What Is the Relationship Between Democracy and Authoritarianism?

What Is the Relationship Between Democracy and Authoritarianism?

Revolution of One

What is the relationship between democracy and authoritarianism?


On January 6, 2021, hundreds of demonstrators invaded the US Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the election of Joseph Biden as president of the United States and install the man they regarded as the legitimate victor and leader of America, Donald Trump. Initiating an insurrection that stunned the nation and the world, the demonstrators drew their inspiration directly from Trump: Many had attended a rally in Washington earlier that day where he called for resistance, proclaiming, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Yet when the actual invasion of the Capitol took place, Trump was nowhere to be seen. He remained in the White House, initially seeming to approve of the attack and only publicly condemning it the next day. The Capitol invasion represented a striking action on behalf of a charismatic leader, but one not led by that leader himself. It raised the question (one freighted in this case with all sorts of legal implications, including issues of treason): Was that charismatic leadership a creation of the leader himself, or of those who followed and drew inspiration from him? Did the leader bring about the movement, or vice versa?

These questions are at the center of David A. Bell’s impressive and thought-provoking Men on Horseback. A study of the great national leaders of the Age of Revolution, Bell’s book closely examines the complex relationship between leaders and their devoted followers. It also highlights a central paradox in the era’s history. Posterity has largely viewed the late 18th century as the era in which modern democracy was born, yet as Bell shows, its dominant figures had decidedly authoritarian tendencies. Consistently, the people loved the leaders who took power in their name but who didn’t permit them to share in or exercise it. To illustrate this apparent contradiction, Bell focuses on four world-famous individuals who exemplify these competing tendencies: George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simon Bolívar. Exploring both their personal lives and their relationships to the great movements they led, he centers his analysis around Max Weber’s notion of charisma: the argument that great leaders are seen by their followers as possessing highly personalized, even godlike powers of political authority and domination. In doing so, Bell essentially argues that charisma—the power and prestige of great men—lies at the heart of modern democracy and at the same time constitutes a threat to it. By underscoring this paradox, Men on Horseback also illustrates limits to democracy that remain potent to this day.

On first impression, Men on Horseback might seem like a standard, even old-fashioned study, the kind many of us were trained to reject in graduate school: a history of great men (and white ones, too, with the exception of Toussaint Louverture). With the rise of the “new social history” in the 1960s and ’70s, we were told to question and ultimately disavow the “great man theory of history,” since history is made, after all, not just by great men but by the people too—and so we set out to examine how the people were as essential to the workings of history as the ruling elite. We took inspiration from many sources and traditions, but perhaps nothing better sums up this approach than Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem “A Worker Reads History,” which offers a very different perspective on charismatic rulers:

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

In Men on Horseback, Bell recognizes the importance of these new social histories and, for the most part, agrees with their analyses. But he argues that in the process of broadening the portrait of the past, the serious historical analysis of great men has been neglected, and as a result few histories interrogate the political and cultural relationships between leaders and followers. They also neglect the subjective history of the Age of Revolution, how it felt to live through an era when so much was turned upside down.

To remedy this, Bell insists on the importance of exploring the emotional universe of his subjects. They were men as well as great men, and he emphasizes balancing their public and private personas in the context of the historical events they experienced and created. Drawing on the work of historians like Lynn Hunt and William Reddy on the role of emotion in the French Revolution, Bell explores how these men felt about their lives and eras, while at the same time insisting on the importance of the broader political and intellectual context of these feelings.

Bell also takes a systematically transnational approach to the history of these four individuals. One benefit of focusing on leaders rather than on broad social movements is that it enables the historian to explore the connections between them beyond geographical limits, and Bell takes full advantage of this. This is an important achievement, because even though the Age of Revolution is generally seen almost by definition as a transnational phenomenon, its historiography, like that of the world wars of the 20th century, is often local and national. In particular, Bell integrates the history of the revolutions of Saint-Domingue and Latin America into this broader canon. As he notes, the revolution in Saint-Domingue has often been treated as a kind of stepchild of the French Revolution, even though it was, among other things, the greatest and most successful slave revolt in human history. The revolutions that transformed South and Central America have likewise all too often been pushed to the margins. Bell corrects this, offering a new vision of the era as a whole.

