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Obama, Palin, and Weber: charisma and social change in the 2008 U.S. election.

TO MAKE THIS ARGUMENT, THE ARTICLE is divided into three sections. The first section outlines Max Weber's theory of social change, with particular emphasis on the role of charismatic authority. It is shown that Weber was not interested so much in charismatic individuals but, rather, the match between particular charismatic individuals and characteristics of the social context such that the ideas of the charismatic provide a solution for a problem facing the group. The second section examines changes in American values over the years leading up to the 2008 U.S. election in order to contextualize the 2008 election. Where standard accounts describe a series of closely contested elections--the famed division between "red states" and "blue states"--the current account argues for a tripartite division of the citizenship: into Democratic leaning voters, Republican leaning voters, and nonvoters. Significantly, those who voted in elections from 1992 to 2004 (whether voting Republican or Democrat) had more in common with each other than with those who did not vote. The third section uses the 2008 election and subsequent developments to examine Obama and Palin as charismatic individuals. It argues that Palin's connection with the public embodies the approach used by both parties over the elections of the previous decade; use culture war rhetoric to divide the "red" and "blue" voters, mobilize the parties base and ignore the concerns of those turned off by the culture wars rhetoric and, hence, not inclined to vote. Thus, Palin's connection with the public was not used to reorganize the electorate but, rather, to turn out the Republican base. In contrast, Obama articulated a vision designed to transcend the division between "red" and "blue" and, hence, was able to reach out to a part of the electorate--those who had not voted over the past decade--and incorporate them into his coalition. Thus, in Weberian terms, Palin's personal popularity was not effectively translated into charismatic authority while Obama's was. (1)


Broadly speaking, Weber developed a theoretical scheme aimed at explaining historical change in the institutional structures of society. While a detailed discussion of his scheme goes beyond the parameters of this article, a brief explanation of his approach, shown diagrammatically in Figure 1, is necessary for an appreciation of the role of charisma in his overall theory. Weber saw human society as a mechanism to organize meaningful social action. Humans in all cultures faced three basic problems--resource scarcity, the struggle for wealth, and the struggle for power--leading to a society organized around three institutional means for dealing with those problems (economy, polity, and ideology) and defining three dimensions of social stratification (class, party, status).

Significantly, as the diagram shows, these dimensions are not autonomous. There is a flow through the system such that purposeful action aimed at an end in itself (e.g., pursuit of wealth) creates the next problem (the struggle for wealth) requiring an institutional means (polity) aimed at defining socially acceptable limits in the struggle for wealth. Significantly, the pursuit of power as an end in itself leads not to another level of problem but, rather, to ideological rigidity and socioeconomic stagnation. Thus, over time any social system, irrespective of whether dominated by traditional or by legal-rational authority, becomes rigid, stagnant, and faces crisis.


How, then, does a stagnant, maladapted system change? According to Weber, system change is the product of an exceptional person, the charismatic leader, whose ideas and actions redefine the way society approaches its fundamental problems (scarcity and the struggles for wealth and power). As noted by Cavalli (1987) the charismatic leader "sets his followers free from any sense of guilt towards old laws and principals that he has discarded, and gives them new laws and principles, arousing a sense of obligation and moral duty towards them" (p. 325). These laws and principles, if deemed successful, replace the earlier principles and become the basis for a reorganized system that resolves and does away with the crisis of stagnation. The new system becomes institutionalized through a process Weber calls the "routinization of charisma" and, over time, becomes rigid and unable to adapt to emerging contingencies.

In sum, Weber posits a fourfold cycle of ongoing adaptive change: (1) socioeconomic stagnation leads to (2) charismatic reorganization that (if successful) (3) grows and becomes institutionalized. However, over time, the reorganization becomes (4) rigid and unable to adapt to current contingencies, leading to a new manifestation of (1) socioeconomic stagnation. (2) The remainder of this article focuses on the first two of these phases, the emergence of socioeconomic stagnation and charismatic reorganization and, thus, it is to the details of those phases that we now turn.

Weber (1947) defined charisma as:
   a certain quality of 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. These are such as are not accessible to the
   ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as
   exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is
   treated as a leader. (P. 358)

For Weber, charisma is important because it is a source of authority. In contrast to the characteristics of both traditional and bureaucratic authority (that is, permanence, rules, and impartiality; see Adair-Toteff 2005:192-95), charismatic authority refers to "a rule over men, whether predominantly external or predominantly internal, to which the governed submit because of their belief in the extraordinary quality of the specific person" (Weber 1947:295).

