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Can Democracy Handle Charisma?

From George Washington to Simón Bolívar, magnetic leaders built modern democracies. They also broke them.


Sometimes charismatic people don’t know their own strength. And sometimes they do. In private, charismatic people light up a room and make each person feel beloved. In public life, they’re the ones who convince us of unlikely futures, the big personalities who feel like friends, the politicians who inspire joyful screams and hopeful votes and angry hollers. How charisma relates to democracy is harder to describe. This is partly because charismatic people appear so toweringly unequal, for democracy isn’t supposed to have a class of superior beings. But it’s also because charismatic leaders set our hearts racing, calling our emotions forth in public when we should–or so we imagine–be thinking and acting rationally.

Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution
by David A. Bell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352pp., $30.00

Political charisma seemed less dangerous, frankly, at the end of the twentieth century when all citizens really wanted was to be inspired and Western democracies swooned regularly over boyish heartthrob leaders. It was the age of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, after all, a time when democratic leadership was synonymous with the ability to feel voters’ pain, to make politics seem vital and desirable and sexy. By the 2000s, it was easy to think that democratic feelings were hollow but harmless: a consumerist thrill or a splash of celebrity. 

Since then, the gentle portrait-studio glow has dimmed. Populist authoritarians like Donald Trump, vulgar and hateful, possess their own charismatic power. Trump’s most die-hard supporters regard him as a superhuman business genius endowed by God with athleticism and brilliance and compassion. To some, he is the nation’s unlikely savior. Yoking hopes and desires to fear and resentment, Trump’s twisted appeal is the sort of psychic threat to democracy that many had forgotten about or perhaps thought no longer existed.

Political emotions have come to seem unsafe at any speed. But could democracy exist without them? And must our public feelings always express themselves in relation to powerful men, or do we have alternatives? Princeton historian David Bell’s book Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution helps us wrestle with these questions by unearthing the forgotten history of political charisma. An expert in French history, he argues that political charisma was born with modern democracy just over 200 years ago amid the Atlantic revolutions that put an end to the rule of kings and produced our world. In many cases, political power in newly democratic states came to rest on the shoulders of men like George Washington: heroic geniuses with military expertise and virtuous reputations who seemed nevertheless familiar and approachable. They ruled in the name of the people because they were adored, not feared. The age of revolutions was fueled by this new model of political leadership, Bell suggests provocatively, as much as it was shaped by ideas about reason, liberty, and equality.

Charismatic celebrities built modern democracies. They also broke them. Roving across the stormy Atlantic world from the 1760s to the 1820s, from the early United States and Napoleonic France to Haiti and Latin America, Men on Horseback contends that political charisma emerged as an appealing style for democratic rulers and dictators alike. In other words, charismatic authoritarianism has been wrapped around democracy from the start, the “double helix” of our politics. Disentangling the two could be harder than we think.

Many of the earliest democratic leaders took inspiration from one another. In 1828, after liberating most of South America from the crumbling Spanish Empire, Simón Bolívar paused to reflect on the reasons for his success. He reported to an aide that in 1804, as a young man in Paris, he’d witnessed the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as French emperor. He’d been impressed, he remembered, “less because of the pomp than because of the sentiments of love” that Bonaparte drew from his people. Sparking those feelings, Bolívar thought, should be the “ultimate ambition” of politics. “The crown that Napoleon placed on his head seemed to me a miserable thing,” he recalled. “What seemed great to me was the universal acclamation … that [he] was inspiring.”

By the 1820s, the citizens of South America’s newly independent revolutionary states had come to adore Bolívar. Popular biographies and poetry celebrated him as a “Genius of War and Peace,” this great military figure and democratic leader who had brought freedom to a continent. Cities honored him with Roman-style triumphs and processions. The adulation was irresistible: Bolívar came to describe himself as “the Sun, immovable at the center of the universe, radiating life.” After summiting the 20,564-foot Mount Chimborazo, this man, who had legendarily led his armies across the high passes of the Andes, declared that he had finally “risen above the heads of all. I dominate the earth.”

The more arbitrary and personal his authority became, the more Bolívar strained to present himself as a humble servant of the people. “Colombia is not France,” he demurred, resisting popular calls for him to become a monarch. “I am not Napoleon and do not want to be.” Bolívar came to prefer the praise offered by Ecuadorean writer Vicente Rocafuerte, who called him “the Washington of the South, the sublime Bolívar.” Framing himself as George Washington, Bolívar wasn’t renouncing his greatness or his psychological bonds with the people but rather swapping one charismatic template for another: not the martial potentate of France but the adored, self-sacrificing republican father of American democracy. Bolívar resigned the presidency in April 1830. Tuberculosis killed him before year’s end.   

