Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama where he teaches political philosophy, constitutional law, and American Politics. His research is in Eric Voegelin; Politics and Literature; Religion and Politics; Democracy and Education; and Teaching and Learning Political Science. He is also the editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film and the academic website, VoegelinView.
Tocqueville, Weber, and Democracy: The Condition of Equality and the Possibility of Charisma in America
Both Tocqueville and Weber confronted the injection of mass suffrage into the liberal democratic polity with trepidation and caution but for different reasons: for Tocqueville, democracy produced a condition of social equality and Cartesian pragmatism that could lead to individualism, cultural mediocrity, and ultimately majority tyranny, while for Weber the domination of administrative bureaucracy and its use of instrumental rationality created a crisis of legitimacy for liberal democracy. Because each thinker focused on different aspects of mass liberal democracy, the solutions they proposed are different from each other. Weber sought to incorporate charismatic leaders into the political process, thereby permitting someone who will assert control and provide direction to the administrative bureaucracy. The mass electorate process would be nothing more than deciding the ultimate political values for the regime in the selection of a charismatic leader. By contrast, Tocqueville looked to civil society as a solution to majority tyranny. Because of the condition of social equality, Tocqueville did not believe that charismatic leaders could emerge from mass liberal democracy; consequently legitimacy for the regime must reside in its civic organizations.
Surprisingly, when reviewing the literature on this topic, very little is found on whether charismatic leadership can emerge in mass liberal democracy. Most of the scholarship in leadership studies assumes leadership, including charismatic, can exist in mass liberal democracy. For example, the traits approach on leadership assume that leaders are born with specific characteristics that predispose them to positions of power and influence, although later empirical research demonstrates that there is no correlation among personal traits, physical characteristics, and leadership. Another school of thought on leadership is Fiedler’s contingency model, where he analyzes three factors that lead to conditions favorable to leadership: positions of power, the task structure of the leader, and the relationship between the leader and his followers. A third approach in examining leadership is House’s path-goal theory that focuses on a leader’s communicative style to his followers in order to determine the leader’s effectiveness, while Hersey and Blanchard suggest that the maturity level of a leader’s followers and their relational orientation to their leader are the crucial factors for leadership effectiveness. Building on this analysis, the leadership-members exchange theory contends that leaders make decisions concerning the inclusion or exclusion of followers, with those of the “in-group” performing their tasks more effectively than those of the “out-group.” Finally, the functional approach looks at a leader’s conformance to certain task-related roles such as the maintenance of group cohesion.
Of the scholarship that focuses on charismatic leadership, most of it is perfunctory lip-service to Weber’s work. A few examples should suffice: Burns’ distinction between “transformation ” and “transactional” leadership, with the former being “empowering and inspiring” and the latter “ordinary and routine”; Peters’ and Waterman’s case studies of charismatic leaders who are able to “get things done” in the business world; and Trice’s and Beyer’s list of the components of Weber’s conceptualization of charisma. The more theoretical literature on charismatic leadership is subdivided into schools, such as the psychoanalytical approach that employs Freudian concepts of regression, transference, and projection to conceptualize and explain charismatic leadership. Other examples are the political approach that merely looks at successful political leaders in large and small countries; the behavioral school that attempts to quantify charismatic and non-charismatic leaders; the attribution theory that defines charisma in terms of the follower’s perceptions; and the communicative approach that again focuses on a leader’s communication style. Although these various schools differ in their accounts and sequencing of a follower’s personal identification and internalization process with a charismatic leader, they all assume charismatic leadership is possible, especially in mass liberal democracies. Even such recent accounts of leadership, such as Keohane’s and Skowronek’s, assume charismatic leadership is possible. But, as Mommsen put it,
Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the personal legitimacy of the political leader can be a permanent substitute for the belief in the legitimacy of the political system as such, as Weber seems to have assumed at the time.
The studies on Weber also ignore this question of whether charismatic leadership can emerge in liberal democracy. Granted that Weber was concerned with bureaucratic domination as opposed to Tocqueville’s concern about the equality of condition in mass liberal democracies, nonetheless, the question of whether charismatic leadership can emerge from a society of mediocrity is not explored either by Weber or subsequent Weberian scholars. Parsons uses Weber’s works, along with Durkheim’s and Pareto’s, to create his theory of structural functionalism, while Shils borrows Weber to create a general theory of society and Benedix employs Weber in the service of “historical sociology.” Weber is also used to create “political sociology,” revitalized the Enlightenment tradition in modernity, and reconstruct western history and rationality. Even contemporary accounts overlook whether Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership is possible in mass liberal democratic societies: Behnegar makes Weber a “Straussian”; Breiner reconstructs a Weberian defense of mass political liberalism; and Mommsen examines Weber’s theories of legitimacy with the assumption that charismatic leadership exists. With respect to a conversation with Tocqueville, there is Kim’s Max Weber’s Politics of Civil Society, but he passes over the question of the possibility of charismatic leadership in mass liberal democracies. Simply put, charismatic leadership is assumed to exist in a mass liberal democratic society in the Weberian scholarship.