But why should the "extraordinary" person automatically be acclaimed the leader? And why would they accept that role and behave as a leader? The standard answer vests charisma in "personal magnetism" or other qualities of the leader's personality and behaviors that somehow compel "ordinary" individuals to follow them. This answer is both empirically and theoretically misdirected. Psychologists and others who have attempted to isolate the relevant personality characteristics have found none (Turner 1993). And, as Turner (1993) notes, what counts is "the belief of others in the extraordinary or supernatural powers of the charismatic figure, rather than the actual possession of the supernatural force of the Holy Spirit" (p. 242). Stated another way, Weber sees charisma as a sociological concept (referring to a property of the relationship between individuals) rather than a psychological concept (referring to a property of an individual). (3) As such, it consists of two parts: "the projective practice of the following, which is charismatically oriented (that is, disposed to treat and regard leaders as magic or divine), and the magnified powers of the leader, who is charismatically endowed as the result of public projection" (Smith 1998:52). In this sense, charisma is socially constructed; the result of popular faith rather than its cause. Smith (1998) summarizes the point nicely:
   Weber agrees, of course, that vision and eloquence assist potential
   leaders in their quest for power. But he does not say that
   'charismatic' personal gifts assure political success. Striking
   personal gifts may be prerequisites for power, but they do not
   guarantee it. Even the most extraordinary leaders fail if their
   messages fall on deaf ears--if, as Weber says, they are denied
   'recognition'. Ultimately, the public chooses. The public
   'constructs' power by conferring or withholding recognition. (P.

What, then, accounts for whether or not the public confers recognition? The answer, according to Weber, turns on three factors that extend beyond the interactional characteristics of the leader and their ability to generate excitement among their followers. First, the charismatic leader is driven by a sense of "mission." Whether talking about the cause of Yahweh among the Jewish prophets (Weber 1967) or the political causes of contemporary politicians, Weber (1958) emphasized the leader's passion for their mission: the charismatic "leader lives for his cause and 'strives for his work'" (p. 79). Commitment to a particular cause, however, is not sufficient; as Cavalli (1987) notes, the leader must also be able to articulate the cause such that he is seen as "the true bearer and interpreter of the mature culture of his people" (p. 321).

Second, the charismatic leader confronts an "extraordinary situation" with particular characteristics, that is, a crisis resulting from political-economic stagnation. This crisis, consistent with Weber's interpretive sociology, must be recognized as extraordinary by the people involved, implying that ordinary individuals "are not able to re-establish a balance between the situation and expectations by the use of available cultural means" (Cavalli 1987:322). Furthermore, if one follows Parsons and Durkheim in positing that society and personality are integrated via shared values, then the crisis manifests itself both at the social and the personal level. Thus, one would expect a crisis of disintegration to be characterized by increases in irrationality and emotionality as "ordinary" individuals find values and norms to be inadequate and contradictory and, hence, they are unable to use them as a basis to establish a satisfactory new order of integration. Thus, the charismatic leader embodies hope and instills enthusiasm because they are the vehicle for a new order that resolves the crisis and brings about social and personal integration (Cavalli 1987:322-25). In this way the charismatic leader acts in a manner that is perceived as exceeding expectations--as having succeeded where ordinary individuals could not--and, hence, gains recognition as "extraordinary" (Turner 2003:5).

But such a perception requires more than having novel ideas, it requires Weber's (1978) third element: success, the charismatic's ability to "prove himself in practice" (p. 1142). Thus, for example, the charismatic prophet is the effective conveyor of a worked out doctrine, the military chief establishes his charisma by victory and the pirate entrepreneur's personal appeal comes from success in obtaining booty (Spinrad 1991:297). According to Weber (1978), the charismatic leader's "divine mission must prove itself by bringing well-being to his faithful followers; if they do not fare well, he is obviously not the god-sent master ... the genuine charismatic leader is responsible to the ruled responsible, that is, to prove that he himself is the master willed by God" (p. 1114). The proof comes in the form of "baffling success" (Turner 2003:14).

In sum, charisma, for Weber, is not reducible to the personal characteristics of a given individual and is more complex than the two way relationship between leader and followers; it also involves a third factor, the social context. It is to a discussion of that context, the run up to the 2008 election and the nature of the political-economic crisis that confronted America that we now turn.