For a book devoted to the historical biographies of four very well-known individuals, Men on Horseback begins with a surprising choice: the life of a man few people today have ever heard of. In the 1750s Pasquale Paoli, a young Corsican soldier, took up arms against the island’s Genoese overlords in a struggle for national independence. The campaign had some initial successes but in the end completely failed: Genoa ceded control of Corsica to France, which in 1769 definitively crushed the independence movement and forced Paoli into exile in London. The island remains French to this day. Yet if Paoli failed on the battlefield, he succeeded in pioneering a new style of political charisma whose influence spread far beyond the shores of his native island. Although popular at home, Paoli proved to be even more attractive to people in Europe and America, thanks largely to the efforts of one man, the great Scottish writer James Boswell. Boswell visited Corsica in 1765, and he and Paoli quickly became fast friends. Upon his return to the Italian mainland a few weeks later, Boswell wrote a series of articles calling for support of the Corsican revolution, and he warmly praised Paoli as “the father of a nation” in the book he later published on Corsica. Thanks largely to Boswell’s efforts, Paoli became for a time an international sensation, not only in Britain but also in its North American colonies during the American Revolution. In Bell’s reading of Paoli’s history, his immense popularity overseas foreshadowed and influenced the rise of George Washington and other charismatic leaders during the Age of Revolution.

The story of Pasquale Paoli illustrates several key themes in Men on Horseback. One is the importance of new forms of media in making personal charisma a mass political phenomenon. As Bell notes more than once, for writers and readers in the early 21st century, emphasizing the importance of a media revolution comes naturally, and he carefully shows how a new type of print culture in the late 18th century transformed ideas of political leadership. The massive expansion of periodical literature, with publications appearing on a daily basis, and the new popularity of the biography helped turn political leaders into celebrities. In the North American colonies and many French cities, most people could read, and even in societies like Saint-Domingue and the countries of South America, where literacy was not as advanced, people could share the information in print stories by word of mouth.

Paoli’s story also underscores the important transnational dimension of political charisma. At the same time that he struggled to forge the Corsican people into a new nation, he relied on and benefited from the support of people in other countries. Charisma arose in part out of the interpenetration of local and global discourses during an era of emergent nationalism. Paoli’s popularity also speaks to another set of relationships: those between a great leader and his followers, people whose adulation is not just political but deeply emotional. This is the essence of political charisma, and it speaks as well to how the charismatic leader experiences and reciprocates his followers’ love, often in the form of intense personal relationships with other men, such as that between Paoli and Boswell. In these and other ways, also essentially lost to the great narratives of history, Pasquale Paoli helped shape the politics of the modern age.

Bell identifies these main features of the charismatic leader in the Age of Revolution, but he also identifies a set particular to the four men in his book. First, Washington, Bonaparte, Louverture, and Bolívar were all military leaders, literally uniformed men on horseback. They personally led armies against a national enemy, and their political triumphs were also triumphs on the battlefield. More than any other image of leadership, Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps, depicting Bonaparte astride a rearing stallion and leading an army into battle, exemplifies the importance of martial prowess to political charisma. (For a contrasting image, one need only consider the disastrous 1988 photo of US presidential candidate Michael Dukakis riding in a tank.)

The second quality Bell identifies is that of the redeemer, someone who saves his nation from destruction by uniting the people behind him to defeat internal and external enemies. Finally, and closely connected to this, Bell sees his four charismatic leaders as, in effect, the fathers of their countries: people who brought a new nation into being, as did Washington, Louverture, and Bolívar, or who fundamentally transformed and unified a nation, as did Bonaparte. The Age of Revolution was a great era of nation building, as exemplified by each of the movements Bell considers, and from his perspective charismatic leaders played a central role in bringing it about.

This brings us to the key paradox in Men on Horseback. The leaders Bell discusses all spoke of their reign as a symbol of popular power; they were the tribunes of their people. At the same time, their leadership often took on an authoritarian character. With the important exception of George Washington, the charismatic leaders Bell writes about became dictators in one way or another. Yet to a large extent their authoritarianism did not provoke a populist counterreaction; the masses they ruled over continued to admire, even adore them.

Bell emphasizes the fact that his leaders were not kings, that they did not rule by divine right but in effect by the consent of those they governed. Yet even a cursory overview of the regimes of Washington, Bonaparte, Louverture, and Bolívar underscores their differences from, rather than similarities to, modern democratic leaders. Certainly the ideal of electoral democracy—one of the main legacies of this era to our own—had little presence in the politics of charismatic leadership. Napoleon overthrew an elected regime, the Directory, before he established himself as an emperor. Bolívar believed in republicanism and supported the creation of a legislature, but when push came to shove he took power as a dictator. Louverture also showed a strongly authoritarian perspective on liberation, drafting a constitution in 1801 that made him governor-general for life. France did not become a full-fledged democracy until the 1870s, and Haiti and the South American republics founded by Bolívar were dominated by authoritarian regimes well into the 20th century. More generally, even where electoralism existed, it rested on a severely limited franchise. Most notably, nowhere could women vote, with this disenfranchisement of the female half of the population largely enduring until the years after World War I.