Whereas practically no scholarship exists to see whether Weber’s charismatic principle can exist in mass liberal democracy, the scholarship on Tocqueville equally overlooks the possibility of charismatic political leadership in America. Tocqueville himself has been analyzed as an aristocratic apologist and reactionary conservative, a democratic liberal, and a French nationalist, while his ideas have been used to contribute to various schools of thought in the social sciences. Some scholars, like Parsons, even deny Tocqueville status as a theorist, particularly when compared to Weber, Durkheim, Tonnies, and Scheler. By contrast some scholars—especially those who study civil society—contend that Tocqueville was a theorist of the first order. Finally, there are those who place Tocqueville in the context of political philosophy and the history of ideas. These scholars often compare and contrast Tocqueville’s philosophy with Rousseau’s, and even to Aristotle’s. But, when it comes to the topic of charismatic leadership, scholars have not used Tocqueville’s account of mass liberal democracy, especially his definition of the equality of condition, as a context to examine Weber’s charismatic principle. Although the possibility of greatness is studied, the question of whether charismatic leadership can exist is not pursued. This chapter does not answer this question, but tries to establish the theoretical context in which this question can be examined.
The defining characteristic of American liberal democracy, i.e., mass democracy, for Tocqueville is the “the general equality of condition among the people,” a force so pervasive that:
I soon perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less effect on civil society than on government; it creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated (DA1 3).
This equality of condition has manifested itself most fully in the New World, although it inevitably will reach Europe, as Tocqueville retraced the history of western civilization as one long march towards democracy (DA1 14). What motives men towards social equality is the belief that “exercise of a power which they believe to be illegitimate, and by obedience to a rule which they consider to be usurped and oppressive” (DA1 9). With the Christian belief of spiritual equality and the Enlightenment dogma of political equality, the previous awe and wonder citizens had felt towards their rulers dissipated into collegial contempt: “The spell of royalty is broken, but it has not been succeeded by the majesty of the laws. The people have learned to despise all authority, but they still fear it” (DA1 10). The problem that confronted the democracies of Europe is to transform this scorn and contempt into reverence and respect for a new authority: republican self-rule.
For Tocqueville, this new authority of republican self-rule was possible only if citizens felt a sense of connection with each other. What concerned Tocqueville the most was the sense of isolation and alienation among a citizenry which, in turn, leads to a sense of powerlessness over political events. As Tocqueville wrote in a letter in 1851, he complained about the condition in Europe as “the most salient characteristic of the times is the powerlessness of both men and of governments on the general movement of both ideas and political events” (SL 155). Unlike an American, a European “looks upon all these things [civil society] unconnected with himself and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the government” (DA1 96). Tocqueville was deeply concerned about the privatization of society which eventually leads to a sense of powerlessness among the citizenry:
When the inhabitant of a democratic country compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels pride that he is equal of any one of them; but when comes to survey the totality of his fellows and to place himself in contrast with so huge a body, he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness. The same equality that renders him independent of each of his fellow citizens, taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater number (DA2 11).
In other words, Tocqueville saw the severance of traditional ties in society and the pursuit of individual private interests as the contributing causes to a sense of powerlessness.
In America, the citizens are philosophical Cartesians, seeking “the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself alone,” which further isolates them from each other (DA2 3). The philosophical school of thought that Americans unconsciously subscribe to is one where individual applies his own effort to his own understanding, since all citizens are equal in social status and therefore lack an external source of authority to compare their own judgments (DA2 3-4). Because all judgments are generated within, Americans practices the Cartesian method of clear and distinct principles and deny all those phenomena that cannot be comprehended (DA2 4). The affinity between Cartesianism and social equality is the rejection of authority in favor of individual judgment whether in scientific, philosophical, or political matters (DA2 5). The result of this reliance on individual judgment is to reduce everything to its practical or utilitarian value—a philosophical pragmatism—that “accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson to be used in doing otherwise and doing better…to tend to results without being bound to means, and to strike through the form to the substance” (DA2 3).
This is particularly true in America where social classes almost have disappeared due to the laws of inheritance as equal division. Besides the physical features of the American geography, its Puritan origins, and English heritage, all of which have contributed to the condition of social equality, the laws of inheritance brings the material concerns of the citizens to the forefront (DA1 48-49, 20-45; DA2 194-195). The equal partition of property not only severs the connection of the family for Tocqueville, but it also forces all members of the family to seek a livelihood for their material existence. If the sons aspire to be wealthy as their fathers, they must resign themselves of not possessing the same property and therefore must seek fortune in capital and other speculative, financial projects (DA1 49). Generations of the same family will rise and fall; but “it is rare to find two successive generations in the full enjoyment” of the same wealth and social class (DA1 51). The final outcome of this condition of fluctuating wealth is to focus the intellect on pragmatic concern of material existence, where everything is seen as means to the fulfillment of the material passion of wealth. Cartesianism therefore contributes to a condition of isolation and alienation among the citizenry because it constricts all evaluations and judgments to oneself, usually in the pursuit of material self-interest.
This sense of isolation, alienation, and privatization among the citizenry Tocqueville referred to as individualism:
…a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself” (DA2 98).
Whereas in previous regimes, subjects have suffered from selfishness, democratic regimes with their equality of condition promote a new vice known as individualism. The primary difference between these two is that individualism leads to a radical isolation of citizens, while selfishness does not seek to escape from familial, societal, and political bonds (DA2 98-99). Individualism consequently is the more harmful of the two, because it destroys any sense of obligation for citizens to pursue action past their self-interests. This sense of standing alone in society is reinforced with a Cartesian pragmatism orientated towards material wealth. Because citizens see themselves as independent from each other in their pursuit of wealth, they lay down the foundation for despotism: “Equality places men side by side, unconnected by any common tie; despotism raises barriers to keep them asunder” (DA2 102). Despotism is most likely to succeed in democratic rather than aristocratic societies, because the equality of condition tends to separate instead of bind citizens.