As one revolution followed another and European monarchs fell like overripe fruit, the public tried to understand the nature of their new leaders. Classical references helped to heroes like Pericles or Julius Caesar. But these modern democratic titans also resembled one another. One of Napoleon’s earliest biographers called him France’s Washington; a French journalist eulogized Washington by praising Bonaparte. Toussaint Louverture, who was born into slavery and led the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to freedom from French rule, was described to European audiences as “the Washington of the colonies” and “the Bonaparte of St. Domingo.” The French writer Chateaubriand called him “the black Napoleon.” Bolívar cast himself as the heir to Washington, Napoleon, and Louverture all at once. Each of these men, in turn, was compared with Pasquale Paoli, a magnetic Corsican liberal made famous in the English-speaking world by Scottish biographer James Boswell in the 1760s.

Leading revolutions and building new states in the name of the people, these men seemed larger than life, “world-souls” enriched by God with a range of skills and entrusted with grand destinies. But they were loved and respected on the basis of their personal qualities and achievements, not their titles or inheritances. They earned the adoration of the people in four principal ways. First, they all possessed wartime victories and impressive tactical abilities—intoxicating qualities in an age in which war was seen as a glorious alembic, testing the strong and rewarding the courageous. Second, they were saviors, appearing at times of national crisis to rescue a country from violent chaos, emancipate a people from slavery, or fend off tyrannical monarchies. Third, they were usually founding fathers who, after ushering in new states or remaking societies, stood above the daily maelstrom of factional conflict. Finally, they were men: Structured by late eighteenth-century social norms, charisma was understood as an essentially masculine virtue.

Print made all of this possible: cheap print, gutter print, highbrow print, an explosion of images and writing that circulated among increasingly literate publics in Europe and the Americas. It was in the eighteenth century that readers began consuming novels and biographies, two genres that banked on revelatory personal details to create the illusion of closeness, thus evoking strong emotional responses. By the century’s end, apocryphal stories about these heroic leaders spread like wildfire: Washington was said to have been so honest that he reported his own arboreal crimes; Napoleon, it was whispered, had restored a child to life during his military campaign in Egypt. As “creatures of print,” charismatic rulers also used pamphlets and newspapers to speak directly to the soldiers under their command and the citizens in their thrall. Images of these men on horseback or in classical profile began appearing on posters and handkerchiefs and even crockery, the pinup boys of the revolutionary age–virile and virtuous and handsome.

It was the gutter press, after all, that had destroyed the reputations of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and made the French Revolution imaginable. That same world of print, thriving on salacious private anecdotes and arresting images, built up figures like Washington and Bolívar into approachable divinities. These men were adored because they felt like friends. The bonds may have been fictional, but the emotions generated were real. Perfect timing for a kingless age that needed new engines of national cohesion and political legitimacy.

This charisma was a truly popular source of authority: If the people stopped believing or feeling that a ruler possessed it, charisma vanished. But it wasn’t necessarily liberal or democratic. How political enthusiasm might be constrained by law or rationality was a puzzle that kept observers up at night. Washington, in the final reckoning, was a deeply responsible steward of his own charisma, uncomfortable with the personality cult that grew up around him. Bell makes a convincing argument that his heroic stature and fatherly appeal helped consolidate American freedom, that he “put warm flesh on the cold abstractions of republican political principle.” But even Washington had his critics. “Are you sure,” wrote founder Benjamin Rush in the summer of 1779, keeping a wary eye on the president’s enthusiastic following, “we have no Caesars nor Cromwells in this country?” Washington relinquished his own power in 1797. Other revolutionary men on horseback were less self-effacing. Napoleon, Bolívar, and Louverture each used their charismatic reputations to subvert constitutions and become authoritarians. The “despotism of love,” Bell notes, led to “despotism, pure and simple.”

It’s impossible to read Men on Horseback without the post-2016 world intruding upon your consciousness. Bell knows this and offers twin conclusions. First, he reminds us, charisma is as old as modern politics itself. It has been there from the start, powering dictatorial impulses as often as democratic ones. “A potentially authoritarian charisma is as modern a phenomenon as any of the liberal ideas and practices that arose in the age of revolutions,” Bell writes, “including human rights and democratic republicanism and constitutional government.” We should resist the temptation, then, to see emotional appeals as primitive or premodern, to see Trump as an aberration from the norm.

