Strong Men and Political Theatres – The “Being There” Syndrome

“I came here to see a country, but what I find is a theater … In appearances, everything happens as it does everywhere else. There is no difference except in the very foundation of things.”

(de Custine, writing about Russia in the mid-19th century)

Four decades ago, the Polish-American-Jewish author, Jerzy Kosinski, wrote the book “Being There”. It describes the election to the presidency of the United States of a simpleton, a gardener, whose vapid and trite pronouncements are taken to be sagacious and penetrating insights into human affairs. The “Being There Syndrome” is now manifest throughout the world: from Russia (Putin) to the United States (Obama).

Given a high enough level of frustration, triggered by recurrent, endemic, and systemic failures in all spheres of policy, even the most resilient democracy develops a predilection to “strong men”, leaders whose self-confidence, sangfroid, and apparent omniscience all but “guarantee” a change of course for the better.

These are usually people with a thin resume, having accomplished little prior to their ascendance. They appear to have erupted on the scene from nowhere. They are received as providential messiahs precisely because they are unencumbered with a discernible past and, thus, are ostensibly unburdened by prior affiliations and commitments. Their only duty is to the future. They are a-historical: they have no history and they are above history.

Indeed, it is precisely this apparent lack of a biography that qualifies these leaders to represent and bring about a fantastic and grandiose future. They act as a blank screen upon which the multitudes project their own traits, wishes, personal biographies, needs, and yearnings.

The more these leaders deviate from their initial promises and the more they fail, the dearer they are to the hearts of their constituents: like them, their new-chosen leader is struggling, coping, trying, and failing and, like them, he has his shortcomings and vices. This affinity is endearing and captivating. It helps to form a shared psychosis (follies-a-plusieurs) between ruler and people and fosters the emergence of an hagiography.

The propensity to elevate narcissistic or even psychopathic personalities to power is most pronounced in countries that lack a democratic tradition (such as China, Russia, or the nations that inhabit the territories that once belonged to Byzantium or the Ottoman Empire).

Cultures and civilizations which frown upon individualism and have a collectivist tradition, prefer to install “strong collective leaderships” rather than “strong men”. Yet, all these polities maintain a theatre of democracy, or a theatre of “democratically-reached consensus” (Putin calls it: “sovereign democracy”). Such charades are devoid of essence and proper function and are replete and concurrent with a personality cult or the adoration of the party in power.

In most developing countries and nations in transition, “democracy” is an empty word. Granted, the hallmarks of democracy are there: candidate lists, parties, election propaganda, a plurality of media, and voting. But its quiddity is absent. The democratic principles are institutions are being consistently hollowed out and rendered mock by election fraud, exclusionary policies, cronyism, corruption, intimidation, and collusion with Western interests, both commercial and political.

The new “democracies” are thinly-disguised and criminalized plutocracies (recall the Russian oligarchs), authoritarian regimes (Central Asia and the Caucasus), or puppeteered heterarchies (Macedonia, Bosnia, and Iraq, to mention three recent examples).

The new “democracies” suffer from many of the same ills that afflict their veteran role models: murky campaign finances; venal revolving doors between state administration and private enterprise; endemic corruption, nepotism, and cronyism; self-censoring media; socially, economically, and politically excluded minorities; and so on. But while this malaise does not threaten the foundations of the United States and France – it does imperil the stability and future of the likes of Ukraine, Serbia, and Moldova, Indonesia, Mexico, and Bolivia.

Many nations have chosen prosperity over democracy. Yes, the denizens of these realms can’t speak their mind or protest or criticize or even joke lest they be arrested or worse – but, in exchange for giving up these trivial freedoms, they have food on the table, they are fully employed, they receive ample health care and proper education, they save and spend to their hearts’ content.

In return for all these worldly and intangible goods (popularity of the leadership which yields political stability; prosperity; security; prestige abroad; authority at home; a renewed sense of nationalism, collective and community), the citizens of these countries forgo the right to be able to criticize the regime or change it once every four years. Many insist that they have struck a good bargain – not a Faustian one.

 


Also Read:

Narcissistic Leaders

Narcissists, Terrorists and Group Behaviour

Collective Narcissism

Hitler – The Inverted Saint

Narcissism in the Boardroom

Resources regarding Leadership Styles

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