The form that despotism presents itself in democratic regimes is majority tyranny, as Tocqueville described:
Several particular circumstances combine to render the power of the majority in America not only preponderant, but irresistible. The moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and wisdom in a number of men united than in a single individual, and that the number of the legislators is more important than their quality. The theory of equality is thus applied to the intellects of men; and human pride is thus assailed in its last retreat by a doctrine which the minority hesitate to admit, and to which they will but slowly assent. Like all other powers, and perhaps more than any other, the authority of the many requires the sanction of time in order to appear legitimate. At first it enforces obedience by constraint; and its laws are not respected until they have long maintained (DA1 255).
Furthermore, the majority rule is based on the utilitarian principle that the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few, which becomes a moral argument with the equality of condition (DA1 256). The power of the majority eventually becomes legitimate over time, once it has controlled all the institutions of government from the legislature to the executive to the courts. Minorities in some communities can “never hope to draw the majority over to their side, because they must then give up the very point that is at issue between them,” namely equality of condition (DA1 256). All they hope for is to become the majority sometime in the future; in the meantime, they recognize the rights of the majority to rule in both law and opinion.
Simply put, Tocqueville did not believe that institutions will provide an effective barrier against majority tyranny, for “social power [is] superior to all others” (DA1 260). The problem of majority tyranny is that the injured party has nowhere else to appeal to:
If to the public, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force consists of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd of the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well as you can (DA1 261).
The power of the majority is such that it precludes freedom of opinion and even thoughts of dissent: the socialization of its citizenry is so complete that one cannot even think a condition other than social equality (DA1 264-265). Even the political leaders of the country, those who managed to rise above the condition of equality, continue to flatter the people’s intelligence and virtue, even if they do not believe it themselves. The result is a lack of patriotism, or what Weber had called “ethics of conviction” (DA1 267-268). By being sycophants to the majority, the political leadership becomes a cynical cadre that pursues power without either conviction or responsibility.
Of course, the ultimate danger that results from majority tyranny is the destruction of liberal democracy in what I call administrative despotism (DA1 95-97; 268-269). This state is centralized with authority and power where, with the condition of equality, everyone is equal, alike, and isolated from each other: the citizen “exists only in himself and for himself alone” (DA2 318). In pursuit of their “petty and paltry pleasures” of material wealth, these citizens seek to take power upon themselves to achieve their objectives by making everything uniform, fashioning people to the state’s will, in the name of the sovereignty of the people (DA2 318-319). By governing in the name of the people, the administrative despotic state satisfies the two, contradictory passions in the people: the desire to be free and the desire to be ruled (DA1 55-58). The principles of centralization and popular sovereignty are combined to provide consolation to the citizenry: they are governed despotically by their own choice (DA2 319). The desires to be free and to be ruled, therefore, are equally satisfied in the routine and detailed subjection of society to the administrative state. We are left with Weber’s rational-legal form of legitimization in the administrative bureaucratic state.
However, this fate is avoidable for democracies, according to Tocqueville, who looked to liberty in the political culture, participation, and social organizations to prevent administrative despotism in democratic regimes (DA2 322). Beginning with democratic political culture, Tocqueville acknowledges the deficiencies of it: the mediocrity, the vulgarity, and the materialism that pervades democratic societies (DA1 252-253; DA2 13-93). Nonetheless, there are two features of democratic political culture that draws citizens out of their self-contained spheres of isolation and self-interest: the family and religion. With its equality of condition, the democratic family treats all members of the household the same but the natural ties still exist and consequently bind the members of the family together. The “social ties are loosen, but the natural ones are tighten” in democratic families (DA2 197). For Tocqueville, there is sentiment that familial affection is permanent in human nature and manifests itself more clearly in democratic families than aristocratic ones where the ties are more social and conventional than natural (DA2 192-196). The moral bedrock of this attachment is the Protestant woman of the household, where, given again equality of condition, they are educated and responsible for their own choices and actions (DA2 198-203). Women in America are able to select their own husbands, maintain their own public opinions, and are governess of the household while still submitting to the husband as the authority of it (DA2 205, 212). Although not flattered as their European counterpart, American women are held in high esteem and equal respect by their husbands (DA2 213). Thus, the American woman provides the moral education to the American family, which is bound together by the natural ties of familial affection.
Religion is the second feature of American political culture that prevents citizens from slipping into individualism and material self-pursuit. When an American attends church, they “steal an house from himself, and, laying aside for a while the petty passions which agitate his life, and the ephemeral interests which engross it, he strays at once into an ideal world, where all is great, eternal, and pure” (DA2 143). Religion, with its doctrine of the immortality of the soul, becomes a counterweight to the materialism that threatens democracies, for democracies “encourages a taste for physical gratification; this taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only” (DA2 145). Believing the soul to be immortal, the American will hold the body and its material needs secondary (DA2 146). The threat that materialism poses to democracies is the encouragement of individual material pursuits at the expense of any cultural, social, or political interests which require the cooperation of other people in liberty. Religion, besides being an instrument of moral education for the populace, directs American minds to non-materialist realities, thereby allowing them to consider the possibility of non-material values as necessary for human existence and betterment (DA2 143-144).
