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Obama, Shaman By: Michael Knox Beran
City Journal | Monday, July 14, 2008


In the patois of punditry, “charismatic” has come to mean little more than “like a rock star.” But the striking thing about the charismatic leader is the extent to which his followers regard him as a healer of wounds, an alleviator of pain. In this sense, surely, Senator Barack Obama is charismatic. The carefully knotted ties and the dark, conservatively tailored suits only accentuate the exoticness of his shamanism; he has entered the American psyche not as a hero but as a healer.

Illustration by Arnold Roth.

The country, or much of it, has longed for such a figure, a man from the once-oppressed race whose rise to power will atone for the sins of slavery and racial stigmatization. But Obama’s rhetoric encompasses more than a promise of racial healing. He is not the first politician to argue that politics can redeem us, but in posing as the Adonis who will turn winter into spring, he revives one of the more pernicious political swindles: the belief that a charismatic leader can ordain a civic happy hour and give a people a sense of community that will make them feel less bad.

In his unfinished treatise Economy and Society, Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality in an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber was able to do little more, before he died in 1920, than give a pseudoscientific élan to an idea that had been kicking around for centuries. Most of what he said about charismatic authority was stated more cogently in Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, which described the great-souled man who “may truly be deemed a God among men” and who, by virtue of his greatness, is exempt from ordinary laws.

What both Aristotle and Weber made too little of is the mentality of the charismatic leader’s followers, the disciples who discover in him, or delusively endow him with, superhuman qualities. “Charisma” was originally a religious term signifying a gift of God: it often denotes (according to the seventeenth-century scholar-physician John Bulwer) a “miraculous gift of healing.” James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, demonstrated that the connection between charismatic leadership and the melioration of suffering was historically a close one: many primitive peoples believed that the magical virtues of a priest-king could guarantee the soil’s fertility and that such a leader could therefore alleviate one of the most elementary forms of suffering, hunger. The identification of leadership with the mitigation of pain persists in folklore and myth. In the Arthurian legends, Percival possesses an extraordinary magic that enables him to heal the fisher king and redeem the waste land; in England, the touch of the monarch’s hand was believed to cure scrofula.

It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt—milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.

One of the objects of a mature political philosophy is to reconcile people to the painful limitations of their condition. The American Founders recognized this, as did the English statesmen who presided at the Revolution of 1688: they rejected utopianism. And yet, precisely because they knew that human beings are by nature far from perfect, they allowed a degree of scope, in their constitutional settlements, for the mysterious, quasi-magical qualities that Weber associated with charisma—rather as an architect, as a concession to human frailty, might omit the number 13 when labeling the floors of a building. The “magic” of the post-1688 English constitution, Walter Bagehot observed, lay in the pageantry of the monarchy, a relic of the mysterious grace of the healer-redeemer chiefs of old. The American Founders, after experimenting with weaker forms of executive power, created the presidency, an office spacious enough for a charismatic leader to work his wizardry but narrow enough to prevent delusory overreaching.

Unlike the English Whigs and the American Founders, the modern liberal regards suffering not as an unavoidable element of life but as an aberration to be corrected by up-to-date political, economic, and hygienic arrangements. Rather than acknowledge the limitations of our condition, the liberal continually contrives panaceas that will enable us to transcend it.

Barack Obama, in taking up the part of regenerative healer, is the latest panacea. As a society, Obama says, we are hurting. Our schools are “crumbling.” There are “lines in the emergency rooms” of the hospitals, and our corporate culture is “rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed.” He points to the millions of Americans who, in struggling with life’s difficulties (“high gas bills, insufficient health insurance, and a pension that some bankruptcy court somewhere has rendered unenforceable”), have become bitter and unhappy. Obama finds a scapegoat for the present discontents in politics—a politics, he argues, that breeds “division, and conflict, and cynicism” and that has become a “dead zone” in which “narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth.”

The solution, he says, lies in a political reformation. Unless we “begin the process of changing politics and our civic life,” we will bequeath to our children “a weaker and more fractured America” than the one we inherited. Hence his mantra, “Change we can believe in.” Like the Nicene Creed, Obama’s doctrine begins in belief. Credo. Once we believe in the possibility of a transformative politics, “the perfection begins.” The selfish politics of the present yields to the selfless politics of the future. We discover that “this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one.” So believing, we can replace a politics that breeds division, conflict, and cynicism with a politics that fosters unity and peace. In Obama’s “project of national renewal,” government can become an expression of “our communal values, our sense of mutual responsibility and social solidarity.”

