Dynamist Blog

The Power of Glamour (Not Charisma)

Matt Yglesias flags another example of the phenomenon I identified in my piece on Obama's glamour (quoting myself): "He attracts supporters who not only disagree with his stated positions but assume he does too." In this instance, as in many others, the issue is free trade. Matt writes:

But Obama's trade-skeptical rhetoric is perfectly consistent with his record. Admittedly, it's a pretty short record. And maybe he doesn't mean what he's saying. Or maybe he does mean it, but could be talked out of it once in the White House. But maybe not! Really, who among us is in any position to say? But he's a charismatic guy, so people see what they want to see.

Obama is a charismatic guy--at least in the stage presence sense of charisma--but it isn't charisma that makes free-traders like the WaPo's Sebastian Mallaby think he's secretly on their side. It's glamour, and the difference has political implications.

Charisma is a personal quality that inspires followers to embrace the charismatic leader's agenda (an agenda that, in the original sense of the word charisma, is seen as divinely inspired.) Glamour, by contrast, encourages the audience to project its own yearnings onto the glamorous figure. So, in this case, Sebastian Mallaby imagines that Obama will find "a way of crawling back from his embarrassing talk of reopening NAFTA." Mallaby maintains his own views about what's good for economic growth; he doesn't defer to Obama's own vision.

When voters motivated by charisma disagree with the leader they've backed, they support him anyway and possibly even change their minds about the right policy course. When voters motivated by glamour disagree, they become disillusioned and angry.

I wrote more on charisma versus glamour here, giving Obama credit for not embodying political charisma. I certainly hope he doesn't.

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