In addition to political culture, Tocqueville also looked to political and civic participation as ways to prevent democratic tendencies towards administrative despotism. The political party may be a “necessary evil in free governments,” but they can affect gradual change in society when they “cling to principles rather than to their consequences; to general and not to special cases; to ideas and not to men” (DA1 175). America used to have great political parties with the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, but now no longer, because the democratic passion in political parties rules over the aristocratic element (DA1 175-176, 178). Like Weber, Tocqueville favored the aristocratic element (or what Weber called the charismatic principle) in political parties—principles rather than consequences; ideas instead of men—as a political force in the regime to counter the excitable material interests of the masses (DA1 177). Without principles or ideas to unite its followers, the political party collapses into “a thousand minute shades of difference upon questions of detail” that result in citizens pursuing their own material self-interest and entering into a Cartesian individualism (Ibid.). Thus, it is unlikely that political party could be one of the mechanisms in the political process to draw citizens out of their spheres of isolated interests.
But political participation in local communities in a decentralized administrative structure (federalism) does mitigate democratic tendencies towards administrative despotism. The federal arrangement of the American political system permits the national government to focus on a small number of objects, while the state and local communities busy themselves with most of the governmental tasks at hand (DA1 271-272). Tocqueville was particularly impressed with the New England townships and to a lesser extent the counties, where administrative tasks are divided among the populace and therefore bind the citizenry together:
Every individual is always supposed to be as well informed, as virtuous, and as strong as any of his fellow citizens. He obeys society, not because he is inferior to those who conduct it or because he is less capable than any other of governing himself, but because he acknowledges the utility of an association with his fellow men and he knows that no such association can exist without a regulating force. He is a subject in all that concerns the duties of citizens to each other; he is free, and responsible to God alone, for all that concerns himself (DA1 64).
The New Englander is attached to his township because he is a free member of this community and therefore is responsible for it (DA1 66). The township also satisfies those who seek public esteem but without stirring ambition in citizens, for federal office is what the truly ambitious seek, while the township office is for those that desire “the taste for authority and popularity” (DA1 67).
This pursuit of self-interest, whether in material wealth or public esteem, needs to be channeled to coincide with the social and political interest of society: “the inhabitants of the United States almost always manage to combine their own advantage with that of their fellow citizens” in the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood (DA2 121). All actions are explained by Americans in terms of self-interest rightly understood: how sacrifices made by them are actually in their own long-term self-interests (DA2 122). This psychology comports with their Cartesian psychology in that Americans must devise for themselves a justification for their actions that is apart from external references of authority. Given the equality of condition, the easiest justification for their actions is self-interest, even “when they fail to do themselves justice” in avoiding the language of virtue, nobility, and sacrifice (Ibid.). Although this doctrine does not aspire towards greatness of character or mind, it is the most suitable for democratic regimes, because it draws citizens out of their individualism into social and political communities (DA2 123). The psychology of self-interest rightly understood therefore can be applied to politics, commerce, or civil society to form the social and political bonds among the citizenry into a single community.
Of these elements in society, the social and civic organizations, “civil society,” have been given the most attention by political scientists, or what Tocqueville called “free institutions and public associations.” According to Tocqueville, civil society emerges from the sense of powerlessness among a citizenry that is equal: they are powerlessness unless they cooperate with each other to achieve non-political objectives (DA2 107). In these social and civic organizations, citizens acquire “social capital”—the values, norms, and skill sets required for democratic politics—and become drawn out of their individualism into a community (DA2 109-110). Furthermore, these social and civic organizations provide an additional barrier to the state and local governments between the national government and its citizens, thereby countering democratic tendencies towards administrative despotism. Although greatness is unlikely to emerge in democracies because of their equality of condition, civil society does provide the necessary venue to train the ordinary citizens in the practices of liberty against administrative despotism. Thus, Tocqueville sought hope against administrative despotism in the liberty of social and civic organizations, as well as the political culture and participation, of the American citizenry in order to justify mass liberal democracy.
For Weber, politics is struggle (Kampf) and competitive selection (Auslsee): the former is attempt to impose one’s will over another; the latter refers to the social context of that struggle when the existence of the individual is at stake (WG 20-22; ES 38-39; GAW 349; GPS 145). Crucial for success in this struggle for Weber is the concept of legitimization: the rationale presented by a leader to his followers in order for them willing to obey his political authority (WG 122; ES 212). The three main types of legitimization are traditional (the “everyday” belief in traditional rules and authority), charismatic (the extraordinary devotion to an individual of superhuman qualities), and the rational-legal (the acceptance of legally enacted rules and administrators). In modernity, what Weber called rational-legal, as manifested in bureaucratic administration, is the dominant form of political legitimization, with its characteristics of predictability, uniformity, and impersonality. Underlying rational-legal legitimization is the cognitive process of instrumental rationality:
An essential component of the rationalization of actions is the replacement of inner acquiescence to lived custom by the deliberate adaptation to situations based on interest. To be sure this process does not exhaust the concept of the rationalization of action. For beyond this, this process of rationalization can proceed positively in the direction of conscious rationalization of values, but also negatively at the expense of both custom and affectual affection; and finally also in favor of a value-skeptical purely purposively-rational form of action at the expense of action bound by value rationality” (WG 15-16; ES 30).
Because it does not incorporate subjective values or teleological ends in its calculus, but rather focus on how most effectively and efficiently to accomplish its pre-assigned task, instrumental rationality becomes the cognitive process to support rational-legal legitimization.
