Political Personalism: How it Illuminates the Failures of Campaigning

Political campaigning is often galvanized around not parties or ideas but individual candidates. The popularity of personalization as a campaigning strategy is not surprising, as most people are more easily attracted to a person than an idea. Just as celebrities are used in marketing to sell products, charismatic politicians are frequently used to sell ideas. And, just as in the music or movie industry, the celebrities can bring in buyers who wouldn’t normally be attracted to the product.

The prevalence and success of political personalization are noticeable in the politics of many democratic nations. According to Edison Research polls, about two-thirds of American voters said Donald Trump was a main factor in the 2018 midterm elections even though he wasn’t on the ballot. Research Affairs polls in Austria showed a simple change in the leadership of the Austrian People’s Party increased support for the party by 13 percent in the course of only two weeks (from April 28 to May 14, 2017). In Israel, according to a poll by Kan News, the Israeli Resilience Party, the party set to become the second largest after Israel’s elections in April 2019, doesn’t have an official platform, policies, or candidates, only its titular member and founder. These party leaders haven’t changed the party platform or what that party believes in, yet voters cared more about the person leading the party than the ideology or lawmakers they were actually voting for.

Why does this strategy of personalizing politics seem to work so well in affecting elections and changing the national discourse? Why do people care more about what party leaders say, believe or think than what the party has promised to do when in government? They usually aren’t the same, and the party’s promises tend to be more likely to be followed through with than the individual leaders’. The reason is that people tend to care more about other people than vague organizations. It’s much easier to create empathy, devotion or hate for a person than for ideas or platforms. A person can build up trust through speeches and through their public activities. This can be used to sway voters because, even if someone doesn’t like a party, their shared affiliation with the leader can make voters trust them, too. Similarly, if a party’s leader seems like an awful and evil person, that reflects pretty poorly on the rest of the party.

On top of its apolitical popularity, while a party adopts a certain platform and advocates certain policies it believes will help whatever problems are currently plaguing the nation, it does not have a platform to respond to problems that have not come up yet. And while, sure, neither does the party leader, if the voter feels the candidate is personally trustworthy and has a good worldview, then giving the leader more power is imperative to face problems that have not yet come up.

This lesson has been taken to heart in America and elsewhere. Though neither party changed that much between 2012 and 2016 in either policy or philosophy, their target demographics did. According to exit polls from Edison Research, Trump got 6 percent more of the vote from those who had an annual family income of $30,000 than Romney did in 2012. At the same time, the traditionally strongly Republican upper middle class – those who had an annual family income of more than $100,000 but less than $200,000 – moved to the left. The Republican-to-Democrat ratio of these voters went from 54-44 to 48-47.

What inspired this shift is not policy: Trump and Romney were very similar, both believing in supply-side economics with certain caveats. Rather, what changed was the contrasting images they made for themselves. Whereas Romney fashioned himself a responsible, moderate Republican in the mold of previous establishment candidates such as John McCain and Bob Dole, Trump decided to project an image of a normal guy fighting the establishment. While saying “normal” is an understatement, he portrayed himself as someone who didn’t think of politics as a career but as a passion project. Both the rich and poor evaluated Trump’s person and image before his policies as a right-winger.

Israel has modeled its own politics on the success of personalism around the world. In the 1990s, campaign managers imported from America were shocked at the lack of personalized politics in Israel. They immediately got to work using both positive and negative campaigning to change the parliamentary system of Israel from one focused on policies, parties, and ideas into one focused on people. Nowadays, the idea-based politics of the past are unimaginable. Whether it be Likud shifting from being the main center-right force in Israel to a party of pro-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tributaries who are kicked out of the primaries if they criticize him, or the large number of parties that only exist to capitalize on the popularity of their leaders (Yesh Atid, Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu, Gesher, Resilience, and The New Right, to name a few). These parties have, without even a platform or list of candidates outside of their founders, become the main and indeed only opposition in Israel. Israelis no longer vote for what policies they want to be implemented but for who they think would be the best prime minister.

With this established, the question becomes whether political personalization is an actually good campaign strategy. The obvious answer is yes. Why would all these campaign managers personalize politics if it didn’t work? Aren’t they professionals? To answer that, we have to ask ourselves what campaign managers are really thinking about. They aren’t hired to grow and sustain a movement for 20 years so that the party can perhaps become dominant or force a pivot in national policy. No, campaign managers are hired to win elections. Often, they aren’t hired repeatedly, and if they lose an election, they’ll end up finding themselves out of a job. Rather than accept losing one election in order to win in a few years, they would rather win an election now so someone else can lose an election in a few years. This approach even helps them: it makes them the infallible campaigners who won against the failures of their colleagues and thus eliminates competitors. The long-term consequences, good or bad, are the least of their concerns.

And what long-term consequences there are! Eventually, whether because they retire, meet their term limits or die, politicians end their careers. And with them goes the entire mythos that has been created around them. The opposition, on the other hand, had all the interim years to plan for the moment the leader retires and build a separate ethos around the opposition leader. What this creates is a system where the two main parties switch off in who leads, and where the leader of a party when retiring nearly always provides a path for the opposition to win. This is exemplified by American politics, where there has only ever been one time since the end of World War II where a party won three presidential elections in a row.

