Charismatic Leadership & the Demise of Opposition

How charismatic leaders silence our own critical thinking and threaten democracy //

Misinformation has led us to build extreme, emotionally charged opinions which have largely discredited and exposed our institutions, threatening modern society. To save us from a polarised world with no guardrails, we have put our faith in charismatic leaders that resemble more tribe chiefs than modern politicians, and have given them a blank check to act above the rule of law. We have also developed an emotional relationship with these leaders that can prevent us from supervising and thinking critically about them. To save the modern democratic world we built, we need to restore rationality, common ground, and revisit the bias in our opinions.


Imagine you start your own business and hire an employee. After a while, you realise the numbers are not adding up and have enough evidence to conclude that the person you’ve chosen to hire has probably been stealing from you. Naturally, you decide to let them go (if not to file a criminal suit). That is because this is a functional relationship. It serves a function, it’s based solely on the utility of that service and loses its meaning when it doesn’t fulfil its role. Now imagine that person is your mother. To begin with, if you decided to hire your mother, chances are it wasn’t really because she was the most qualified person. Then if the numbers were not right, you would probably try to find any other explanation before admitting that your own mother has be stealing from you (that is, if you ever allowed yourself that conclusion). There’s also the chance that you would get upset and potentially cut ties with anyone who dared to warn you. Finally, if you did eventually acknowledge the theft, you could have a hard time letting your mother go, could try to excuse what happened, and almost certainly would not try to get her arrested. That is because this is an emotional relationship, based primarily on your affection to her.

So when did our relationship with our elected politicians stop being a functional relationship and become an emotional relationship?

Emotionally leadership isn’t actually new in politics. Throughout history and in many cultures, leaders were elected for their personality, war victories and interpersonal relationships which yielded them affectionate followers – what the sociologist Max Weber called a charismatic authority. Overtime, we created modern bureaucratic states governed by stable rules, not by the volatile wishes of rulers. We also created representative systems aimed at making sure that those rules would come from the majority and protect the minorities, systems which were materialised by our democratic institutions. Therefore, rather than a novelty, the emotional relationships we are building with our leaders represent a regression towards more primitive times. A regression fuelled to a great extent by misinformation, the discredit of institutions and political polarization.

Misinformation plays a key role in this decay. With the advent of the internet, not only access to information became more widespread, but also the ability to spread information. This allowed us to question the traditional voices that used to own exclusive rights to storytelling and govern public opinion. But it also gave a wider platform to those aiming to attack our institutions with wrong or misleading information. Those malicious storytellers leverage our emotions and our tribal instincts to gradually convince us beyond rationality (see the polarisation and the myth of political positioning). To win and maintain an audience in this fight for clicks, traditional media often resorts to the same tools, leading itself to further discredit. Moved by anger, fear and hatred triggered from all sides, we lose trust in the system and give in to extreme opinions.

“Discredited institutions are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although the people, the buildings and the staples that comprise it are physical, institutions themselves are abstract concepts that exist only in our minds – that is, they exist only because we believe in them. “

Discredited institutions are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although the people, the buildings and the staples that comprise it are physical, institutions themselves are abstract concepts that exist only in our minds – that is, they exist only because we believe in them. This belief is intimately linked to the belief in the values that they protect. When we stop believing there is anything worth respecting or protecting, our institutions fade away. It’s no wonder the United States Capitol attack of 2021 happened amidst a time of huge discredit in the country’s institutions and democratic processes. More than protected by the police, the Capitol was protected by the belief that the government was strong and impenetrable. Exposed and fragile, those institutions become an easier target for corruption.

Just like the rest of us, the people who come to integrate those institutions – such as the executive and legislative bodies, the courts, the police, and the media – are also not immune to a world of extreme opinions. In a divided world, institutions slowly become more partisan and the checks and balances they are meant to operate lose traction. They no long oppose and control one another, but rather attack or cooperate opportunistically. Our fear that they might no longer follow the rule of law might just as well materialise. At that point, the democratic state is threatened.

So we fear – sometimes without and sometimes with motive – that our institutions can no longer protect us. That the police, or the media, or the courts might have taken a side antagonistic to ours, and that they might bend or ignore the rules in order to defend it. And so, without faith in the state, we resort to a saviour. A charismatic leader whose virtues will restore our sense of safety, more than our now discredited rules ever could. We develop an emotional relationship to them, an affection that originates not in natural appreciation for that leader but in the fear of the other side.

From that moment on, the world is no longer divided between the people, on the one side, and representatives who they elect and supervise, on the other. Instead, between tribes that both the people and their charismatic leaders belong to. In this polarised world, we lose our ability for disapproval, and give a blank check to our rulers. We elect them even if they’re not the most qualified. We minimise or excuse their mistakes. We get upset or even cut ties with those who warn us (even if purely with facts and numbers). And, if we ever admit those mistakes, it is only through a long and painful reflection process. Political accountability is gone, and together with it the respect for the rule of law.

There is no easy fix to this, but any effective solution must address the roots of the problem. Our institutions work if we believe in them. They can be protected and perfected, if we assess them rationally and beyond our political positions. If we acknowledge that reality, we can pursue it. We can find common ground for discussion when we understand we are all on the same side, address our emotions to avoid biased opinions and fight misinformation, make our leaders accountable and restore our sovereignty as people. Only then can we stop moving backwards.

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