The science of bureaucratic administration is the par excellence of Weber’s rational-legal legitimation: all operations are executed in and governed by formal and explicit rules within a hierarchical organization that is structured by a division of labor and determined by expertise and specialization; all communications are based on written documentation with formal and explicit rules determining bureaucratic decisions and actions; and all administrative staff is separated from the means of administration that results in a process where official cases are governed by formal rules and therefore are treated impersonally. (WG 125-130, 551-556). Since the bureaucrat is separated from the process of rule-formation, his only discretion is in the application of the formal and explicit rules; and this relationship—where the bureaucrat is merely an instrument of the state’s power—is replicated in the relationship between the bureaucrat and his client. The development of any modern association in civil society must conform to the state’s rational-legal form of control in order for it to exist (WG 128; ES, 222). Contrary to some Tocquevillian scholars’ claims, civil society does not become an apolitical sphere where social capital can develop, but rather civil society becomes incorporated and subjected to state domination through rational-legal legitimatization. Thus, through this process of formal and explicit rules, bureaucracies are able to establish state domination in society through its rational-legal form, which in turn becomes predictable, uniform, and completely controlled by the state’s administrative bureaucracy.
This bureaucratic domination in society poses several problems for liberal democratic regimes. First, bureaucratic domination leads to a loss of power for all those who either work within it or are subject to it; and with this loss of power is the loss of moral autonomy and political responsibility. Since administrative bureaucrats are separated from the rule-formation process, they can claim not to be responsible for their enforcing the state’s formal and explicit rules; citizens consequently are subject to impersonal administrative action with no possibility of appeal within the bureaucratic apparatus. The bureaucratic claim for legitimatization in rational-legal form therefore becomes incompatible with the political values of moral autonomy and political responsibility. This especially is troublesome, since the most of the decisions in the rule-formation process are not only separate from the administrative bureaucrat but usually are conducted in secret.
Second, the administrative bureaucrats treat all values as facts, i.e., to conform and to be evaluated by instrumental rationality so that they can achieve predictability, uniformity, and impersonality in their operations. Those values that cannot be reduced to facts—to a criterion of instrumental rationality—are dismissed as subjective values that are apolitical. Thus, the rational-legal form of legitimization epistemologically both precludes certain values from politics, those that cannot be reduced to facts which tends to be the ones individuals most care about, and re-conceptualizes other values into instrumental rationality. Just as civil society organizations must conform to the formal, explicit rules of the state in order to exist, so must political values conform to instrumental rationality in order to have the possibility of being considered. As Weber summarized the situation: “The more bureaucracy is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal irrational, emotional elements which escape calculation” (WG 563; ES 975).
Given the problems of political irresponsibility and epistemological restriction, Weber asked how can one preserve liberal democracy in the administrative bureaucratic state? How does one check the bureaucracy to preserve individual freedom and political responsibility? How can subjective values that resist conforming to facts be injected into the political process (GPS 333-334; ES 1403)? The opposition to the continued growth, much less the elimination, of the administrative bureaucracy is not a feasible option for Weber, for the bureaucracy provides a continuity of control that no other form of political rule can provide (WG 128, 570; ES 223, 988). There is no other manner to execute the multiplicity of tasks that the administrative bureaucracy performs with its division of labor, specialization, expertise, and technical training. Like instrumental rationality that had disenchanted the world, the administrative bureaucracy is an integral aspect of modernity, the iron cage of our existence, that we cannot escape from, even if we so desired.
Weber therefore proposed another principle of legitimization as a counterweight to its rational-legal form: the charismatic principle. Arising typically in crises of rational-legal legitimization, the charismatic principle refers to a leader’s qualities that are not reducible to rational explanation (“supernatural”) and that inspire support among people to follow this leader. The validity of the leader’s claims is not important to Weber; instead, what is important is whether leaders are able to “prove themselves as charismatically gifted within the beliefs of their adherents.” People follow the charismatic leader because of his supernatural qualities, his “divine grace and god-like heroic strength,” which forms the basis of his legitimacy (WG 654-657; ES 1112-1117). The charismatic principle is the opposite of the rational-legal form of legitimization: there is no separation between the rule-making and administrative functions; there is no criterion of instrumental rationality to determine the validity of decisions, actions, and operations; and there is no epistemological exclusion of subjective values.
By introducing new values or inverting previous ones, the charismatic leader secures his followers in “the emotional conviction as to the importance and the value of a manifestation be it religious, ethical, artistic, scientific, political, or another kind of human being ‘from within’ and seeks to form material conditions and social orders according to its revolutionary will” (WG 658; ES 1116). The follower’s psychology is to “submit to that which has never been and is absolutely unprecedented.” With these devoted followers, the charismatic leader is able to organize new social and material organizations for social action; or, in Weber’s own words, charisma is “the specifically ‘creative revolutionary’ force of history” (WG 658; ES 1117). The charismatic leader is able to accomplish this feat by inverting the values of instrumental rationality and subjective values: instrumental rationality follows instead of leads the subjective values of the charismatic leader.
However, this inversion of values leads to organizational and political instability. Since the charismatic leader’s legitimacy depends on his personality and capacity, he must continually demonstrate these qualities by overcoming various challenges: he must be a continual miracle worker and performer of heroic deeds. For his followers, he must demonstrate a rational connection between his superhuman capacities and a beneficial life (WG 656; ES 1114). Of course, this is one of the two ironies in Weber’s analysis of charismatic legitimatization: the charismatic form of legitimization is a counterweight principle to the rational-legal form, but the charismatic leader’s legitimacy depends on a rational connection, i.e., instrumental rationality, between his capacity and the benefits derived from it to his followers. Although the charismatic leader is able to invert the value process of instrumental and subject values, i.e., instrumental rationality follows instead of leads, he still is bound by instrumental rationality for his legitimacy.