Even as Obama suggests that a new communitarianism can heal America’s pain and change American lives, radically and for the better, he is careful to anticipate the charge of utopian delusion. Government, he tells people, cannot “solve all their problems.” But presumably it can solve most of them.

The danger of Obama’s charismatic healer-redeemer fable lies in the hubris it encourages, the belief that gifted politicians can engender a selfless communitarian solidarity. Such a renovation of our national life would require not only a change in constitutional structure—the current system having been geared to conflict by the Founders, who believed that the clash of private interests helps preserve liberty—but also a change in human nature. Obama’s conviction that it is possible to create a beautiful politics, one in which Americans will selflessly pursue a shared vision of the common good, recalls the belief that Dostoyevsky attributed to the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionists: that, come the revolution, “all men will become righteous in one instant.” The perfection would begin.

In rejecting the Anglo-American politics of limits, Obama revives a political tradition that derives ultimately from Niccolò Machiavelli. In the Discourses on Livy and The Art of War, Machiavelli argued that it is possible to create a communitarian republic like the one whose outlines he glimpsed in Livy’s (highly romanticized) version of Roman history—a polity in which citizens, forsaking their own swinish pursuits, would become happy in the pursuit of a common good. Wise laws, he maintained, would “make citizens love one another.” The virtuous res publica of the Romans could be conjured anew.

To liberate a people from the bondage of pain and establish a new communal order, a statesman must possess, Machiavelli argued, a kind of charisma he called virtù. He described the most charismatic statesman with whom he was (personally) acquainted, Cesare Borgia, in Weberian terms, as one who “exhibits a fortune unheard of, a virtù and confidence [so much] more than human that he can attain all he desires.”

Jacob Burckhardt credited the luminaries of the Italian Renaissance with envisioning the state as a work of art. More tragically, they envisioned it as a machinery of redemption. Machiavelli’s prince was the first intimation of a modern charismatic type, the demiurge who used a demonic virtù to overcome divisive self-seeking in the name of social solidarity. Self-interest led to market capitalism and alienation; civic selflessness led to public-spirited communitarianism and happiness. The “Machiavellian vocabulary,” the historian J. G. A. Pocock argued in The Machiavellian Moment, became the “vehicle of a basically hostile perception of early modern capitalism.” Machiavelli rejected the commercial ethos (predicated on the pursuit of private interest) that the leading Anglo-American statesmen sought to encourage.

In doing so, he anticipated modernity’s childish dream of an anodyne world. His communitarian state is the prototype of the workers’ paradises of Marx and Lenin and the Nordic Valhallas of Hitler and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. His influence is evident in both the enlightened despot celebrated by the Continental philosophes and the socialist wizard admired by intellectuals like Edmund Wilson, who hailed Marx as a mix of “Prometheus and Lucifer,” a heroically diabolic figure who could redeem the waste land of modern capitalism, the forerunner of Lenin and Stalin, Castro and Mao. The Machiavellian ideal of a communitarian paradise haunts, too, the welfare-state philosophy that Bismarck (for his own cynical reasons) promoted when he established the world’s first Wohlfahrtsstaat, a model for socialists in Germany and welfare-state liberals in England and the United States.

In breathing fresh life into Machiavelli’s communitarian daydream, Obama revives a style of charismatic leadership that fell out of favor in the United States after the death of FDR. Of the three presidents since 1945 most often regarded as possessing charismatic qualities, the first, Kennedy, was a tax cutter who questioned liberal utopianism when he said that “life is not fair,” and the second, Reagan, sought to curb the hubris of New Deal étatisme. The third, Clinton, said that he could feel our pain but retreated from his pledge to heal it when he scrapped a plan to nationalize medicine. Obama, by contrast, is faithful to the old-style charismatics, whose slogans (“social solidarity,” for example) he has taken out of cold storage.

