The twilight of charisma in the modern presidency

Systems with a strong presidential character, such as those of Argentina, France or the United States, have known a type of leadership that can be described as charismatic. Perhaps it would be pertinent to explore its characteristics, to the extent that the term “charismatic” continues to be attributed to this or that leader, especially to someone who wants to be the bearer of a mission.

The conceptual model was defined mainly by Max Weber, in his work Economy and Society, published in 1922. Weber defines three types of “domination” that represent paradigms: the “rational-legal”, the “traditional” and the “charismatic”.

The relevant traits that he attributes to “charismatic dominance” are:

* A type of authority based on the feeling of the followers that the leader is endowed with an extraordinary quality, as if it were conferred by a divine gift.

* A phenomenon of emotional community by which the leader, who feels chosen to fulfill a mission, hopes and obtains the faith of his followers.

Power does not come from the inherent quality of an individual, but from the way in which the disciples value this quality.

It always occurs in the context of a critical situation, that is, a situation of profound crisis in society.

It is an unstable leadership that, despite its “revolutionary”, is destined to become routine, since the strength of the charisma is decreasing.

In a democracy, according to Weber, the charismatic leader says: “’Now unite and obey me.’ The people and the parties can hardly interfere in what he does. But later the people can become a court. If the leader deceived him, he can drop the blade.

France. Let us take an emblematic case of 20th century France, that of Charles de Gaulle, a character who emerged from the country’s military defeat in 1940. His famous appeal on June 18 on the BBC in London exhorted to continue the war, and prophesied victory final: “France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war. Nothing is lost. France is not alone. This war is a world war… We can win in the future. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will not go out. One day, France will regain its freedom and its greatness.

De Gaulle is at that moment alone and with a French people who do not know him. His day will be August 26, 1944, the Liberation, when he becomes the charismatic leader. He writes in his memoirs: “Before me, the Champs Elysées. oh! It is the sea. A huge crowd. Maybe two million souls. One of those miracles of national consciousness happens. And I, in the midst of this unleashing, I feel I am fulfilling a function that far exceeds my person, which serves as an instrument to destiny.

His leadership of him the new head of the government (August 1944-January 1946) of liberated France. His “desert journey” will last 13 years, until his return to power (1958-1969). How will you rate the force that pushed you to risk everything in 1940? It is not the “function” or the “intelligence” that moved him, but the “will” and the “instinct”.

argentino Argentina has known there were four charismatic figures, although it can be considered that the figure of Hipólito Yrigoyen had charismatic features. In the Weberian sense, the main ones are those of Perón and Evita.

The great moment of Perón’s historical charisma was his speech on October 17, 1945, from the balcony of the Casa Rosada. He was already known, since 1943, for his social work that he had carried out as Secretary of Labor and Welfare in the government of General Farrell. Released after his detention on the island of Martín García and his stay at the Military Hospital, his speech-dialogue with the crowd (“Where were you?”) establishes the contract with the people: “Workers, sweaty mass, suffering people, Brothers from the interior, you represent the pain of the mother earth… I want to continue being Colonel Perón… put myself at the full service of the authentic Argentine people”.

He then retired from the Army to launch himself in the presidential race. His charisma in government will gradually decline, while Evita’s, in the same period, is already crystallizing into a myth. Evita reached her peak at the time of the Cabildo abierto on August 22, 1951, when the CGT intended to designate her as future vice president. At that moment, she is the voice of the people, a people symbolized by its “shirtless”, its “grasitas” and its “little black heads”. A voice that relegates that of Perón, who appears on the sidelines, almost in opposition.

Evita is transported by faith. Regarding her speeches, the testimony of Aurora Venturini, who worked with her at the Foundation, is revealing: “She went out onto the balcony without knowing what she was going to say. She would peek out and you could see a tremor of possession, how she shuddered, and I and the people shuddered listening to her. When she finished she seemed skinnier, emaciated, she suffered a wear and tear of love ”.

The other two charismatic figures are those of Alfonsín and Menem. The charismatic moment of the two occurs in his electoral campaign and when he assumes power. Alfonsín, in 1983, is both a liberator and a redeemer who came to “rescue the Nation.”

His charism is a charism of differentiation and austerity. With a prophetic accent, he campaigns with that “patriotic prayer” that is the Preamble to the Constitution. In the Cabildo, he promises “a period of one hundred years of freedom, peace and democracy.” In his management, he will be the “bossy Galician”, as defined by Adolfo Canitrot, who was his vice-minister of Economy.

The journalist Joaquín Morales Solá recounts that, in the summer of 1986, to close a long debate on the constitutional reform project in Olivos, he hit the table with his president’s cane and exclaimed: “The capital of Argentina will be made in Viedma.” In his mind, the challenge was to go south and into the cold, to “harden up and face the weather of the future.”

Years later, when the author of these lines asked him, in 1994, during the Constituent Assembly, about the fact that he had a very personal style in his leadership, Alfonsín softened, with a smile: “I have to exercise responsibility, but I am very democratic in my leadership. I think that when we advance in the democratic improvement, it is good that we are abandoning personalism ”.

Menem appears, already in 1988, as a savior, after the failure of the alfonsinista project. His charism is a charism of identification and fraternity. That of the “brother”, of the “common guy”. With his “Follow me”, he addresses the “dispossessed”, the “submerged”, but also the people on the street, whose archetype is the café waiter.

“The people saw my eyes, they saw my soul. He found an equal in me, ”she said. The two summon the religious registry. Alfonsín, who offers “to the Argentina of the future our moved secular prayer of modest citizens”, will also say: “I always appeal to the faith of the Argentines. I know that faith is not enough, but I also know that nothing can be built without faith.” And Menem warned: “You have to keep very firm the concept of religion that our people have.”

Revolution. It cannot be denied that this mode of authority, in the cases exposed, has been “revolutionary” in the cultural sense of the term, and therefore transformative. But the charisma of these figures was an unstable resource. According to Max Weber, the coverage of economic needs is the main wear factor of this type of leadership. “In this, the economy is directing, and not directing,” Weber writes.

Today, the time is that of the rational-legal. The governance strategy cannot be other than transactional. With social networks, continuous information, the narrowness of the majority, regional conventions, globalization, the form of charismatic authority appears phantasmagorical.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who was initially tempted by a “Jupiterian” style, has come back down to earth. In Argentina, beyond what Néstor and Cristina Kirchner were able to do during their presidencies, the verticality of his leadership isolated more than united. The disciples find less and less echo within a fragmented society without references. Some of them still believe that everything must come from the Boss.

The electorate, in modern presidencies, is no longer held captive by an emotional community. There is a misunderstanding between what the militants declare and what the citizens expect.

There remains, however, the ideality, the legitimacy of the sources, even the mystique, capable of guiding the axes of current policies. It is the Peronist image “We will always be the little black heads”, by Alberto Fernández. It is the Alfonsinist formula “By moral force we will win”, which could be that of radicals like Gerardo Morales or Facundo Manes. It is what can still found open and fluid identities.

We are at the heart of the two Weberian ethics, the ethics of conviction (defending a cause) and the ethics of responsibility (how to behave within a political system). In the end, wouldn’t the real challenge be, especially for leaders, to know how to reconcile the fight of ideas and the spirit of consensus?

*PhD in Political Science, Paris IV 2001. (Institut des Hautes Etudes d’Amérique latine – Iheal).

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