Furthermore, Weber himself placed priority to instrumental rationality over subjective values in his analysis of rational-legal and charismatic legitimization. By conceptualizing charismatic legitimization in instrumental terms, Weber made the charismatic principle rationally intelligible but ultimately subservient to rational considerations. In other words, the charismatic form of legitimization is not analyzed by its own conceptualization. The irony is that Weber, who was searching for an escape from the “iron cage” in the charismatic principle, resorted to instrumental rationality for a counterweight principle, thereby becoming further entrapped in the iron cage of instrumental rationality and bureaucratic domination. Weber’s prioritization of rationality in his analysis of the liberal democracy therefore is different from Tocqueville’s which gives equal weights to rationality and the passions.
With Weber’s prioritization of instrumental rationality in his analysis of the charismatic principle, it should be no surprise that he cited the “routinization of charisma” (Veraltäglichung) as the inevitable and biggest obstacle confronting the charismatic principle. Charismatic domination is at best transitory, transforming into rational-legal legitimization when economic and organizational concerns become prominent. As Weber wrote,
Charisma is a phenomenon typical of prophetic movements or of expansive political movements in their early stages. But as soon as domination is established, and, above all else, as soon as control over large masses of people exists, it gives way to the forces of everyday routine (WG 146; ES 252).
Put another way, “in its pure form charismatic domination may be said to exist only in its moment of inception” (WG 142; ES 246). The most one can hope for in opposition to the rational-legal form of legitimization is fleeting: the administrative bureaucratization of economic and organizational concerns become immediate as soon as they become necessary.
Although the injection of the charismatic principle into politics can reorder the regime’s values, it is unclear whether these new values will be lasting when the “routinization” of charisma occurs. However, the advent of modern political parties in response to mass democracy seems to suggest a possible institutionalization, or “routinization,” of the charismatic principle into political life. The modern political party’s task is to mobilize populations to vote in an efficient and effective manner. To accomplish this objective, the political party must employ officials who work for the party to organize people and administrative financial resources to deliver mass votes (GPS 532-536). Like the administrative bureaucrat, the party official becomes separated from the means of the party bureaucracy: the party official organizes campaigns but he does not make party policy (GPS 532-533; GMW 103-104); and like the bureaucrat’s client, the party follower also is separated from the means of the party bureaucracy. But unlike the administrative bureaucracy, the political party cannot use coercion to enforce its objectives: it must win elections.
The charismatic political leader must use his personality, his demagogic qualities, to lead his political party to victory in the elections and establish a dictatorship over the parliament, such as Pericles (GPS 535, 537, 525). His political task is two-folded: 1) to exploit the masses emotionally via his political party; and 2) to wrestle the means of power from the state to himself. Only through the political leader and his political party can the political values of the regime be reordered; and only through the control over existing and the creation of new institutions, the political values can be somewhat lasting in the regime. The “routinization” of the charismatic principle becomes possible in the election and governance of the political leader. Thus, political elections are the contest where the struggle (Kampf) and competitive selection (Auslsee) over the ultimate political values for the regime take place. Those who win have their values legitimized in charismatic and later rational-legal forms; those who lose are forgotten until the next election.
The political leader who competes in elections is a professional whose livelihood is dependent upon politics and whose “inner meaning of his life” is derived from it (GPS 513; FMW 84). In the modern society of administrative bureaucratic domination and legitimatization, most citizens are unable to pursue politics for their livelihood because they are dependent upon the state and capitalist bureaucratic means of administration and production, and because they lack the conviction or passion to pursue ultimate political values (GPS 514; GMW 85). There only are a few individuals who can devote and identify themselves to political values, a person whom Weber referred to as possessing a calling or vocation (Beruf) (GPS 514; FMW 85). Originally a calling was divinely-inspired and linked to charisma but now has become secularized into the professional politician who combines the charismatic principle with the administrative and technical skills of a bureaucrat and the passion or conviction to take the responsibility of representing political values into the regime (GPS 508; ES 79). It is the contest of the party leadership and later in the election where the professional politician’s resolve, skill, and conviction are tested and trained.
Weber’s description of Gladstone as “the dictator of the battlefield of elections,” is revealing of the type of political leader that he was seeking: someone who is charismatic, have the technical skills to lead a political party in election, mobilize the general population behind him, and seize the political means of power to implement new political values (GPS 535; FMW 106). Political party operatives themselves are “soulless” (Entseelung) who require the charismatic demagogy of the political leader in order to obey the commands of the party: they are simply to obey and react and not to make choices (GPS 544; FMW 113; ES 285). By contrast, the professional politician is a select group:
In all in some way extensive political associations, that is, those which go beyond the sphere and range of tasks of small rural Cantons with periodic elections for the holders of power, the business of politics is necessary only the business of those who have a special interest in it. In other words, a relatively small number of men who are primarily interested in political life, in sharing political power, provide themselves with a following through free recruitment, present themselves or their protégés as candidates for elections, collect financial means, and go out campaigning for votes (GPS 528-529; FMW 99).
The professional politician must “be partisan, to fight, to be passionate” (GPS 524; FMW 95). He must have what Weber called an “ethics of conviction” which is balanced by “an ethics of responsibility.”
The professional politician seeks to impose his political values onto society and therefore takes political responsibility of the regime as a counterweight to rational-legal legitimization (GPS 351; ES 1417). Political leaders, not administrative bureaucrats, should determine politics (GPS 354; ES 1419). Because the professional politician must alone select which values he seeks to impose upon society, he is solely responsible and therefore democratically accountable. Of course, as the charismatic principle gives ways to the administrative bureaucracy, responsibility and accountability recedes until the next round of elections where the charismatic principle reasserts itself into the political regime (WG 697; ES 1147). However, the political regime reevaluates its political values in every election when charismatic leaders lead political parties in the hope of victory. Thus, the political values of the regime are continually held accountable in the electoral process, even when the charismatic principle recedes into rational-legal legitimization during the period of governance.