This quagmire creates three problems. The first is that two parties switching off in a predictable manner makes it seem as though the opposition and leadership are in cahoots to share power. As a consequence, the angry populace perceiving corruption votes for third parties, any third parties, just to challenge the status quo. This sense of Partocracy has been a rallying cry behind many third-parties, whether they are right-wing populists like Kukiz ’15 in Poland or Alternative for Germany in, well, Germany, or centrist politicians like the Citizens Party in Spain, Ralph Nader in the U.S. or The Five Star Movement in Italy. By creating a system where the traditional opposition cannot claim to actually be in opposition to the system, voters are forced to search among third-parties to find an alternative.

The second problem is how it morally incentivizes leaders to cling to power. If they want their policies and ideas to be implemented, they cannot just resign when they think their job is done or when they want to transfer leadership to a new member of their party – if they do so, everything they did while the leader will be lost in the next election. So it’s better just to seek re-election if you want your party to survive that is. It is not a coincidence that in our heavily personalized political time, Japan, Germany, and Israel are all led by the people who will soon be the longest-serving democratically elected leaders in their respective countries’ history. This comes with all the usual problems of long-reigning leaders. They can’t resign, so dissenting voices that would encourage them to resign will be silenced. Without anyone with enough confidence to dissent, the party doesn’t have anyone sufficiently competent, confident or free-thinking enough to properly continue the party’s previous success.

The counter-response to this structural authoritarianism has been term-limits. But term-limits create the third problem: indecisive governments. Inevitably, the term-limit is not enough time for leaders to accomplish all they need to. What it is enough time for, however, is to get rid of the previous leader’s policies. This creates a system in which each leader is just trying to repeal the last one’s policies instead of putting forth their own. A nation cannot afford to simply cycle by reversing the last leader’s policies every 8 years rather than creating new policies with new ideas. There’s a reason why the aforementioned party leader wants to hold onto power so much – he hasn’t accomplished what he needs to yet.

And the consequences are even worse sometimes. When charismatic leaders take over a party and become the main attraction, they tend not to be content to take a back seat in policymaking. They want their positions to become the positions of the party. Frequently, their charisma alone is not able to hold together the party, and the now diverse cast of voters and politicians either schism or leave the party. This is why in Germany, The Christian Democratic Union’s lurch to the center has lost the support of more traditional right-wing voters to Alternative for Germany. This guts the party and its support, changing it into a leader’s party rather than a party with a leader.

And it’s not as though those leaders can keep their new voters, either. The personalization of politics doesn’t just make politics into a game of who; it also makes it a much simpler game. Running on nonsense campaigns like peace, growth or freedom, the parties never have to give a complex or specific policy plan to their voters. They aren’t being elected for their policies, no, they’re being elected because of their charming personality. In fact, it’s in their interest to stay vague about their views. “Freedom” encompasses whatever a voter wants it to, but a specific policy does not. In fact, a specific policy idea often encompasses something some voters don’t want, thereby decreasing the aspiring leader’s popularity, better to just enter the election as an apolitical figure. Post-election, however, this is an altogether different story.

To understand the consequences of this simplification of politics, one must look to France. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron didn’t have a solid platform. Perhaps the most substantial part of it was being the anti-Le Pen, even when Le Pen concurred with most of Macron’s voters. Despite Macron’s track record of doing everything in his power to liberalize the economy, left-wingers voted in droves for him. According to an exit poll from Ipsos France, self-described left-wingers voted for him 95 percent to 5 percent. So, Macron won the presidential election, and his party won a majority in The National Assembly. Two years and a couple of right-wing reforms later, distraught left-wingers who feel dejected because Macron’s not doing what they thought he would are now not very happy. They’re so unhappy, in fact, that they are protesting in yellow (ironically, the ruling party’s official color) jackets. Macron’s approval rating is now a shockingly low 27 percent, according to a recent Ifop poll.

To see how well this personalization has worked out for the political system, one just needs to look at Israel. Thirty years ago, 30 percent of the vote would be considered a bad result for one of the main two parties, an indicator that a change in leadership was needed. Now, according to a recent poll by Panels Politics, Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for the last 10 years, is most likely going to lead his Likud party to a little less than 25 percent of the vote. And then, he will cheer, for that means his party is more than double the size of the main opposition. Of the 13-15 parties who will win seats, the main opposition will get around 10-11 percent of the vote. Labor, the traditional center-left party that used to balk at getting 20 percent of the vote, is going to get around 6-7 percent of the vote after having become so dependent on him that the party silently accepted his request to do away with primaries in favor of him having all the power over which candidates are run.

But even if it were to work, is personalization really what we want for politics? Do we want charisma to override policy in governance? I think not. To put it simply, democracy should deliver to the people the policies they want, the policies that help them. That is, after all, the reason we go through the administrative hassle of elections rather than crowning a monarch is so that the people can be represented. But are the people really represented when their elected officials don’t actually help them and were only elected because they were likable? Of course not. Personalization doesn’t just throw a wrench into long-term policymaking – it throws a wrench into political morality. Instead of democracy electing the people who can help the majority, we elect people who act like they represent the majority. Policies never change to respond to the people. Instead, the candidates’ traits change. The country elects someone who says he will stand up for the working or middle class, but the debate around the issues affecting the working and middle class doesn’t change. Instead, myopic campaign managers – thinking about the health of their future careers instead of their respective nations – trick people into kicking the can down the road and electing charisma instead of better policies. Sadly, charisma alone cannot create jobs, charisma alone cannot protect the weak, and charisma alone cannot feed the hungry. What that needs is policy and reality.