Humans are prone to hero-worship. Adoration of sports figures and film stars are part of the culture. But hero-worship takes an ominous turn when people start to idolize unscrupulous leaders. This trend can lead to the development of a cult of personality, a dangerous phenomenon not just restricted to autocratic societies but increasingly effecting democracies.
Many documentary films show the frenzied hero-worship of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin at iconic venues like the Berlin Sportpalast and the Red Square. Ironically, both leaders didn’t disguise their contempt for ordinary citizens.
Hitler said, “what good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” Not outdone, Stalin said, “Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?” Unthinking followers, bereft of ideas, are a dictator’s dream.
‘Great Men’ With Absolute Power
Today, the cult of personality thrives as people place their faith in “great men” with absolute power, resolving acute social and economic problems.
For example, China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have crowned themselves “Presidents for Life.” A pliant propaganda apparatus has created an aura of invincibility around both leaders, building a culture of hero-worship.
Because Xi and Putin rule with dictatorial powers, the people can’t question their record. Dissidents, deemed rabble-rousers or criminals, are silenced, imprisoned, or killed. It is not so in democracies.
Democracies Following Autocracies
But, regrettably, there are signs that more and more democracies are following autocracies. Sycophantic supporters blindly hero-worship leaders instead of scrutinizing and holding them accountable for their actions. President Donald Trump, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, to name a few.
Besides, the “free press” acts more like a “captive press” actively promoting the “superiority and infallibility” of such leaders.
As a result, as a cult of personality takes shape, even democratically elected leaders can develop a risky hubris. Because of fawning adoration, leaders behave autocratically and forget that they are public servants. A reliance on coercion rather than consensus and compromise becomes the norm, thus diluting democracy.
While democracy is imperfect, it is the only system that can best cope with the changing demands of modern times. Regardless of whether democracy is capitalistic or socialistic, it needs a democratic environment that encourages freedom of opinion and dissent.
Leaders and parties must encourage the spirit of inquiry and reject dogma for democratic conditions to grow and flourish. Otherwise, democracies may suffer the fate of precarious or crumbling autocracies.
For democracy to work, supporters must play their part by actively engaging in the political process. They must pay serious attention to policies and issues, and not just rely on the hype surrounding leaders.
Rejecting partisan politics, they should stay informed and developing policy positions, supported by facts. They can’t just count on the government to be entirely responsible for their wellbeing and wait for perks to flow their way from the unquestioned support they show for their leaders and parties.
For instance, the rah-rah show from symbolic venues like Mount Rushmore, the front-line in Ladakh, or the United Nations shouldn’t be allowed to cloud serious issues. Substance over form should drive the analysis of the impassioned speeches by Trump, Modi, and Bolsonaro on patriotism, the Sino-Indian border conflict, and the sovereignty of the Amazon rainforest.
The press must do its part by asking tough questions on policies and governance. Giving a simple pass to leaders is to fail democracy.
Cult of Personality
Thinking supporters with ideas of their own can keep in check the inflated sense of self, egotism, and aggression that leaders can develop from fan worship. Encouraging leaders to appraise their competencies, abilities, and achievements can better serve democracy.
Conversely, unflinching obedience is a great threat to a democratic system. The cost of keeping vain leaders in power can divide countries, encourage violent behavior among supporters, and effect freedom and justice.
More important than ever, democracies need able leaders with a strong moral compass and a vision to unite societies and give hope to the least fortunate among us. Supporters and the press are in the best position to prevent the manipulation of the political environment, so unscrupulous leaders aren’t elected and stay in power.
A cult of personality only adds to the gathering chaos, the derailment of democracy, and growing support for fascism and dictatorship.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.