As noted above, Weber saw charismatic authority as a mechanism to transcend an existing crisis of social and economic stagnation through the charismatic leader's ability to articulate a vision that substantially reorganizes society. In the context of a democratic political system, such reorganization necessarily entails reorganization of the electorate. Thus, appreciation of the role of charisma in the 2008 election requires an understanding of the period before the election and, specifically, the nature of the political-economic stagnation present in 2008. The most obvious manifestation of crisis was the global financial emergency of September 2008. Equally as important, though less obvious, was a long developing crisis resulting from intergenerational change in values. We begin this section with a discussion of American social values from 1992 to 2008, a period often referred to as the "culture wars." In contrast to the typical portrayal of this period--as a battle between two opposing value systems--current research suggests that the period is best characterized by a division between the engaged (representing both factions within the culture wars) and the disengaged. In Weberian terms, the heated rhetoric of the culture wars fostered disenchantment in a significant proportion of the population, creating both a crisis of political stagnation and the opportunity for a charismatic leader able to articulate an alternative vision. The section ends with a discussion of the connection between the "values crisis" and the economic crisis.

Pat Buchanan, in a speech to the 1992 Republican National Convention, declared the existence of a culture war: "There is a religious war going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America" (quoted in Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2005:1). This vision, of America divided into two roughly equal and deeply separated camps, was seemingly verified by a series of closely contested elections from 1992 to 2006 and, as a result, dominated political discourse during that period. (4) At the heart of this characterization is a supposed clash of worldviews between the moral absolutists (who believe in an absolute moral code located outside the individual, that is, in God or society) and the moral relativists (who locate the source of moral authority in the individual and the situations they confront). These central philosophical differences are seen as tightly linked to a wide variety of distinct attitudes and values. Thus, to take an example involving religion, politics, and family; moral absolutists tend toward religious absolutism, conservative politics, and a strict parenting style aimed at teaching respect for authority, self-discipline, and responsibility. In contrast, moral relativists tend toward secular individualism, liberal politics, and a nurturing parental style aimed at fostering the child's ability to empathize with others, including those who differ from him or her (Lackoff 2002). In short, culture wars discourse conceives American society as bimodally distributed into two polarized, independent and largely distinct groups.

This characterization, however, gains little support from systematic analysis of empirical evidence about American beliefs, values, attitudes, and morals. Studies examining trends across a wide spectrum of attitudes (e.g., DiMaggio, Evans, and Bryson 1996; Evans 2003; Fiorina et al. 2005), find (1) a convergence over time, not a polarization, in attitudes about race, gender, crime, sexual morality, et cetera, (2) a lack of polarization in attitudes held by members of various subgroups (e.g., voters versus nonvoters, college graduates versus nongraduates, et cetera), and (3) little difference between "red" and "blue" states. (5) Similarly, Davis and Robinson (1996), using data from the 1991 General Social Survey to study religious orthodoxy, found: "contrary to the 'culture war' metaphors ... most Americans occupy a middle ground between the extremes of religious orthodoxy and moral progressivism" (p. 780). Finally, Baker (2005:64-109), using data from the World Values Survey to conduct the most methodologically sophisticated and comprehensive test of the culture war thesis to date, concludes the culture war is "largely fiction."

Thus, we are left with a puzzle. If, as the data show, the culture wars are a fiction and "the moral culture of the imagined community of America still stands" (Baker 2005:109), why do most Americans perceive a crisis of values? The answer, it turns out, is that they perceive a crisis of values because there is one, it just is not the one described by the culture wars rhetoric. Thus, our puzzle really has two subcomponents: (1) what is the nature of the "real" value crisis and (2) why is that crisis misrepresented in culture wars rhetoric? After briefly addressing this latter question, we turn to the first.

Although the populace has not polarized along culture war lines, political parties have (King 1997). This process is most obvious in the House of Representatives, where district lines have been gerrymander in order to virtually ensure the election of a candidate from a particular party. As a consequence, the pivotal choice is made during the primary, where the nomination of the district's dominant party is decided, rather than the general election contest between the Republican and the Democrat. Since primary voting is restricted to party members and dominated by party activists, who tend to be more extreme than the general public or their party as a whole, the tendency is to nominate the more extreme primary candidate and, as an aggregate result, to polarize the House. In short, both parties find the culture wars rhetoric useful and, as Fiorina et al. (2005) note "it is not voters who have polarized, but the candidates they are asked to choose between" (p. 49). Elite rhetoric, amplified in the echo chamber of the media, becomes conventional wisdom.

But, the fact that American public opinion has not polarized into culture warring factions does not preclude the possibility that values have changed. The most interesting description of those changes is found in Adams (2005), whose polling firm (Environics) has collected data on over 600 different measures of American values from 1992 to the present. Adams (2005:23-63) reports changes in five different clusters of values within the American public over the period from 1992 to 2004: (1) increased acceptance of a mindset that sees brutal competition as a natural condition of human existence, (2) increased thrill-seeking, (3) increased attraction to consumption, (4) decreased attachment to authority and institutions and (5) decreased focus on fulfillment and the inner life. It is important to note that this analysis focused not on the "most important" values but, rather, those that showed the most change over the 12-year period. (6) Significantly, these are neither the values of the conservatives (who were politically ascendant during this period) nor of the progressives. The values showing the most rapid growth from 1992 to 2004, particularly among the young, were the values of the politically disengaged (Adams 2005:9).

