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Charisma and Democracy

America's search for leadership

January 2008

The American primary elections illustrate what we are really looking for in a President.
The United States is in the middle of the lengthy process of selecting candidates for our eventual presidential election in November 2008.  Not to put a fine point on it, it's an idiotic process which ought to be changed in almost every way.  A forthcoming essay will deal with some of that; this note is about an (unavoidable?) aspect of modern democracy, clearly seen in American elections:  charisma, and its meaning in the political arena.

Once upon a time, a half century ago, American political parties chose their presidential candidates in traditional ways in which the public was completely uninvolved and largely unaware.  Formally, the selection process involved the party sending State delegates to their national party convention, where the nominee was selected by vote, much as today.  In actuality the process was purely a power contest among state and big-city party bosses, with all the threats, influence peddling, and horse trading that belong to power politics.  The interests of the party bosses and their "shops" (such as New York's "Tammany Hall") in electing their man to the presidency were the usual tit-for-tat of patronage, influence, profit, and power.  The presidential candidates that came out of this process were beholden to the bosses who selected them, and if elected, depended on the same bosses for renomination and reelection.  The personal qualities of these candidates would have included the usual sine qua nons of the politician, the corporate climber, and the con artist:  adaptability, and that rare ability to convince any number of interests that your loyalty lies above all with them.  This latter quality, the essence both of confidence games, client servicing, and social climbing, includes such well-studied tools of the pro pol as the hand shake, the ingratiating smile, focused eye contact, selective listening, client details, creative prevarication, flattery, etc. ad nauseum.  It's a rare (successful) politician who is not accomplished in most of these subtle arts.

Early in the 20th century, public interest in the presidential nominating process began to grow, and after the State of Oregon in 1910 established the first primary election to give voters a voice in the process, other states quickly followed.  Most of the early state primaries were advisory only, and did not bind the state's party delegation at the national convention, so the power of the political bosses was little affected by this process.

In the last third of the 20th century, following the raucus and controversial Democratic National Convention of 1968, where Vice President Humphrey was nominated in preference to the anti-Vietnam War candidate Senator McCarthy who had shown strong public support in the primaries, both major parties made changes in their delegate selection process.  The voters were to be given more say in the selection of the nominee, and many of the primary election results became binding on the state delegations.  However, both parties reserved a portion of the delegate seats for party officials and office holders.  At the Democratic convention this still amounts to about 20% of delegates - at the Republican convention about half that.

The shift of decision-making from back rooms to the public ballot box was not just a change in process, but brought with it new requirements for skills in the candidates for nomination.  Naturally, the basic con skills are still required, but in addition comes the skill of mass appeal from the speaker's podium.  (The manipulation of the candidate's image through creative advertising is today even more decisive in campaigning; a note about that is here.)  Of course, the skill of public mass appeal has long been stressed in the general election, so it made good sense for the political parties to make the shift from boss-appeal skills to mass-appeal skills in their candidates.  The primary elections now test the candidates for precisely the qualities they will need in order to succeed in the general election, and may improve their chance of success.  (Though, like an arms race where both sides arm, it probably won't.)

So we come to the need for mass charisma.  To a degree, this can be learned by a dedicated student.  John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Bill Clinton are examples of studied charisma.  John Kennedy showed very little of this quality early in life, when he had no thought of public office, and Bobby showed even less of it.  Of course JFK became the model for American charismatic politicians, with Bobby Kennedy being his first copyist, and multitudes thereafter, of which Bill Clinton – who commenced this study early in life – has been by far the most successful.