The introduction of the masses into the political process results into two political arrangements: leader democracy or leaderless democracy. As Weber wrote, “There is, however, only the choice between leader democracy with a machine, and leaderless democracy, the rule of professional politicians without a calling, i.e., without the inner charismatic qualities that make a leader” (GPS, 544; FMW 113). Leaderless democracy—sometimes refer to “elitist theory of democracy”—makes political responsibility and accountability difficult, if not impossible. Political leaders in this arrangement compete for power with no conviction (GPS 538). Without the “ethics of conviction” and the charismatic principle in politics, elections and the political regime itself are “a mockery of the principle of democracy in the interests of parliamentary horse trading” (GPS 418). The election process is no longer a contest among political leaders over the ultimate political values of the regime but a display of public pandering to the masses for power and office. Lacking the charismatic principle, leaderless democracy reinforces rational-legal legitimization and thereby devalues political responsibility and accountability in liberal democracy.
By contrast, leader or plebiscitary democracy is when “The ruler becomes the free elected leader” with the populace either supporting or rejecting him. The charismatic leader is solely dependent and legitimatized by popular sovereignty:
“Plebiscitary democracy”—the most important type of leadership democracy—is in its genuine sense a kind of charismatic domination which conceals itself under the form of legitimacy which is derived from the will of the ruled and only sustained by them…Standing opposed to plebiscitary leadership democracy as a type…are the types of leaderless democracy which are characterized by the striving after the minimization of domination of man over man (WG 156-56; ES 267-69).
Plebiscitary democracy is able to provide political responsibility and accountability into the liberal political regime. By struggling over the ultimate political values of the regime in elections and by struggling over the mechanisms of state power, political leaders create a condition of permanent tension or competition where responsibility and accountability are a political possibility.
This state of permanent tension and competition often results in demagogy for political power; but, for Weber, this is not necessary a negative condition, because the competition for power provides the training grounds for political education for political leaders. Seen against the equality of condition common to democratic regimes, training for political leadership is difficult to achieve. This comports with Tocqueville’s concern about the social equality of condition that pervades liberal democracies like America. For Weber, political leadership requires the Caesarist principle: “However since the great political decisions, and especially in a democracy are unavoidably made by a few men, mass democracy has brought its success since Pericles’ time with major concessions to the Caesarist principle of selecting out leaders” (GPS, 394; ES 1451). It is only the political leader who can take responsibility for his political judgment (Augenmass) and use of political coercion—“the decisive means of politics is violence” (GPS 546, 556; FMW 115, 124). Weber’s definition of politics as struggle (Kampf) and competitive selection (Auslsee) therefore makes possible for Caesarist leadership to become a charismatic principle of legitimization in mass liberal democracy.
Charismatic Leadership in America
Democracy is not only the social equality of condition, as Tocqueville had defined it, but about developing Caesarist leadership with its demagogic characteristics and technical skills to overcome this equality. Democracy provides opportunities for a select few to become leaders in the political regime. Although parliaments can play this role of training political leaders, political parties in the electoral process and the struggle with administrative bureaucracy are the best grounds for developing political leaders (GPS 341; ES 1409). Whereas Tocqueville’s solution of civil society and, to a lesser extent, political culture as remedies against majority tyranny preclude the possibility of political leadership from developing in mass liberal democracy, Weber’s answer provides the liberal regime a telos in the charismatic principle to overcome rational-legal legitimization. Partially due to different conceptualizations of democracy, both of these thinkers arrived at different solutions to the problems of liberal democracy. Nonetheless, both adopt anti-foundationalist views of the democratic state.
Weber’s definition of liberal democracy as Kampf and Auslsee comports with Tocqueville’s anti-foundationalist views, especially in a period when the political philosophy of natural rights no longer can be appealed to as a universal foundation. Neither Weber nor Tocqueville provided a philosophical foundation for liberal democracy; rather, they substituted justifications for what they envision is the inevitable condition of modernity: rational-legal legitimatization and the condition of social equality. One cannot escape this modern condition of equality and rationalism; the best one can hope is to ameliorate its negative tendencies towards administrative despotism. Weber believed that the charismatic principle could be the catalyst for citizens of liberal democracy to decide their ultimate political values, while Tocqueville believed that political culture and processes, particularly civil society, could be a bulwark against majority tyranny.
Tocqueville’s solution of civil society may be successful in drawing citizens out of their spheres of isolation, individualism, and pursuit of material self-interest; but it ultimately is not an effective barrier against administrative bureaucracy and despotism. As Weber had pointed out, social and civic organizations must conform to the rational-legal criteria of the state in order to exist—those organizations that do not conform to the rational-legal criteria are declared unlawful, harmful, and undesirable, eventually resulting in termination. Like Tocqueville, Weber did envision a value of civil society but for different reasons: it was a place where people were forced to compete with each other to define and determine their ultimate political values. The social capital learned in Weber’s civil society is not one of trans-organizational cooperation and commitment but rather partisan discipline to realize one’s political values.