Adams arrives at these conclusions through the use of factor analysis and other sophisticated quantitative techniques to summarize and reduce the data; first, into over 100 different indices measuring different values and, second, to map these values onto a visual representation of the main structural axes of the "value space" of American society. (7) The two main structural axes of that map are (1) survival versus fulfillment and (2) authority versus individuality. These two dimensions can be used to define a four-quadrant map space on which changes in values through time can be represented (see Figure 2). Thus, for example, values at the top of the map space (labeled authority) are associated with deference to authority, adherence to traditional roles, and attachment to traditional institutions. While a detailed discussion of the interpretation of the map space goes beyond the parameters of this article, the overall change in American values between 1992 and 2004 can be visualized as a shift down and to the left (that is, indicating an increase in survival and individuality values). This shift is shown as the solid line in Figure 2.

More interesting, at least from the perspective of the present article, is the difference that appears when the population is disaggregated into two groups based on voting intentions (certain voters and unlikely voters). Unlikely voters, represented by the dotted line in Figure 2, displayed the same pattern of value change as the population as a whole; moving down and to the left from 1996 to 2004. In contrast, certain voters (irrespective of whether then intended to vote Republican or Democrat) displayed a different pattern of change, moving up and to the left (indicating an increase in authority and survival values), as shown by the dashed line in Figure 2. This leads Adams (2005) to conclude that the real divergence in American values is not between clashing culture warriors but, rather, between the politically engaged (represented by "old, grave, fear-driven political culture") and the politically disengaged (represented by "young, ironic, fun-driven popular culture") (pp. 64-89). (8)

Adams' analysis underscores two major points relevant for the 2008 election. First, the most significant value changes in the 15 years leading up to the election were not shifts from one side of the culture war debate to another but, rather, the emergence of a substantial portion of the citizenry that rejected the culture wars rhetoric and became politically disengaged. In Weberian terms, this is a clear example of ideological rigidity (the emergence of the two incommensurable camps of the culture wars) and political-economic stagnation (the emergence of a third group, the politically disengaged). Second, the shift in values among the American public occurred not because particular individuals were changing their values but, rather, as a result of intergenerational change. The vast majority of the politically disengaged were young. Thus, candidates in the 2008 election faced a strategic choice. On the one hand, they could, as had been done in earlier elections, frame the debate in terms of the culture wars in an attempt to use well understood political rhetoric to mobilize their base and divide up the engaged portion of the electorate. Or, on the other hand, they could deploy novel rhetoric in an attempt to transcend the culture wars and reach out to the disengaged segment of the population.


In September 2008, the chronic stagnation in the American political system created by the generational change in values was amplified by an acute economic crisis, the global financial emergency, that negatively affected the McCain campaign in a variety of ways. First, the nature of the crisis, with its roots in a variety of obscure and comparatively unregulated financing mechanisms (subprime mortgages, collateralized debt, obligations, et cetera), called into question the extreme free-market ideology advocated by the Republican party. Second, as the party in power at the time of the emergency, the Republicans were unavoidably given disproportionate responsibility for the problem. Finally, McCain's quixotic behavior at the time of the emergency (such as suspending his campaign so he could return to the Senate) called into question his judgment and undercut the argument that Obama was unqualified due to a lack of experience. In sum, American voters went to the polls in November 2008 at a time of double crisis: a deep, chronic, generational and largely unacknowledged values rift and an acute, highly visible economic emergency that was as much of a shock to the American economic ideology as September 11 had been to its security ideology. It is against the backdrop of these twin crises that the public constructions of Obama and Palin as charismatic leaders must be understood.


Both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are routinely described by the press, in the blogosphere and by individuals in conversation as "charismatic." An August 2, 2009 Google search, for example, found 656,000 pages containing the name Barack Obama and the word charisma and 203,000 pages referring to Sarah Palin and charisma. Based on an unscientific review of several hundred of these sites, the vast majority of them use the word charisma in the ordinary language sense of the term; that is, to refer to a personal characteristic of either Obama or Palin. But, as was documented in section one, Weber's use of the term is much more detailed; including aspects of the leader, the followers, and the social context. This section addresses that more specific question: Are either Obama or Palin charismatic leaders in the Weberian sense of the word? (9)