History has emancipatory power. It teaches us that the world isn’t fixed, that its most stable features actually came into being under strange and specific circumstances, that things were not always the way they are today. To learn that political charisma was born in this Atlantic revolutionary crucible, that its lifespan has been startlingly long and distinguished but not eternal—these historical discoveries permit us to think beyond it, should we so choose. But this isn’t the destination to which Men on Horseback leads.

Bell concludes that we’re basically stuck within the confines of the heroic masculine model of political charisma that he has so imaginatively traced. Charismatic rulers, he contends, are not just longstanding fixtures of political life. They are also “inescapable” as we move into the future. “We will always have charismatic leaders,” he writes.

They are part of the fabric from which our political societies are woven. Our task is to choose these charismatic leaders wisely, by judging as carefully as possible both the individuals themselves and the causes for which they stand.

That is to say, the best we can do, as democracy buckles and powerful elite institutions fail us, is find ourselves a Washington and hope for the best. 

If those lines feel underwhelming to you, it could be because charisma is ultimately unsalvageable for democracy. The charismatic relationship is always hierarchical: The masses venerate a single individual. Ordinary people express real feelings toward their political idols and get a fiction in return. Love frees charismatic leaders to act with great latitude, while citizens are bound by their loyalty and devotion. Bell doesn’t give us a full taxonomy of charismatic feelings, but it seems true that even the most responsible kind of charismatic love is adulterated by awe, veneration, infatuation, even subjection. In every permutation, from generals and liberators to late capitalist celebrity-politicians like Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau, charisma is an unbalanced emotional exchange. It can never be democratic in spirit.

We can hope, as Bell does, for charismatic leaders who will use their powers for good. But the reason that feels unsatisfying is that it doesn’t resolve the tension we sense between the structure of charismatic feeling and the equality that’s supposed to define democratic life. Two hundred years ago, that conflict could be overlooked: The very first modern democratic states needed legitimacy, and post-revolutionary citizens hungered for facsimile kings. Our situation and its psychological demands are different. In the twenty-first century, we’re tasked not with creating democracies from scratch but rather sustaining them under pressure, healing their wounds, and falling back in love with each other as citizens and friends.

Charisma isn’t the only model we have for deciding how and when and which political emotions are legitimate, although it’s easily the most familiar. The hierarchical structure is hard to escape. In postwar West Germany, elected officials and academics–determined to avoid another Hitler–embraced constitutional patriotism, or Verfassungspatriotismus. Philosophers like Jürgen Habermas wondered if citizens couldn’t find a safer and more worthy object of their strong feelings: not a great personality, but rather the liberal state, the democratic constitution, the idea of public reasoning itself. Transfer your enthusiasm to the procedures, not the person.

It’s also possible for us to direct our political feelings horizontally: not to heroes or abstract principles, but toward one another. Writing during Reconstruction in 1871, for instance, Walt Whitman argued that the most essential ingredient for democracy was a feeling of “intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man.” He sought a kind of political friendship among citizens that was “fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and lifelong.” Whitman was an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, surely as close to Bell’s ideal charismatic democrat as it’s possible to imagine, but it was these lateral emotions that the poet thought “more weighty than the engines there in the great factories, or the granite blocks in their foundations.”

Solidarity and compassion and friendship and mutual concern—these are universal feelings that flourish among equals, no superhuman inspiration needed. They connect us crossways, not as subordinates. The most crucial difference, though, is that social democratic emotions like these tend to be expressed as habits more than grand gestures or effusive declarations. Democracy, of course, is supposed to be habitual, too.

During his 2020 campaign for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders regularly asked his supporters “to fight for someone you don’t know.” He was calling for American voters to extend their circles of care, to feel emotionally invested in the welfare of fellow citizens they might never meet. The Covid-19 months have made this all much clearer. Faced with true catastrophe, neighborhoods and communities have fallen back on each other. Expressions of gratitude and concern, not for leaders but for healthcare personnel and essential workers, are now colorfully chalked on sidewalks and bannered on garage doors. To the extent that new charismatic leaders have emerged as focal points of our many pandemic feelings, they are women like Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer of British Columbia, or Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand—figures who use their platforms to strengthen feelings of solidarity among citizens, asking people to be kind and caring and collaborative. They are guiding us, like Sanders, beyond charisma to alternate ways of feeling democratic.

How to make political charisma work for democracy, then, might be the wrong question to ask. The more exhilarating questions are these: If we invented charismatic leadership at a specific moment in human history, can’t we uninvent it? Shouldn’t we?