On Personality Cults

There has been much talk over the past three months in the media and over the airwaves about the differences between two men, men who, at their best are two parts of a whole. Much of the bottom line of the 2007 election rhetoric was fastened on to one thing and one thing only: who would voters like to have running the country — a man who acts quickly and decisively and makes massive errors, or a man who contemplates all sides of an issue and hardly acts at all?

Let me say this. Contrary to what we believe, twenty-first century leaders don’t run countries. People do. For the first time ever, it is possible for democracy to function as it should. Thanks to fundamental changes in the transmission of information, every member of a democracy has the opportunity to make his or her voice heard — over the airwaves, through the medium of the radio talk show, or, more revolutionary yet, over the internet, through blogs and podcasts.

I’m not saying that leaders don’t shape governments, or that they don’t give direction, or point nations towards specific goals. I’m not even saying that they aren’t convenient scapegoats when things go wrong. They do, and they are. What I am saying, though, is that simply being a leader is no longer enough. Thanks to the internet and the broadcast media, leaders are more vulnerable to the changing whims of public opinion than ever before.

And, thanks to the internet and the broadcast media, those whims can change more quickly than wannabe leaders can imagine.

It’s for this reason that I turned away, consciously, from the 2007 election campaign, which had more in common with a protracted marital squabble than anything else. The targets were the two leaders from which the voters had to choose. The Free National Movement launched an all-out attack not on the policies or the successes of the Progressive Liberal Party government, but on weakness and corruption, singling out individuals — the leader and various members. The Progressive Liberal Party responded predictably, resorting to cries of bullying, big money, and racism. The main venues for the campaign were the political rallies, which called upon emotions and gut reactions, and offered very little in the way of discussion or debate of ideas or visions. Rather than providing the Bahamian public with a means of finding out what the philosophies of these two parties were — through debates, through long-range plans issued in good time, through a lining up of the pros and cons of the things that matter to the average person — who, after all, ever gets to deal directly with a Prime Minister anyway? — the primary focus of the campaign was a question of personality. Snap decisions or endless consultations? Indecisive waffling, or dictatorial stubbornness? A black-and-white worldview, or one filled with grey?

The tactics were not new. Students of Bahamian political history will find almost exactly the same rhetoric — employed, indeed, by some of the same men — in the past, particularly during the1982 and 1987 elections, when the Free National Movement was being run by the “nice man” — the late Kendal G. L. Isaacs — and the Progressive Liberal Party was being led by the “tough leader”, Lynden Oscar Pindling. Back then, corruption and racism were the core elements of the two campaigns, together with cries of propaganda and media bias.

The difference, perhaps, is that in 1982 and in 1987 who led the party, and who led the country, mattered far more to the average person than it does today. During the 1970s and 1980s dissent was not merely difficult, it was virtually impossible; political bias and victimization were hard realities, not rhetorical bugaboos. The Government of The Bahamas controlled the airwaves, and diligently monitored what was aired on the single local television station and the two AM radio stations. Talk shows were interview shows, largely pre-taped, with very limited opportunity for calling in, and the average Bahamian toed the party line, or kept his mouth shut. The only real avenues for debate were the newspapers, the streets, the big trees, and the College of The Bahamas.

In that crucible, the cult of leadership worked. Today, though, the landscape is fundamentally different. Having escaped from Egypt, we Bahamians appear to have come in sight of the Promised Land, if a sound financial policy and a growing economy may be considered that. In this election, Joshua and Caleb squared off against each other, and their supporters, rather than asking them to map for us what to do with the prosperity our nation is currently experiencing, took sides.

In a world where leadership is in fact less and less important, both political parties ignored the real questions — what do we do when there are few material or economic frontiers to conquer? How do we develop our human capital? — and reverted to the politics of the previous generation. I expect the personal attack and the smears — on both sides — will continue for a while. But there is one fundamental difference.

This country is run by the people now, not by the leaders. Leadership styles are exactly that — style, not substance. The substance has not changed; we need only to study the parties’ booklets, published in both cases less than one week before the election, to see that. Although we have changed our leaders (and by extension those individuals who are in positions of influence as well), we have not changed the direction of the country. Our civil service remains the same: antiquated, colonial, and opposed to change. Our commitment to development by foreigners remains the same as well; only now, perhaps, different developers will get deals. The people who will benefit from contracts will continue to be political cronies; only this time the faces will vary. There is one major difference, however. By 2012, both leaders are likely to be too old to put the same kind of dent in a political race. Our challenge, should we choose to accept it, is to move at last away from the cult of personality and build the kinds of governments for the future that we all would like to have.

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