Did the public, for example, attach other attributes associated with Weber's notion of charisma to Obama? The Pew Research Center (2008a) on three occasions (in February, April, and September 2008) asked registered voters in an open-ended question to provide the best single word to "describe your impression" of Barack Obama. "Inexperienced" was the most offered response in all three surveys, followed by "charismatic" and a variety of words indicating a belief that Obama's approach represented a fundament break from what had gone before (change, new, different). Though not offered as commonly, a substantial number of respondents offered words associated with the personal characteristics of charismatic leaders (dynamic, energetic, enthusiastic, leader), the nature of their message (idealistic, visionary), or the type of response that charismatic messages engender in the public (inspirational, hopeful). In sum, significant elements of the voting public viewed Obama, in Smith's (1998) term, as "charismatically endowed" throughout the campaign. (10)

As noted in section one, the fundamental requirement of a successful charismatic leader is to provide a new vision that does away with the polarization that characterizes periods of political-economic stagnation and reunifies the society. Obama, campaigning for election to the U.S. Senate, broke onto the national scene as the Keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Convention. In that speech Obama (2004) articulated a unifying vision, the same vision that would animate his 2008 presidential campaign:
   Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide
   us--the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the
   politics of 'anything goes.' Well, I say to them tonight, there is
   not a liberal America and a conservative America--there is the
   United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White
   America and Latino America and Asian America--there's the United
   States of America.

   The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into
   Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States
   for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an
   'awesome God' in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents
   poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little
   League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in
   the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and
   there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one
   people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all
   of us defending the United States of America.

In this speech, Obama explicitly set out to transcend the culture war rhetoric. As explained by Obama's campaign manager, Jim Margolis, "The fundamental core message is that we're one country--and we don't have to be divided" (Shapiro 2008). The message was reinforced by the campaign's adoption of a "50 state strategy" where, in contrast to conventional approaches that focus on winnable states and ignore states where chances are slim, the campaign committed substantial resources to every state (Newton-Small 2008).

Three features of this approach merit specific note. First, the charismatic can not propose just any vision, it must be a culturally relevant vision, that is, one seen as an natural outgrowth from and connected to important cultural themes. Obama's rhetoric resonated with a fundamental aspect of American culture, what Baker (2005) termed "the moral culture of the imagined community of America" (p. 109). Second, Obama, as the son of a black father and a white mother, represented the living embodiment of his own rhetoric; a product of the ability to transcend divides. Furthermore, as the first postboomer candidate for the presidency, Obama could viably represent himself as unencumbered by the politics of the culture wars and their roots in the experiences of the baby-boom generation. The symbolic significance of these facts should not be ignored. Third, in a democratic society, reorganization of politics typically requires reorganization of the electorate. Thus, in both word and deed, Obama set out to substantially reorganize the electorate by reaching out to Republicans and independents, to "red state" voters and, most significantly, to the disillusioned young who were turned off by the divisive rhetoric of the culture wars and had stopped (or never started) voting.

If the above analysis is correct, that is if Obama's charismatic appeal transcended the culture wars divisions and allowed him to appeal to a portion of the disaffected, nonvoting populace, there should be evidence of this in the voting results. Specifically, given that the disaffected, nonvoting segment of the population was disproportionately young, we would expect to see a shift in youth voting. This is precisely what the data show. (11) No matter how you measure it, youth voting increased significantly: (1) the voter turnout among those aged 19 to 29 increased from 40 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2008 while the turnout among all other age groups remained essentially constant, (2) the number of votes cast by youth aged 19 to 29 in 2008 increased by nearly 2.25 million votes over the number cast by that age cohort in the 2004 election (representing 42 percent of the total increase in all votes), and (3) the 4.3 percent disparity between the youth share of U.S. citizens (21.4 percent in 2008) and their share of the electorate (17.1 percent) was smaller than in any election since the voting age was reduced to 18 in 1972 (Kirby and Kawashima-Ginsberg 2009).

While the above data clearly indicate increased participation in the 2008 election by disaffected youth, it provides no direct evidence of Obama's role in bringing this about. However, the results are equally clear that he was the primary beneficiary of the increased youth turnout, as young voters preferred Obama (68 percent) over McCain (30 percent) by a margin of over two to one (Dahl 2008). According to Peter Levine, Director of the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, the difference between the youth vote and the over 30 vote has traditionally been very small, with youth being only a "tick or two" more Democratic (quoted in Dahl 2008). For example, even in the Iraq fueled 2004 election, the youth vote margin for Kerry over Bush was only 9 percent, less than a quarter of the 38 percent difference between Obama and McCain. Thus, not only did youth turn out in record numbers, they also voted heavily in favor of Obama. As a result, the age gap--the divergence between the candidate preferences of the youngest and oldest voters was the widest in decades, perhaps ever (Kohut 2008). According to John Della Volpe the director of polling for the Harvard University Institute of Politics: "(The youth vote) is turning states that (Obama) would've lost or barely won into more comfortable margins" (quoted in Dahl 2008). Finally, it should be noted that youth involvement was arguably more important for Obama early in the campaign than it was on election day. Obama owed his victory in the Iowa caucus (the nation's first primary) to young voters. Without their dedicated support, he would not have won Iowa, a win that set his campaign in motion (von Drehle 2008).

