PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, March 13, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Personality cult in politics

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Personality cult in politics

In the era of public relations companies managing government leaders and
social media being the battle ground for winning the minds of the
population, reaching a cult status for a leader is certain an
achievement for a leader. Indeed, in today's instant global
communication world, we can follow a leader's cult status in real time.

But a personality cult in politics is not the domain of dictators and
totalitarians, but anyone who stands out for the people. But this does
not mean that there is nothing we can learn from the mistakes of
dictators, or only the good guys make sound decisions. This is basically
my position in my short essay.

In the meantime Ruel has sent us the link to his essay:

Hello Lawrence,
Below is the link to the essay I wrote on Sunday's topic:
See you on Sunday,


Personality cult in politics

In a hierarchical society it is not surprising that some individuals
should rise to the top and engage the imagination of people.
Specifically in politics, leaders who create a cult following or achieve
a cult status are not necessarily dictators or leaders of totalitarian

For example, the Kennedys and Churchill immediately come to mind. This
suggests that maybe there are two types of cults. The first is that the
leader is a visionary leader and people feel a sense of admiration and
affinity towards that person. The second form of cult is, no doubt, the
one that disturbs us most: the despot who demands admiration or else one
safety is not guaranteed.

Cult figures like Hitler or Stalin did indeed have people who believed
in their leadership and their personality, certainly on their rise to
power. Except that we do not know and cannot really tell how many in the
respective countries believed in these leaders as an act of their free
will or out of fear of reprisal if they didn't express such admiration.

No doubt even leaders who merit our admiration are not necessarily
without faults or their leadership was all good and ethical. Churchill
made many mistakes in his management of the war; maybe, had there been a
leader with less pronounced personality he or she might have acted more
cautiously. But this argument will only lead to irrelevant hypothesising
about history. What is clear is that we are prepared to forgive more
easily the mistakes of a leader with a cult status than just any other
leader; for example I would say Chamberlain was such a leader without
any cult or status at all.

Charismatic leaders have always served the function of focusing the
attention of the majority of the people during difficult and trying
times. Unity and support helps leaders take difficult decision; a
characteristic dictators are very well aware of.

What is important for us is to examine whether there is a link between a
legitimate cause for people to rally behind a leader and the possibility
of the cult status of that leader turning this leader into a malevolent
person. In other words, would a cult status increase the chances of a
leader making serious mistakes that affect the people? Or involved in
more serious misjudgements?

If we look at cult figures outside politics, say cult figures in the
entertainment industry, we come across many people who did make serious
misjudgements either through substance abuse, sexual harassment, child
abuse and so on. I would say that at the very least even politicians are
as likely to make misjudgements as any other cult figure.

But to mitigate against this we have no idea what kind of misjudgements
ordinary people are capable of. Not to mention that leaders by their
very nature are involved in high risk decisions so if anything goes
wrong it will go wrong in a big way.

Also associated with cult status is the idea that one "can do no wrong".
This does not mean that all cult leaders develop this belief that they
can do no wrong, but that they are more likely to develop such a belief.
This is like someone who works with radioactive material; they are more
likely to suffer from radiation poisoning, but not such people end up
being poisoned.

The mirror image of this argument is that although some leaders know
they are wrong they believe they will not be caught out or that they are
above the law. I would say that Hitler is an example who thought he can
do no wrong, and Saddam was someone who thought he was beyond the reach
of accountability.

But what is puzzling for us is that how can a cult figure mistake 'I can
do no wrong' to 'what I do is always right'? I can do no wrong, is no
doubt a subjective judgement, but surely an intelligent person ought to
know that what is right is a matter of fact. How can someone who is on
top of their game make such a basic mistake? Could it be that the cult
status affects the intellectual capacity of people to the extent that it
clouds their judgement?

This seems to be an issue irrespective of whether the person is a
dictator or not. When Margaret Thatcher believed that the poll tax was
the right policy to follow she did not accepted the risk this was going
to be to her leadership. At the end this policy was her downfall.

A better example would be Hitler's belief in the pivotal role capital
battleships, like the Bismarck, would play in defeating the allies. The
problem with thinking that this was the right thing to do went not only
against the proven strategy of U boat warfare, but against a background
of incredible advancements in aviation that would have made these ships
obsolete anyway. At the end the Bismarck was eventually sunk after first
being hit by a torpedo from a plane with WW1 technology and some
'string'. The caveat to this story is the mystery why the British did
not divert half a squadron of bombers to sink the ship in Norway in the
first place. After all the Bismarck was the most advanced ship on the
high seas at the time.

No doubt the moral of the story is that mistakes and misjudgements are
not the exclusive domain of cult leaders in general and malevolent cult
leaders in particular.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
From: January 15 at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Personality cult in

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