The problem with charisma in political debate4 min read

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(Last Updated On: 23/09/2018)

Throughout history, we have based far too many decisions on who is presenting the options available to us and how those options are being presented to us. Popular media tends to skim over the surface – particularly in the US – and does not mobilise its audience to question what exactly they are backing, as well as the precise validity of those views and arguments. It is the reason why Hillary Clinton can displace a dishevelled-but-intelligent Bernie Sanders.

The British populous saw glimpses of this phenomenon during the Brexit debate, where the leave campaign broke electoral rules by overspending on misinformation and false promises. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s charisma had sufficed in convincing many people to facilitate what is now widely viewed as a highly problematic decision.

Of course, charisma reflects its own pearls of wisdom. We cannot deny that emotional intelligence is, well, a form of intelligence. Ancient Greek orators used to practice sophistry, the use and incorporation of rhetoric as a linguistic tool in debate. This was viewed by many as a key component – but not the sole component – in formulating convincing arguments. Today, charisma has almost become the sole component.

The problem with this is that, very often, academically intelligent people tend to struggle with emotional intelligence. For many people, there is a tradeoff: as one nurtures and enriches their technical ability, they may lose touch with their social mobility.

So it may very well be the case that uncharismatic people are more capable of formulating robust political strategies, though they struggle in communicating these strategies to the masses. On the other hand, charismatic people may be compensating for a deficiency in intellect, attention or capability, either at present or in their infancy. This is not always the case, but this is too often the case.

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I remember a good example of this tradeoff at play. This had been with former-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As Chancellor, he was responsible for what was dubbed the “New Economic Paradigm”: achieving high growth and low inflation across a number of years. This was huge. In the free market, high growth and low inflation are traditionally mutually exclusive endeavours. My school and university began incorporating Gordon Brown’s policies into their modules as some sort of “crack the code” exercise.

Outside the ivory tower of education, the British media decided to conversely draw its attention to Brown’s appearance and tone of voice, as well as for (accurately?) accusing a prejudiced voter of being a bigoted person.

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Here’s the thing. Some of the most problematic leaders in history have been the most charismatic, and media outlets have been intertwined with their pursuit of popularity. They are dotted on various ends of the political spectrum, but I’ll leave you to your imagination to determine which leaders may fall into this category.

The free market has subsequently played a pivotal role in shifting “consumer” attention away from content and towards charisma. This is not to assert that socialist leaders such as Lenin did not also play on use and delivery of words in order to gain and exploit support. Rather, that capitalism, as the “least imperfect but best system”, accentuates this problem of displacing content for charisma.

The business model has subsequently trickled its way down to moral, social and ethical questions. Political party pamphlets and newspapers resemble product brochures with clever choices of colouring and the seal of approval of a discount price tag. Depending on the issues at hand, political party logos will mend and shape to engage different audiences without the party in question necessarily altering its manifesto.

Without sounding like a Bolshevik: commercialisation has therefore become our main means of communicating complicated ideas from the executive class to the average layman.

In life’s natural bell-curve, most people may be unsophisticated and mobilised predominantly by charisma- and in democracy, the majority prevalence of this demographic marks the audience as high priority for marketing.

In the context of shifting people’s attention away from content and towards charisma, it is therefore interesting that we teach the free market in schools as some sort of perfectly efficient system where an “invisible hand” akin to a god takes care of all these sorts of inefficiencies.

The reality is very different. In a world where political ascension rests largely on short-term tangibles, financial resources and lobby group interests, it is arguably the democratic, free market that has facilitated the prevalence of charisma at the cost of content.

I love the free market and I love democracy,  but let’s not pretend they’re perfect systems: charm a newspaper or corporation into backing you and you may just find your way into office.