Of what does this consist, this appeal to the masses, which has become our primary criterion for choosing a President?  First, do the traditional con man skills still carry weight in the era of mass communication?  Yes, it turns out that they are more critical than ever.  The camera now reveals all, so the candidate must learn to hide all that's not favorable.  We're reminded of the 1960 TV debate between presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon.  While a majority of radio listeners thought Nixon "won" the debate, TV viewers gave the nod to Kennedy.  Nixon's great error, a pol no-no not yet much studied at that time (and here revealed to the public for the first time), had nothing to do with his stubble or his make-up.  Not at all; his mistake – a habit of his, as it turned out – was to look by moving his eyes only, and not his head.  No trained politician post-Nixon would do such a thing.  "Keep the pupils in the center of the eye, and move the head to look at what you intend."  That's Pol-101 today.  Moving only the eyes, while it worked for Erryl Flynn in "Robin Hood" – which Nixon perhaps tried to emulate – is seen as shifty, a pejorative that followed Nixon throughout his career.  So that election may have been decided by Nixon's pupils.  That's how little it takes.

But in addition to the standard con skills already referred to, what is it exactly that draws us en masse to a person on a speaker's platform?  What do they have in common, Huey Long, Adolf Hitler, Billy Graham, Vladimir Lenin, Jesse Jackson...?  Those who have studied this question deeply are in broad agreement that the features that make us join the cause of a speaker fall into the following broad categories:  Content (the thoughts expressed), Oratory (the words used; voice modulation, emotion and zeal; technique of syntax and verbal delivery; gestures), and Glamour (appearance, poise & self-projection, mystery & aristocracy – when called for).  Of course not in that order.  Rather, in rough order of importance to the voter (and feel free to use this as a guide in the voting booth), the detailed list looks about like this:

  1. Voice modulation, (apparent) emotion, and (apparent) zeal:  This is the essence of oratory, and the essence of political speechifying.  This is 90% of Elmer Gantry's technique.  If we listen to a speech by the above-mentioned luminaries, even if we don't understand the language we grasp the urgency, the warmth, the earnestness of zealous feeling pouring forth from the speaker, all from his mastery of this crucial element.  And how is this skill learned?  In principle, easy as pie; it's employed by every itinerant TV evangelist, and even a goodly number of your average Sunday morning Baptist preachers are more or less successful practitioners.  The key is to listen and repeat, listen and repeat, just like learning a foreign language.  Pay particular attention to the pathos (the technique requires a slight tremolo) in the voice and its tone-range: from soft, low bass when speaking confidentially, to a louder, higher pitch when moving the crowd to action.  And the expression of emotion should never have to wait until you actually feel that emotion.  That may not be the most propitious time to show it.  As Mrs.Clinton demonstrated in New Hampshire this month, a small tear shown (not even shed) at the right time can move mountains, or at least some voters.  We won't pretend that all this is easy to learn, but it's the skill that will pay the greatest dividend once mastered.
  2. Poise & self-projection:  Nothing succeeds like success, and the appearance of having already won is itself a winner on the campaign platform.  The truly great politician's bearing gives an air of invincibility that makes one want to join up.  This quality is actually hard to teach.  It may be that you have it or you don't.  It's surprising how, even today, many pols look wimpy and apologetic on a stage.  Of course they won't go far.
  3. Syntax and verbal delivery:  Related to the first item, certainly.  This is an area often ignored even today in a politician's training.  But listen closely to the great evangelists.  They don't make the mistake of insisting on sentence structure!  Politicians often speak by reading speeches written by speech writers, who – unless they're exceptional – write proper sentences.  But this is a blunder.  Great speakers may include a properly structured sentence here and there, but emotive speech, which is what it's all about, comes through fractured phrases and pauses that come (apparently, it goes without saying) from the heart, not from the head.  Again, fractured phrases ... meaningful pauses ... the heart, not the head!  (We'll remember that G.W.Bush was into the fractured-phrases-and-pauses thing, though it may have been unintentional.  Nevertheless, he won – sort of, perhaps picking up the pity vote.)
  4. Gestures:  This is a key difference between radio and TV/personal appearance.  The broad range of gestures, as every Italian knows, punctuates and colors what is said.  And the fact is that visual memory is more acute than aural memory; if you don't remember what was said you'll at least remember the waving of the arms, which is often enough to nail down a voter's support.  We're reminded of the luckless Mr.Mondale, up against the Great Communicator Reagan in 1984.  Reagan's arms, spread wide, just made one want to crawl into his fatherly embrace.  Mondale's notion of gesturing was to raise one finger on point 1 of his speech, and two fingers at point 2.  This worked well enough in Scandinavian Minnesota (the only state he won), as we Scandinavians don't understand gesticulation anyway, but in the nation as a whole there were just too many voters of more warm-blooded ethnicity.  You don't gesture, you don't win!
  5. Aristocracy – when called for:  Careful with this.  There have been times and places where the glamour and mystery of near-royalty has served a candidate well.  But in the U.S. it must of course be blended with a dose of common-ness.  That worked well for John (and Jackie) Kennedy.  But at other times and places, any hint of übermenschlichkeit will ring a political death knell.
  6. Appearance:  We're getting down toward the less important factors.  This one is vastly overrated.  Go too far with the $5000 suits and the $400 haircuts (Sen. John Edwards – 2004 VP candidate – comes to mind) and it can easily bite you as a politician.  And who decided that pols should look just like that?  The electorate may decide that they would actually prefer a politician they can pick out of a lineup, should that become necessary.
  7. The words used:  OK, this can sometimes have some importance, but generally not.  A lot of money is wasted on speech writers.  At most, a couple of key words or slogans, repeated often, will maximize what you can get out of words.  (This is perhaps less effective when all the candidates repeat the same key word – this year it seems to be "Change!".)  Listen to Castro again.  Even if you don't speak Spanish you just want to pick up a gun and fight for the Revolucion.  And Germans felt the same way about Der Vaterland in the 1930s.  You see, it's not the words really; it's the oomph.
  8. The thoughts expressed:  This item is on the list merely for completeness.  It (i.e., actual content) has rarely been shown to move any significant number of voters.