Of course, he would not have gotten far had he simply defrosted the ideas of Henry Wallace and George McGovern. Obama’s charisma is tuned to the mood of the moment. The charisma of American political leaders has typically rested on images of unflinching strength and masculine authority: Teddy Roosevelt in the North Dakota Badlands; Kennedy, the naval hero whose sexual prowess was acknowledged even in his Secret Service code name (“Lancer”); Reagan, the man on horseback whom the Secret Service called “Rawhide.” Obama’s charisma, by contrast, is closer to what critic Camille Paglia has identified with today’s television talk-show culture, in which admissions of weakness are offered as proof of empathetic qualities. Talk-show culture is occupied with the question of why we feel so bad, when it is our right under the liberal dispensation to feel eternally good. The man who would succeed in such a culture must appear to sympathize with these obscure hurts; he must take pains, Paglia writes in Sexual Personae, to appear an “androgyne, the nurturant male or male mother.”

Obama, in gaming this culture, has figured out a new way to bottle old wine. He knows that experience has taught Americans to suspect the masculine healer-redeemer who bears collectivist gifts; no one wants to revive the caudillos of the thirties. Studiously avoiding the tough-hombre style of earlier charismatic figures, he phrases his vision in the tranquilizing accents of Oprah-land. His charisma is grounded in empathy rather than authority, confessional candor rather than muscular strength, metrosexual mildness rather than masculine testosterone. His power of sympathetic insight is said to be uncanny: “Everybody who’s dealt with him,” columnist David Brooks says, “has a story about a time when they felt Obama profoundly listened to them and understood them.” His two books are written in the empathetic-confessional mode that his most prominent benefactress, Oprah, favors; he is her political healer in roughly the same way that Dr. Phil was once her pop-psychology one. The collectivist dream, Obama instinctively understands, is less scary, more sympathetic, when served up by mama (or by mama in drag).

With the triumph of Obama’s post-masculine charisma, the patriarchal collectivism of the New Deal has finally given way to a new vision of liberal community, the empathetic mommy-state that Balzac prophesied in La Comédie humaine. The leader of the future, Balzac foresaw, would be a man who, like his diabolically charismatic Jacques Collin, possesses a capacity for maternal love. When his protégé Lucien dies, Collin exclaims: “This blow has been more than death to me, but you can’t understand what I’m saying. . . . If you’re fathers, you’re only that and no more. . . . I’m a mother, too!” Collin ends his career as a functionary of the state—and a policeman. The Grand Inquisitor of the future, Balzac intimates, will undertake his inquisitions in the name of matriarchal pity.

Illustration by Arnold Roth.

Yet if Obama has made redemptive communitarianism attractive in an age of sagging sperm counts, he has done nothing to correct the underlying flaw of the collectivist ideal: its incompatibility with the older morality of limits. The politics of consensus that Obama favors is incompatible with the Founders’ adversarial system, which permits those whom he disparages as “ideological minorities” to take stands on principle that, at times, frustrate the national consensus. Obama makes it clear that there is no place, in the politics he advocates, for those “absolutists” who would defy the community. The “ideological core of today’s GOP,” he writes, is “absolutism, not conservatism,” an absolutism driven by those who prize “absolute truth” over “communal values.” This commitment to absolute truth, he argues, stands in the way of a politics that can solve our problems and change our lives.

Obama goes so far as to argue that the Constitution itself is “a rejection of absolute truth.” His moral relativism is intimately bound up with his conviction that we can transcend those limitations in human nature that the Founders acknowledged when they drafted the Constitution. This rejection of older moral standards, Machiavelli observed, is a tactical necessity for the charismatic redeemer. It is not simply that adherence to the West’s traditional morality would prevent such a leader from being properly ruthless in the pursuit of his ideal; it is that the old morality, with its emphasis on the limits of man’s fallen condition, makes his communitarian paradise seem quixotic—an instance of utopian overreaching.

Machiavelli was ready with a solution. He helped prepare the way for the politics of redemptive healing by working to overturn the older morality. In particular, he undermined the West’s most potent myth of diabolic amorality and delusory hubris. Two years after he completed The Prince, Machiavelli composed a fable, Belfagor, or the Devil Who Took a Wife, in which he ridiculed the idea that the devil can take possession of a man’s mind and corrupt those around him. In assuming (correctly) that the diabolic qualities of his redemptive prince would be easier to swallow once the devil himself became a joke, Machiavelli blazed a path that Voltaire, Diderot, Goethe, and Shaw afterward trod. No one fears the devil that Voltaire refused to renounce on his deathbed. (“This is no time to be making enemies,” he jested.) Goethe’s Mephistopheles is charming, as is Shaw’s (in Man and Superman). Even those characters whom modern European artists have intended to be diabolic (such as Balzac’s Collin) arouse sympathy in a way that older devil-characters (Shakespeare’s Iago, for example) do not.

