Charismatic Leadership and Democratization: A Weberian Perspective

Michael Bernhard
Content Type
Working Paper
Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University
Given the history of charismatic dictatorship in this century, charismatic leaders have been seen as threats to democracy. At the same time, periods of accelerated political change, such as the period of post-Communist democratization in Eastern and Central Europe, also give rise to charismatic leaders. This paper establishes the conditions under which charismatic leaders are compatible with democracy. Using a framework drawn from Max Weber's sociological writings the paper argues that charismatic leadership is only compatible with democracy when charisma is routinized in a rational-legal direction. In that routinization, however, rational-legal procedures (the rule-boundedness of power) must predominate over charismatic elements (the arbitrary and personal exercise of power). When this balance is reversed the result will be dictatorship. This discussion highlights the fact that both modern dictatorship and democracy legitimate themselves by a combination of charismatic and rational elements. It then considers whether Weber's theory can help us to understand the impact of the charismatic leadership on post-communist democratization by considering the experience of Havel in the Czech Republic, Wa__sa in Poland, and Yeltsin in Russia. It concludes with a discussion of charisma and its role in both democracy and dictatorship in the contemporary era. It finds that the similarity in the way in which modern democracy and dictatorship are legitimated augers better for the viability of authoritarian regimes than the many recent accounts which predict a diminished prospect for dictatorship in the current era might suggest.
Democratization, Government, Politics
Political Geography
Russia, Europe, Eastern Europe