While the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) disappears from the news in February, one picture will be remembered: a larger than life gold statue of former US President Donald Trump adorned the warehouse throughout the entire convention.
Some have called the installation the perfect metaphor for the state of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, since leaving office, Trump has continued personal attacks on prominent party members, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and pressured others within the party to reprimand, condemn, and purge party leaders for whom he is considered disloyal – everything on the brand a president who, during his four-year term in office, tried to steadily strengthen his own power and influence over other members of the Republican Party.
The personalization of political parties is not only possible in the USA. Around the world, democratic politics is increasingly becoming a personal matter. The heads of state and government accumulate more power in relation to their political parties, so that politics more strongly reflects the preferences of the heads of state or government rather than being a negotiation process between several actors and institutions. If the trend continues, liberal democracy will suffer.
Political science has long viewed personalism as a problem in authoritarian environments. And since the end of the Cold War there has indeed been a decisive shift towards personalism in the autocracies. Leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega have steadily concentrated the power of parties and institutions. Even in China, President Xi Jinping has made decades of consensus-based decisions, wrestling power away from the Chinese Communist Party and into his own hands.
A brief trip around the world, however, suggests that the trend towards personalism is affecting democracies as well. Beyond Trump, democratically elected leaders such as the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, the Hungarian Viktor Orban and the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte dominate the headlines and increase their notoriety compared to the traditional political establishment. However, personalism is not limited to these well-known populists. Andrej Babis from the Czech Republic, Macky Sall from Senegal, the former President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, and Sheikh Hasina from Bangladesh have high status in personalism, but low populism.
It’s not just a matter of flashy examples shading perception: our research is also underscoring the trend. Using a set of indicators measuring the relative power between the leader and the political party, we find that personalism in democracies has been increasing since the early 2000s and accelerating faster since 2015.
In a sense, the trend towards more personalism in democracies has been slow over the past few decades. Researchers have anecdotally linked the rise of personalization in the 1950s and 1960s to the growth of electronic media, and television in particular. Television, for example, including the rise of major political debates on television during national election campaigns, has had a significant impact on how voters viewed their leaders. The rise of the internet and other digital tools is adding momentum as executives can reach even larger audiences.
Beyond the sheer power of broadcasting, digital technologies also offer executives new opportunities to selectively censor and manipulate their media environments and more effectively control the narratives that surround their leadership. In fact, data shows that democratic leaders who use the internet more effectively to monitor and censor social media and create social media alternatives are more likely to be personalistic. This suggests that personalistic leaders are employing digital tools to reduce resistance to their seizure of power and create an environment more conducive to their accumulation of power.
Personalization is a major threat to today’s democracies, especially as personalist leaders create polarization in the societies they rule. This is because in these systems the political decisions reflect the preferences of the leader more than a negotiation process between several actors and institutions. Those groups that are not centered on the leader and are not included in the decision-making process are likely to become disillusioned and widen the divide between political camps.
The case of Venezuela – for a long time one of the most stable democracies in Latin America – illustrates this dynamic. Former President Hugo Chavez’s efforts to personalize politics fragmented Venezuelan society and led to deep disagreements over what the rules of the game should be and who should have access to power. That gap widened as he continued to concentrate power. As the distance between Chavistas and the opposition grew, so did the violations of democracy that his supporters were willing to accept in order to ensure his continued dominance. Chavez’s personalization of power paved the way for political polarization and eventually set in motion a period of authoritarianism with him at the helm – a system that his successor, Nicolás Maduro, upheld.
Ultimately, then, personalism and democracy cannot coexist. It enables established takeovers of power and the gradual dismantling of democracy, which is the most common way democracies collapse. In Europe, Erdogan and Orban illustrate the trend. Both leaders successfully increased their own influence and control over their political parties and the higher party elite, and subsequently eased their ability to dismantle other institutional controls over their power.
The personalization gives the leaders more bargaining power over the rest of the party elite, which makes it difficult even for aligned elites to defend themselves against the leader’s efforts to consolidate control. In Hungary, Orban’s formation of the Fidesz party and his move from center-left to right broke the party leadership and enabled Orban to oust the party leaders against his rule. This paved the way for the rise of Orban-loyal officials, many of whom were not previously part of the Hungarian political establishment and had no extensive government experience. If party elites see their future prospects as tied to that of the leader, this increases their incentive to support that leader, even if it takes more power away from them.
All of this should be a cautionary story to the Republican Party and its current makers. Should Trump return to politics and lead a GOP increasingly dominated by him and his loyalists, the personalization trend would accelerate in the United States, with Trump continuing his efforts to select insurgent primary challengers to take control of party funds raise and replace traditional conservatives in local branches of the party. When the party is completely under his control, it will be difficult for US democracy to recover.