW "tacticians" like Karl Rove have to say. One might even think that the best approach would be to take whatever he says, and assume as a first approximation that the exact opposite is the best course....

["Bart"]: The GOP is holding their fire until after the Dem pick is clear....

No. See my first links above.

... BTW, Karl is making money on the speaking circuit and as a pretty darn good election analyst over at Fox.

See my last two links above. ;-)


KKKarl Rove on Fox? That's almost as "surprising" as seeing Newt in "The No-Spin Zone." If a Fox analyst told me 2+2=4 I'd have to check it twice.

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