Additionally, as noted in section one, the charismatic leader's solution must be seen as working. The Obama campaign can be viewed as a series of trials that Obama passed and, through them, enhanced his charismatic status. Before the Iowa caucus, polls showed Obama with less of the black vote than Hillary Clinton due, in part, to the connection between black voters and Bill Clinton and, in part, to the perception within the black community that Obama was neither "black enough" nor electable. Obama's victory in the Iowa caucus, however, demonstrated his ability to attract white votes and, as a result, significantly enhanced his attractiveness to black voters. Similarly, Hillary Clinton had wrapped up many party insiders long before the primaries began and knowledgeable commentators generally credited her with putting together one of the most formidable campaign organizations in memory. Many viewed the primaries as a formality and Clinton as the presumed nominee. Thus, when Hillary Clinton finally withdrew, after unsuccessfully test driving most of the arguments the Republicans were expected to use, Obama's status was again enhanced. In each of these cases, his performance exceeded expectations, lending credibility to his charisma.

A final, though less direct, piece of evidence about Obama's charismatic status comes from the increase in "positive voters" in the 2008 election. Negative advertisements were a campaign staple during the elections of 1988 to 2004. These ads had the dual purposes of firing up the candidates base and driving up negative evaluations of their opponents. As a result, many voters in these elections cast their vote "against" their candidates opponent rather than "for" their candidate. In the 2008 election, however, 75 percent of voters cast their vote "for" their own candidate, up substantially from the 48 to 64 percent who did so in the previous five elections (Pew Research Center 2008a, 2008b). This result is consistent with what would be expected if the electorate were embracing the charismatic candidate's positive vision for the future. (12)

Sarah Palin's emergence on the national scene, as McCain's Vice-Presidential pick rather than as a candidate at the top of the ticket, complicates our assessment of her charismatic status; she was brought into the limelight not by her own ideas and agenda but, rather, in support of someone else's. (13) Thus, in an attempt to overcome this limitation, our assessment of Palin will extend beyond the events of the 2008 election.

Significantly, Palin was not initially considered charismatic by the public. Out of 597 registered voters asked to provide a one word description of Sarah Palin in mid-September 2008 (that is, immediately following her nomination at the Republican Convention), not a single one answered "charismatic" (Pew Research Center 2008a). (14) The label appears to have emerged as a result of (1) the bounce the McCain campaign got from the convention (where coverage of Palin was highly favorable, see CNN 2008), (2) the large crowds in attendance at her rallies, sometimes significantly larger than Obama's rallies on the same day (Hamby 2008), and (3) the McCain decision for the two of them to campaign together rather than separately because he feared she would draw more people than him (MSNBC 2008). In other words, the label emerged out of comparison with the notably uncharismatic McCain and, in particular, Palin's ability to energize the McCain campaign by giving the conservative base of the Republican party, which was unenthusiastic about McCain, a reason to work for the ticket.

This interpretation is consistent with the other descriptors the public provided. Like Obama, the most common descriptor of Palin was "inexperienced." However, unlike Obama, whose ideological descriptor (liberal) initially ranked 22nd in frequency, Palin's ideological descriptor (conservative) was the second most frequent term provided. The only terms indicative of charisma (dynamic, energetic) referred to personal characteristics and were relatively low in frequency (ranking 13th and 16th, respectively). None of the respondents provided descriptors suggesting that Palin's message was charismatic, nor that she instilled the type of response in the audience typical of a charismatic's message. In contrast, people were more likely to use words associated with the rigid defense of an existing position (strong, aggressive, feisty) (15) rather than words associated with the promotion of a alternative vision (Pew Research Center 2008a). In sum, there is little evidence the public viewed Palin as charismatically endowed in Weber's sense.

Turning from her personal characteristics to her message, the McCain campaign initially presented Palin as someone who could reorganize the electorate in two ways. First, the McCain campaign used her biography, specifically her battle against corruption in the Alaska Republican Party and the claim she vetoed the "Bridge to Nowhere" earmark, to present Palin as a reformer and underscore McCain's reputation as a political maverick. Thus, in contrast to Obama's solution to the crisis of political-economic stagnation, the articulation of a moral vision of America inconsistent with the culture wars rhetoric yet consistent with American tradition, the McCain campaign sought to locate the crisis inside the beltway in the Washington political process and, thus, to emphasize the importance of political reform. Here, in stark contrast, we see the strategic difference between the two campaigns. Where Obama articulated a vision designed to expand the electorate by drawing in disenchanted nonvoters, the McCain campaign offered solutions targeted at independents and others in the ideological middle of the pool of likely voters.