So there we have all we really need to know to make a choice of candidate for President consistent with the choices we've made before.  And consistency is a value easily underrated.

Over the past month, after more than a year of campaigning, we have been privileged to see this very process in action in a couple of primary elections.  (Not to get overemotional, but I can't help adding a personal note about how satisfying it is to see a theory which I hold so dear (though I'm certainly not its originator) receive as thorough a validation as it has received so far in the primary season.)  We have watched a few thousand voters in the State of Iowa, and then a few thousand more in New Hampshire, toss on the scrapheap, as they should, the three most experienced, and perhaps most competent, presidential candidates on the Democratic side:  Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, and Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware.  When we look at the campaign styles of these three has-beens, and compare that with the handy list above, their demise becomes obvious, predictable, and correct.  We hardly need to look further than point no.1.  While all three did make some effort at occasional voice modulation, they – to a man – failed to indulge in sufficient (apparent) emotion and (apparent) zeal.

Sure, the words and messages of these three candidates could have been interpreted as important, but look again.  These points are the last on the list!  There was clearly something they didn't understand, but that the voters did.  While all three had messages and qualifications that they thought they should have been able to carry to the entire nation for our consideration, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire knew better, and it's really for our own good.  Why waste our time picking a candidate who's just going to cloud the issue with issues, come November?  They'd be without a chance then anyway.  No, Democrats will have a much better shot with the bombastic styles and polished smiles of Obama, Edwards, and Mrs.Clinton.  And they're all pretty good gesticulators.  One might think I had slipped them an advance copy of my recipe for success, but they must have got it from another source.  Honest.

It's often the case that when a politician fails in one area, he/she fails in several.  And that was certainly the case with the three fallen Democrats, though we might say that their area of failure was the entire mass-appeal business outlined above.  None of them could gesture worth a damn.

So we plod on through this tiresome election year, and by the time most of us get a chance to vote, other voters in various small states will have further cleared out the chaff for us, leaving us with those who can emote on cue, gesticulate convincingly, and just give us that tingle and make us wish we were close to them.  A young female attendee at a Barack Obama rally in New Hampshire last week said, "He made me feel warm all over."

Yum.  Can we ask more of our President than to feel warm all over?  I hardly think so.

© 2008 H. Paul Lillebo

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