To accomplish this task, the charismatic principle is required—something which contemporary scholars on Tocqueville seem to agree on: a person of vocation (Berufsmensch) is crucial for the vitality of the liberal democratic regime. However, a revitalized civil society is not sufficient for a revitalization of liberal democracy as these Tocquevillian scholars believe, for there are some civic and social organizations that are detrimental to liberal democracies. For example, a political party that seeks the violent overthrow of the regime does not energize liberal democracy in a positive sense, although ultimate political values are being contested. It is not civil society per se but civic and social organizations led by a charismatic leader that revitalizes liberal democratic regimes. Contrary to most of the scholarly and popular literature on the subject, leadership is a political process that occurs not merely at the institutional level, e.g., the American presidency, but at all levels of civic, social, and political society. If politics is a struggle over ultimate political values, as Weber claimed, then leadership is charismatic, or to use Burns’ terminology, “transformational.” Thus, the question remains whether a Weberian type of charismatic leadership is possible in a mass liberal democracy dominated by the equality of condition.
Of course, there are numerous examples of charismatic leadership in civic and social organizations, particularly in religious institutions, but can charismatic leadership exist in a mass liberal democratic regime? For Tocqueville, charismatic leadership, or what he called greatness, is a struggle against pantheism, because this belief destroys the human individuality by reducing it to a single principle (DA2 31-32). Although it evades a precise definition, Tocqueville listed some of the qualities of greatness that Louis-Phillip lacked: good judgment, personal integrity, the ability to make distinctions, passion and courage, receptive to truth, élan, and the willingness to take responsibility for political matters (SL 5-13). This definition is similar to Weber’s account of the charismatic principle with its ethics of responsibility and conviction; and both thinkers believed that passion, or the “ethics of conviction,” was the crucial motivational force in the leader’s psychological drive towards greatness. Without this motivation, the political leader would be nothing more than a politician in the pursuit of power.
Skowronek’s recent analysis on the Presidency of George W. Bush as an “Orthodox innovator” is an example of charismatic leadership in a mass liberal democracy. According to Skowronek, Bush defines his leadership as a willingness to explicitly state his political commitments and take responsibility for them: he is clear about his ultimate political values and is ready to act upon them if elected. The potential problems of this type of leadership—the ideological dogmatism in pursuit of public policy, the inflexibility in the decision-making process—is offset by Weber for the infusion of political responsibility into the democratic regime, for if Bush were to adopt flexibility, pragmatism, and receptiveness to alternative public policy solutions, then his charisma would be transformed into rational-legal legitimization, i.e., instrumental rationality would supersede political values.
But for Skowronek, the fear of the “routinization” of the charismatic principle is not addressed; rather, because Orthodox innovators define their leadership in Weberian charismatic terms, they often are not elected again, leaving behind a regime overburdened with responsibility. The fundamental problem that Weber foresaw of charismatic leaders is ignored. However, Skowronek does hint at Weber’s charismatic principle in analyzing the Bush presidency by asking, “Of greater interest today is secular change of a different sort: what if the vehicle for this resurgence is a new kind of party, a party geared specifically for a more continuous adjustment, of its ideological and programmatic profile to its president’s chosen course?” If the answer is affirmative, then we have evidence of the charismatic principle arising above the condition of equality in American politics.
Of course, a more exhaustive account of American executives and the constraints placed upon them (or lack thereof) by the other branches of government, political parties, interest groups, and citizens is required before we can reach a conclusive judgment about whether charismatic political leaders exist in America. But by placing Weber’s charismatic principle in the context of Tocqueville’s account of American democracy, we have a new theoretical framework to analyze this subject and the political values, such as political responsibility, attached to it. If politics is nothing more than a Nietzschean struggle over the outcome of political values, charismatic leaders are necessary for the political values of political responsibility, accountability, and greatness in a mass liberal democracy. But the obstacles of this type of leadership emerging in a society where the conditions are equalized are tremendous as Tocqueville described in Democracy in America. Further theoretical and empirical research is required to study the possibilities of Weberian charismatic leadership emerging in mass liberal democracies. This paper hopes to move leadership studies as well as scholarship on Tocqueville and Weber in this direction.
Lee Trepanier, "Tocqueville, Weber, and Democracy: The Condition of Equality and the Possibility of Charisma in America" in Political Rhetoric and Leadership in Democracy, Lee Trepanier, ed. Cedar City, UT: Southern Utah University Press, 2011.
Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan Lee Trepanier and his publisher has given us to reprint his chapter.
© 2011 Southern Utah University Press.
Originally published VoegelinView by here
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 Citations for Tocqueville’s works are as follows: DA1 is Democracy in America Volume 1, trans. Phillips Bradley, (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990); DA2 is Democracy in America Volume 2, trans. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990); and SL is Selected Letters on Politics and Society, ed. Roger Boesche, trans. James Toupin and Roger Boesche, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
 Refer to endnotes 15-17.
 Citations for Weber’s works are as follows: ES is Economy and Society, ed. and trans. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); FMW is From Max Weber, ed. and trans. by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946); GAW is Gesmmelte Aufsätze zur Wissenchaftslehre, ed. Johannes Winkelmann (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1982); GPS is Gesammelte politische Schriften, ed. Johannes Winckelmann (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1958); WG is Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, ed. Johannes Wincklemann (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1972).
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 David Beetham, Max Weber and the Theory of Modern Politics (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1985); Stephen P. Turner and Regis A. Factor, Max Weber and the Dispute over Reason and Value (London: Routledge & Kepan Paul, 1984), Robert Eden, Political Leadership and Nihilism (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1983).
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 J. M. Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).
 Stephen Skowronek, “Leadership by Definition: First Term Reflections on George W. Bush’s Political Stance,” Perspectives on Politics 3:4 (December 2005): 817-831.
 Ibid., 829.