Second, there was an attempt to use identity politics to appeal to women, specifically disaffected Hillary Clinton voters (Carper 2008) and youth (Simon 2008). These efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful as Palin's pick eventually turned off both female voters (Lowen 2008) and youth (Socialsphere 2008). These voters were largely driven away by Palin's performance in the traditional vice-presidential "attack dog" role where, among other things, she claimed that Obama "palled around with terrorists" (Johnson 2008). In these instances, Palin invoked classic culture war rhetoric by using fear about the opposition candidate and his policies to create divisions within the electorate. As the global financial crisis unfolded and McCain fell farther and farther behind in the polls, Palin amplified such rhetoric until it got to the point that McCain tried to tamp down the rhetoric by denouncing claims about Obama made by individuals at his rallies (Cox 2008). In short, Palin had a dual effect on the electorate. On the one hand, her culture wars rhetoric offended and drove away precisely those voters, women, and the young, that McCain had hoped her candidacy would attract. On the other hand, that same rhetoric activated a Republican base that, before her nomination, had been notably unenthusiastic about McCain. Her attractiveness to the extreme right of the Republican Party remains evident from the large interest in her candidacy for 2012. But, and this is the crucial point in relation to Palin's status as a charismatic leader, her popularity with this group stems not from her ability to articulate a new vision but, rather, from her ability to argue their side in the culture war; that is, the perception that she is the authentic embodiment of their moral absolutist values. (16) This is not a charismatic vision; her rhetoric represents a perpetuation of the ideological rigidity responsible for America's current politicaleconomic stagnation, not a solution to that crisis. It is for precisely this reason that the preelection reaction to Palin was much more diverse than the preelection reaction to Obama. On the one hand, her supporters saw her as invigorating a moribund campaign and, as a result of public fascination with her and in recognition of her ability to attract attention and draw crowds, began speaking of her charisma. On the other hand, her detractors focused on her perceived gaffes and, as exemplified in the Saturday Night Live skit where Tina Fey repeated Palin's comments verbatim, constructed her quite literally as a parody of herself and, hence, as someone totally lacking in charisma.

To summarize, Weber's used the term charisma in a more specific fashion than contemporary ordinary language use of the term; to capture not only (1) the special personal qualities of the charismatic leader but also (2) the special relationship between leader and followers, and (3) a connection to the wider social context such that the leader's charisma can be used to facilitate social change. As this example has shown, Weber's formulation is still useful and continues to shed light on contemporary events. It is for this reason, because theorists embed concepts in larger theoretical structures, that attention to the original meaning of the term remains a priority.

Turning to the wider relevance of the example, it should first be noted, following Weber (1958), that charisma manifests itself in a different, more restricted, manner in plebiscitarian democracy than it does in other historical forms. Obama's election was, in large measure, the result of his ability to connect with and embody the hopes and aspirations of the disengaged segment of the U.S. citizenship. Whether or not he can master the legislative process and successfully translate his charismatic authority into meaningful socioeconomic change remains to be seen. Second, there exists a long tradition of scholarship, from Riesman, Glaser, and Denney (1950) to Putnam (2000) and beyond, documenting changes in values and character types through time. Given the propensity for such processes to result in generational character types, for example the depression generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X, it is not surprising that charismatic political leaders often emerge at the time that political power is being transferred from one generation to another. Seen in this light, Obama, as the first post-Baby Boomer president, represents a modern version of the same charismatic driven generational transition in power that characterized the elections of John F. Kennedy and Pierre Elliot Trudeau. However, the factors governing such shifts in values tend to be local rather than global.

Thus, for example, Canadian politics appear to contradict Inglehart's claim that Western democracies have entered a postmaterialist phase (Butovsky 2002). Similarly, as has been widely discussed, there are substantial value differences between the United States and Canada (Baer, Grabb, and Johnson 1993; Bowden 1989, 1990; Lipset 1990; Matthews and Erickson 2005). Thus, while the time may be nearing for another charismatic Canadian politician, he or she will face a socioeconomic crisis unique to Canada. Where Trudeau's small-1 liberal vision aimed to reconcile the political crisis of his era, the French-English divide, the regional split between Central Canada and the West looms as the most likely source for a contemporary crisis.


