Charisma in Politics is Not What You Think it is

15/11/2011 23:48 GMT | Updated 15/01/2012 10:12 GMT

By: Dr Gergana Yankova-Dimova

Writing for YouGov-Cambridge

The results of a YouGov-Cambridge survey show that the electorate votes for politicians for very different reasons than it thinks it does. This "Twin Peaks" scenario is best revealed by the huge discrepancy between people's description of what a charismatic leader means to them in principle and the actual reasons they vote for concrete politicians that they find charismatic. There is almost no overlap between the actual and the imagined reasons for finding a politician charismatic.

Max Weber argues that charismatic authority, which is premised solely on the qualities of the leader, has evolved into a more stable form of legal authority, where the electorate is attached more to the bureaucratic structure than to the personality of the politician. While the exact place of attractive personality in politics is currently debateable, it is interesting to open the black box and see what people think stands behind charisma in politics.

YouGov-Cambridge asked 2657 respondents to rank the qualities that make a politician charismatic. They said that, in general, the most important qualities that make a politician charismatic, in the order of their importance, are: honesty, a natural leader, in touch with ordinary people, sticking to what he/she believes in, decisive, good in crisis, having a sense of humour, trustful, sounding intelligent and effective. These responses suggest that charisma in the respondents' minds is a positive characteristic, suitable for describing great statesmen, such as Churchill, Julius Caesar and Bismarck.

The unexpected part of the survey shows that the actual reasons for finding concrete politicians charismatic do not overlap with the laudable general qualities of charismatic authority stated above. People would describe David Cameron as charismatic for the following reasons, ranked in the order of importance: from a rich background, smart appearance, self-confident, good talker, pleased with himself, ambitious, sounds intelligent, appears to be in control, shows up on TV often, possesses a sense of humour. What a huge departure from the trustful, honest image of a charismatic politician that the same respondents painted in the previous question!

And this incongruity between the actual and general conditions of charisma is found across the board. The reasons for finding Ed Miliband charismatic are, again in the order of their importance: smart appearance, from a rich background, ambitious, pleased with himself, good talker, sounds intelligent, youthful, self-confident, attractive appearance, shows up on TV often.

The reasons for finding Nick Clegg charismatic are, again in the order of their importance: smart appearance, ambitious, pleased with himself, good talker, sounds intelligent, self-confident, attractive appearance, shows up on TV often, sense of humour.

The point is that the stated reasons for finding politicians charismatic often border on interpretations that do not go easily with the image of socially responsible leaders who can do much public good. That would have been fine if respondents chose politicians for reasons other than charisma. Charisma, after all, is not meant to replace competence. Nor is it meant to be an inherently positive concept.

But the findings also show that the electorate idealises charisma in general terms. That might suggest that they think charisma is a determining factor in their choice of a politician, or at least that charisma is a desirable quality. If this is indeed so, we have several areas of contemporary politics to reconsider. Why is it that we think that politicians should be elected for certain qualities and then elect them for completely different, and most importantly, more superficial reasons? What are the conditions that have "landed" our lofty ideals for politicians on a more superficial level?

Indirect Democracy: To Represent, You Need To Be Presentable

Maybe one of the reasons for the dubious evolution of charisma is found in one particular condition posed by indirect democracy: to represent, you need to be presentable. And if we understand the importance of presentation in representative democracy, then the manifestation of charisma as looks, humour and self-assurance becomes much more logical.

It is as if our general idea of a charismatic politician is not updated by our perceptions of the reality of today's representative politics. We have stored, through history lessons, fairy tales and numerous speeches of charismatic politicians the image of the loyal, considerate, trustful, intelligent kind. But things have changed. In Ancient Greece, kings needed to be philosophers. In the Middle Ages, leaders needed to be brave warriors.

Today, it is important to look good on TV. That means, among other things, not to sweat too prolifically during TV debates with your opponents. Admittedly, there is no proven connection between heavy perspiration and the ability to channel important social welfare laws in parliament and to react adequately in situations of natural disasters, such as flooding and heavy snow. The reality is, however, that presentation matters. There were no TVs in Ancient Greece, and democracy was direct after all. When assumption of office was hereditary, one did not need to wow the voters. But in today's world, one needs to put enormous effort in winning the electorate's graces.

The real question is whether it is more important to be good at winning the hearts of the voters than in actually doing the job. Politics, it seems, has become a two sided activity. Politicians are simultaneously salesmen and producers. They first sell appealing images and then make good practices. But these two do not always go together. And if a politician is elected because he sells appealing images, without actually producing good practices, representative democracy is in crisis.

Irrationality of the voters

The findings on charisma challenge one of the basic assumptions of electoral democracy - that voters are completely rational in their vote. If the respondents were indeed rational, why would they describe charismatic politicians as honest and intelligent, and then describe David Cameron as charismatic because he is physically attractive and self-assured?

It is the same non-rational phenomenon when women say they seek husbands who are responsible, serious and stable, but they actually fall for the flippant, entertaining, and unpredictable types. Likewise, we want a politician who is decisive, effective and good in crises, but we are really affected by somebody who exudes self confidence, tells good jokes and reminds us of his fabulous self by showing up often enough on TV. Courting a date, selling soap, or convincing people to vote for you, all come down to the same irrational, basic instincts.

If we admit that voters are not so rational, then we are on our way to solve "mysterious" puzzles of representative democracy, such as the so called electoral paradox. The electoral paradox tells us that it is paradoxical that people vote despite their realization that their single vote is unlikely to change the outcome of the election. Irrationality makes this puzzle not so paradoxical after all. People vote for the same reasons that they buy lottery tickets. They, quite irrationally, hope that they will have a lucky strike.

Not the end of the story

The findings stemming from the survey on charisma in politics may not be so damning after all. The importance of presentation in representative democracy could be construed as a good development for representative democracy. There might be a correlation between winning votes and performing well in office. The politician is the ultimate people manager. And if he can lead voters, he can surely use the same charismatic qualities to lead a team of experts as well. So the qualities that make up a politician charismatic transform, at least partially, into the qualities that make a politician competent.

Secondly, the fact that voters are partially irrational in their appraisal of politicians could be construed as a good development. If we consider that all voters constantly face situations of incomplete information, then choosing the most charismatic leader could be the most rational choice. Voters do not know what is happening in parliament every second of the day. Neither is it possible to know how the leaders handle party meetings.

Charisma, unlike competence, is information revealed to all voters. Therefore, going for the charismatic leader is the public's best approximation of selecting a good leader in situations of incomplete information. After all, if a charismatic politician is so pleased with himself, why shouldn't we be pleased with him? Going for charisma instead of for other qualities is a shortcut that voters must take if they want to participate in the electoral game.

In conclusion, it turns out that phenomena that seem to upset the "clean" models of electoral democracy actually explain them further. The irrationality of the voters is no longer a hitch in electoral studies but the perfect response to the element of presentation in representative democracy.

See the survey details and full results here