Chávez and Thatcher, exemplars of charismatic leadership

Chávez’s style of populism and Thatcher’s enthusiasm for privatization have spawned imitators in many parts of the world. The originals remain charismatic – meaning what exactly?

Takis S Pappas
27 June 2013

Emotions rose high, reactions were loud, and opinions became polarized in the aftermath of the recent deaths of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Fierce wars broke out between friends and foes over the legacies of the two leaders who had such dissimilar personalities, represented fundamentally opposing worldviews, and pursued different political goals.

Chávez, with his scarlet beret and camouflage fatigues, was a Latin American military man promoting a leftist ideology; he was flamboyant, with an affable nature and, as author Gabriel García Márquez once remarked, an admirable ease with words. Thatcher was an ultra conservative and the first woman to hold the prime minister’s post in Britain. With her legendary handbag, and a penchant for blue wardrobes and expensive pearls, she was formal and unyielding – the Iron Lady.

Agência Brazil/José Cruz. Some rights reserved.

Look behind appearances, though, and you also find impressive similarities. Both leaders rose in relatively humble settings. Chávez, the son of a mestizo primary school teacher, grew up in a small town in the interior of Venezuela and wanted to be a football player before he became an army lieutenant and failed coup leader. Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, was born and raised in a small Lincolnshire town before she went to Oxford, whence she took a degree in chemistry. Neither grew inside politics.

And yet, despite their political outsider status, both Chávez and Thatcher became fully dominant in their countries, and also rose to international preeminence. Standing for the poor people, Chávez won four elections and five referendums, built cozy relations with Fidel Castro and other autocrats, and stood up to the “evil empire” of the United States. Thatcher won three consecutive elections fighting in the name of individual freedom and the hard-working middle classes; she befriended Ronald Reagan, fought a war against Argentina, and openly confronted political illiberalism.

Bend still closer over the two leadership cases and you see an even more noteworthy similarity – their political charisma. This, to be sure, is a vague term commonly used for describing leaders with exceptional characteristics, or powers, which are however hard to identify. Charisma thus remains in the eye of the beholder. Could the seemingly disparate cases of Chávez and Thatcher help us give concrete meaning to political charisma and agree on the term’s usefuleness?

Charisma is best understood as a distinct type of leadership in which some ruler is able to exercise immense personal authority over a party, or movement, simultaneously undertaking the radical transformation of an established institutional order. Charismatic leadership, therefore, is the opposite of ordinary democratic leadership, in which decision-making is primarily collective, rules are impersonal, and political change is pursued piecemeal and in moderate ways.

Chávez’s personal vehicle was the Fifth Republic Movement, a party built to support his candidacy for the 1988 presidential elections, later to evolve into today’s Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV). He also purged the army of all those suspected of disloyalty to his person, created a militia answerable only to him, and built a network of citizens’ self-help committees organized at neighbourhood level and effectively acting as his propaganda and mobilization channels. During his rule, he maintained a direct relationship with the masses, not least through Aló Presidente, his Sunday talk show. So personal was the authority system Chávez built, that he refused to surrender power until his death.

Thatcher did not built her own party; instead, she imposed her personal authority over an old one. When she won the party leadership election in 1975, the Tories were an all-male, old-fashioned, patrician-dominated group. Thatcher quickly centralized party power, sacked all the “wets” opposing her course of action, and promoted to ministerial positions ideological fellow travellers and loyalists. Her resolve became dramatically evident at the moment her party expected her to retreat in the face of intense social unrest in Britain’s streets: “U-turn if you want to,” she retorted, “the Lady’s not for turning.”

Personal authority over their respective parties goes a long way towards explaining the two leaders’ political radicalism. Chávez promised to sweep aside Venezuela’s old order, rewrite the constitution, and initiate the Bolivarian revolution, thus leading his country to “21st century socialism.” While in power, now controlling an elected assembly almost entirely composed of his supporters, he abolished the senate, enforced his powers, expanded the role of the armed forces, became the symbol of Latin American nationalism, and led an international crusade against the United States.

Thatcher’s rule was no less radical, but had an entirely different content. Hers was a moral revolution revolving around three axes: enforcing British patriotism, servicing the productive middle classes, and confronting the twin evils of socialism at home and communism abroad. Breaking with postwar orthodoxies, the essence of her politics – that is, Thatcherism – was a challenge, not just to her domestic political opponents, but also to views that had been well established in Britain and, for that matter, in most of the western world. By creating a new –ism, Thatcher thus transformed British and world politics alike.

Wikimedia Commons/White House Photo Office. Public domain.

Being charismatic, the two leaders left behind enduring policies and ideas that will remain resonant for a long time to come. Chávez’s style of populism and Thatcher’s enthusiasm for privatization have spawned imitators in many parts of the world. They also deeply affected their own parties’ lives. Without Chávez at the helm, PSUV only won a narrow victory in Venezuela’s recent election and now faces an uncertain future. And after the Tories eventually sacked Thatcher, their party became marginalised for a generation. Above all, these two leaders have been polarizing figures and the issues they addressed stirred opposed sentiments at home and abroad. No wonder, then, that, even after their deaths, Chávez and Thatcher remain controversial, both loved and loathed with pure passion.

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