Of the four leaders in Men on Horseback, Washington stands as the great exception to this pattern. With his support, the new United States did become an electoral democracy, albeit with the limits noted above, and after serving as the first president of the republic, Washington retired to his country estate of Mount Vernon to end his days as a gentleman farmer. This is all the more striking given that, in most other respects, Washington conformed fully to the model of the charismatic leader. He was a successful military general (if not as impressive as Napoleon), and his victories brought a new nation into being, so he could justifiably claim to be the father of his country and has been universally recognized as such ever since. Above all, he was tremendously loved by his people, so much so that Bell sees him as an example of a man who becomes a leader because of the desperate need of his followers. (One significant exception, of course, was Washington’s slaves, 17 of whom took the opportunity afforded by the Revolutionary War to flee his plantation in search of freedom.)

Yet in spite of his popularity, Washington resisted calls that he become a benevolent dictator or even a king, insisting instead on the importance of democratic leadership, which only made him more popular than ever. Bell observes that Washington’s popularity diminished during his years as president, when he was criticized as a politician rather than venerated as a military leader. But once he left office, his charismatic attraction and his legacy both rebounded, particularly after his death in 1799.

Having begun his book noting the paradox of authoritarian leadership in an era of democratic revolution, Bell concludes with an epilogue titled “Charisma and Democracy.” In it, he argues that we might want to reassess the Age of Revolution, that perhaps the era did not contribute to the democratization of the modern world as much as we have assumed. As he notes, “despite the frequent modern description of the revolutions of 1775 through the 1820s as ‘democratic,’ the label is not really appropriate. The period did not actually see the birth of stable democratic governments.”

This insight is an important observation about the Age of Revolution, but also about the history of democracy as a whole: What is the relationship between political popularity and democracy? Can a leader be venerated by the masses yet not be the legitimate choice of the people to rule, as measured by the results of the ballot box? Just as the newly born American republic of Washington’s time represented an exceptional link between charismatic leadership and democracy, so does charisma remain a crucial part of political life in the United States today. The American presidency, an institution so powerful both nationally and globally that it has been described by British historian David Cannadine as an elected monarchy, is in many ways a competition over charisma par excellence. Throughout the long history of the institution, the “selling of the president” has usually revolved around establishing a personal, emotional connection with the American voter. The winner of a presidential election has often been the one with the most charisma, someone who can establish a love match with the electorate.

Yet the American presidency, and the American political system in general, also highlights the complicated nature of charismatic leadership, the fact that it can be both democratic and authoritarian. The president of the United States is not elected by the popular vote but by the Electoral College, so that at times the man who won the latter was not the most popular candidate. In the United States, what counts is winning a majority of the right people, not the people as a whole. This truism, with roots in the origins of the US Constitution, is underscored by the often racialized character of the limits to democracy in the US political system: The right people are all too often the white people. This is certainly the case with the Electoral College, but it is even more evident in the US Senate. The 10 smallest states have a total population of slightly less than Los Angeles County’s, yet they elect one-fifth of the Senate’s membership. These states are also whiter than the United States as a whole, giving white interests preponderant representation in the Senate. (One might wonder what would happen if these small states had mostly minority populations, but the closest analogy—the exclusion of Washington, D.C., from Senate representation—suggests an answer.) Given this reality, the president can at times represent a more inclusive democratic alternative to the US legislature, as the election of the charismatic Barack Obama in 2008 demonstrated. The questions about democracy that Men on Horseback raises have relevance not just to the 18th century but to our own time as well.

The study of charismatic leadership also offers insights into the world of human emotion: how people feel about their own lives and their relationships with others, and how these feelings enable them to remake their worlds. In Men on Horseback, Bell explores the motivations of his four charismatic leaders, interpreting their desire for power as also a need to be loved by their subjects. He notes how this led them to use the media as a tool of propaganda to win the adulation of the people, for both personal and political reasons. He also explores the emotional relationships that these charismatic leaders developed with other men, most strikingly in the case of Louverture’s friendship with Gen. Étienne Maynaud de Bizefranc de Laveaux, a French aristocrat. Bell uses this intriguing story to illustrate an interesting theme in his book: the intense but nonsexual love of men for each other, a love that also characterized many who followed these charismatic leaders. Although Bell emphasizes the emotional lives of the leaders in his study, we also learn much about how their followers felt about them, and the cultural and political implications of those powerful emotions.

It is a mark of the complex and deeply engaging character of Men on Horseback that it leaves vital questions unanswered: Is charismatic leadership good or bad? Does it bring people together and inspire them to achieve greater goals, or does it instead mislead them, distracting people from their best interests? Perhaps most of all, what are we to do about a political phenomenon that seems destined to remain with us, whether we like it or not? Last year, America deposed a freakishly charismatic president in favor of a much blander and more normal one. What does this say about the future of political charisma, and what will happen the next time such a choice confronts our nation? Bell’s study of the Atlantic world two centuries ago underscores the importance of such questions, giving us a vision of our own time from the vantage point of charismatic leadership in the Age of Revolution.

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