Dostoyevsky was among the few who grasped the momentousness of the change that Machiavelli initiated in the West’s conception of diablerie. Near the end of The Brothers Karamazov, he describes an encounter between the devil and Ivan Karamazov. The devil appears, not with claws and horns, but in the guise of an elegant man of the world: he phrases his mordant taunts in French and laughs at modern intellectuals who believe that he doesn’t exist or who worry that to admit his existence would harm their “progressive image.” Dostoyevsky implied that it was precisely when the devil became a wit that the intellectual classes of the West succumbed to the most familiar form of diabolic temptation: the belief that men can transcend the limits of their condition and “be as gods”—demiurges with the power to heal the world’s pain and reshape it in accordance with a beautiful idea.

Illustration by Arnold Roth.

Obama has revived a cruel mirage, but the good news is that the country has defenses against his brand of redemptive politics. Some of these defenses are constitutional, others cultural. The very strength of America’s religious ideal of redemption has restrained, though it has not entirely forestalled, the development of alternative secular ideals of redemption. A religiously inspired belief in original sin has made Americans wary of succumbing to the Pelagian notion that a mere mortal, however charismatic, can build the New Jerusalem out of purely secular materials. The country’s constitutional system, itself founded on the theory of original sin, has created a perpetual conflict of factions and interests that so far has prevented any single party from imposing a monolithic unity from above, such as Europe’s collectivists were able to do.

And then there is Old Nick, the West’s traditional symbol of evil, who has retained a good deal more apotropaic power on these shores than in Europe. A 1991 survey by the International Social Survey Programme found that 45.4 percent of Americans believed in the devil (61 percent, according to a 2005 Harris poll), compared with 20.4 percent of Italians, 12.5 percent of Russians, 9.5 percent of West Germans, and 3.6 percent of East Germans. We often read about differences between America and Europe with respect to belief in God, but differences with respect to belief in diabolic evil may be even more revealing. It is significant that belief in the devil is lowest in those countries (Russia and Germany) that suffered, during the twentieth century, most acutely from forms of evil that might without exaggeration be called diabolic. Europeans, it may be, have proved more susceptible to the element of diabolic temptation in charismatic leadership precisely because they are less likely to believe in the reality of diabolic evil.

Still, it’s hard to deny that Obama has found a weakness in America’s defenses. His post-masculine charisma is likely to flourish in a political environment that has come to resemble not only a TV talk show but a TV reality show, in which the candidate rarely escapes the camera’s eye. The masculine leader of old had to conceal his weaknesses. “I rather tell thee what is to be feared,” Shakespeare has Julius Caesar say, “than what I fear, for always I am Caesar.” When scrutiny was less intense, the man on horseback could hope to get away with it. Shakespeare’s Cassius laments that the public never knew how weak Caesar really was:

He had a fever when he was in Spain,
And when the fit was on him, I did mark
How he did shake; ’tis true, this god did shake . . .

Today a camera would capture the image of the shaking god. Superman, Norman Mailer said in his famous essay on Kennedy, can thrive in the supermarket—but in cable TV and YouTube, the Übermensch may finally have met his match.

Meanwhile, the very images of frailty that undermine the masculine leader’s pose of strength help the practitioner of the new post-masculine charisma, whose object is to appear human—all too human. Softness has become an asset for candidates who have molded themselves on the exhibitionist model of the Oprah matriarchy.

Hence Obama’s spectacular rise. But Obama-mania is bound in the end to disappoint. Not only does it teach us to despise our political system’s wise recognition of human imperfection and the pursuit of private happiness; it encourages us to seek for perfection where we will not find it, in politics, in the hero worship of a charismatic shaman, in the speciousness of a secular millennium. Lacking the moral parables that made our ancestors wary of those delusions in which overweening pride is apt to involve us, we pursue false gods and turn away from traditions that really can help us make sense of our condition.


Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.


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