We don’t need a leader with charisma

If you read news coverage of the 2020 presidential hopefuls, you might think charisma is important, essential even, for the Democratic nominee. You might have read that Beto has it, Buttigieg is getting it, and Warren had it but lost it. You might read these opinions as fact, as though charisma can be measured, perhaps given a number, like IQ. If you’re over 140 on the Charisma Quotient, you’re a rock star. You win a four-year stay in the White House.

Most of these stories use charisma to mean likeable, charming, and sparkles as the host of SNL. They suggest charisma is a desirable quality in a presidential candidate, although few talk about how it translates into an ability to govern once elected. Those that do suggest charisma is necessary to influence others ignore the way leaders use reason and political leverage to achieve goals.

Obama was said to have charisma — indeed, candidates’ charisma is sometimes measured against his. Republicans, however, seemed remarkably immune to a characteristic that we are led to believe is magically irresistible. How can charisma be real if it doesn’t work on an entire political party?

John F. Kennedy is said to have had charisma. He knew how to shine in his televised debates with Richard Nixon and is understood to have charmed numerous women, but I’m hard-pressed to believe Khrushchev backed down in the Cuban missile crisis because he was mesmerized by JFK’s youth and good looks.

In fact, charisma is not a term meaning fascinating. It’s not even a particularly desirable quality in a leader. Charisma comes from the Greek for favor, gift. It means the individual has a special power, conferred by the divine. It is a word that conveys the notion of absolute authority. People follow charismatic leaders not because they make eye contact or seem to speak directly to the audience, as one step-by-step guide recently suggested, but because when they do, the audience believes they are in the presence of a divinely anointed leader who must be followed unquestioningly.

Think 918 followers of Jim Jones lining up to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

Think Trump followers at a MAGA rally.

Erica R. Edwards’ brilliant book, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership, lays out the danger in accepting the idea that we need a charismatic leader to save us in a time of crisis. First, it keeps us waiting for the savior rather than saving ourselves. The reification of Martin Luther King as a charismatic leader obscures the hard work that was done by many individuals — a lot of them black women — at the grassroots level. Furthermore, with a charismatic leader, all that is necessary to dull their impact is to remove them.

Think assassination of MLK.

Think attempts to erase all of Obama’s accomplishments.

Think Democrats believing the impeachment of Trump will end the insanity.

Edwards says charisma is a gendered authority “in which the attributes of the ideal leader are the traits American society usually conceives as rightly belonging to men or to normative masculinity: ambition, courage, and, above all, divine calling.”

So now consider that Beto is charismatic and Warren isn’t. Consider that articles stating unequivocally who has charisma and who doesn’t are coming from an institution — the news media — that itself embodies a gendered authority of normative masculinity. Look at who is protected and elevated by these articles and who is marginalized. Consider that this discussion of charisma is not actually about helping voters discern qualified leaders but is coded language declaring that certain candidates do not meet the standards of masculinity that is traditional in our culture for leaders. In denying that some candidates have charisma, these writers are denying them a divine authority granted to them through grace. There is nothing they can do to get it. No seven-step plan. No speech will be good enough, no crowd large enough, no margin of victory sufficient.

No woman will be good enough.

Edwards calls the fiction of charisma “violent” because of its power to silence.

Think Hillary.

We do not need to accept the narrative perpetuated by the news media or social media pundits stating that presidential candidates must be charismatic. We do not need to accept the news media’s declarations of who has charisma and who does not. We do not need to enter into the charisma debate ourselves to promote the candidate we prefer.

The truth is, not a single candidate running for president has been divinely gifted with the authority to lead this country. Each is human, with individual gifts and failings. We have to engage with them at a human level, question them, vet them, to determine who will best lead our country. We have to work to get them elected. It should be hard. We may be frustrated. We should not be dazzled.