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GARY BOWDEN University of New Brunswick

(1) While differing in specifics, both Bligh and Kohles (2009) and Knorr Cetina (2009) make a broadly similar argument, that is, that charisma involves three elements (charismatic content and delivery style, crisis and uncertainty, and follower readiness for charisma) and that all three are relevant to understanding Obama's election. The largest differences between their analyses and that of the present article are the following: (1) they locate the crisis as external and geopolitical rather than internal and cultural-political and (2) their analyses make no attempt to empirically connect the nature of the crisis with actual voting behavior.

(2) As has been widely noted, Weber posits a directional movement in social organization as a result of repeated cycling through these phases over long periods of time--from a society based on traditional authority to one organized more and more around legal-rational authority. It should also be noted that the phases are not temporally equivalent; the periods of crisis and reorganization occur relatively rapidly while the phases of growth/institutionalization and rigidification occur over longer periods of time.

(3) This is not to suggest that individual attributes are unimportant but, rather, that charisma is an ideal type and, hence, can not be reduced to the presence or absence of this or that personality trait, mode of behavior, speech pattern (e.g., inflection and cadence), et cetera.

(4.) For a brief summary of this discourse, see Fiorina et al. (2005:1-9). Among the most articulate advocates of the culture war thesis are Guinness (1992) and Hunter (1991).

(5.) These studies note two significant exceptions to the generalizations presented in the text: attitudes about abortion have become more polarized over time as have differences between Republicans and Democrats.

(6.) This fact probably accounts for the difference between Adam's understanding of American values and that of others. Individuals examining the culture wars thesis took a deductive approach, beginning with the culture wars hypothesis and selecting data relevant to an examination of that hypothesis. Adams, in contrast, takes a more inductive approach. He begins with those values that exhibit the most change and then asks what we can understand about American culture from those changes.

(7.) For a detailed description of the values measured and the methods used in their analysis, see Adams (2005:179-208).

(8.) Among the values showing the most difference between certain and unlikely voters were: acceptance of violence, penchant for risk, ecological concern, sexual permissiveness, pursuit of intensity, joy of consumption, buying on impulse, duty, religiosity, primacy of the family, national pride, introspection and empathy, and effort toward health.

(9) While largely tangential to the central questions of this paper, it is interesting to note that Obama and Palin exhibit other similarities as a result of the massive attention they received in our celebrity obsessed culture. For example, voters reported hearing too much about both Obama and Palin at certain points in the campaign, while relatively few experienced McCain or Biden fatigue (Pew Research Center 2008a, 2008b).

(10) A repeat of the descriptor exercise (Pew Research Center 2009), done in February 2009 shortly after Obama assumed the presidency, shows some significant changes. The most relevant, from the perspective of this article, were a drop in the number of people who labeled him "inexperienced" coupled with a rise in the number of people who made positive personal evaluations of Obama's character and approach to issues (intelligent/intellectual, honest, smart, trying). While a significant number still called him charismatic, a substantial change is evident.

(11) The data also show a significant change in ethnic voting pattern in 2008 compared with previous elections. Specifically, voter participation rates among blacks, Hispanics, and Asians increased and Hispanics, who had supported Bush in the previous elections, trended significantly Democratic (Roberts 2009).

(12) While not absent from the 2008 election, negative ads were less frequent than in the past few election cycles. This was a product not only of Obama's strategy and message, but also of decisions made by the McCain campaign. Thus, it would be an exaggeration to attribute all of the change in these numbers to Obama and his positive message.

(13) There are also a wide variety of reasons people came to actively oppose Palin; ranging from questions about her competence, accusations of hypocrisy and egocentrism, to outright class bigotry. While fascinating in their own right, these matters are outside the scope of an article focused on the reasons people label her charismatic.

(14) The most frequently offered descriptors were inexperienced and conservative, followed by a variety of favorable attributes (strong, fresh, smart, confident, dynamic, energetic, feisty) or evaluations (interesting, great, hot) mixed in with a smattering of critical terms (unqualified, false, phony).

(15) The interpretation of these descriptors is complicated by the fact that Palin is female. The same behavior labeled "assertive" in a male is often labeled "aggressive" in a female.

(16) Conservative commentator David Limbaugh (2008) makes this point nicely in his comparison of Obama's "fleeting charisma" with Palin's "authenticity": "While there is plenty of enthusiasm surrounding Sarah Palin, little of it is irrationally based. None of her supporters believes that she is flawless or that she possesses supernatural qualities. To the contrary, it's her very authenticity that appeals to us, her decency, her commitment to family, her unapologetic veneration for America's founding principles and traditional values--the very principles and values that are repugnant to the elites."

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Gary Bowden, Department of Sociology, University of New Brunswick, PO Box 4400, Fredericton, New Brunswick E3B 5A3, Canada. E-mail:
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Author:Bowden, Gary
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
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