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Personality, Perception, and Political Prognosis

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I’ve been re-reading Trotsky’s three volume History of the Russian Revolution. In chapter IV and chapter VI he gets into the personality of the Czar and the Czarina in a discussion of how much of the personality of a leader is accidental, and how much is determined by circumstances: in particular, the circumstances of the leader of a class doomed to extinction. In this context, he makes some comparisons of the traits of Czar Nicholas II, Louis XVI, and Charles I, as well as of their respective wives. The similarities are striking.

No doubt, those who consider personality to be supra-historical will conclude that it was exactly these “accidental” characteristics that caused the fall of the monarchy in each case; I’ll leave that for the discussion, or for someone else. What I want to mention are some of the specifics.

In brief: A complete disconnection from their subjects, a general apathy, a tendency to surround themselves by mediocirty combined with a contempt for anyone competent. In all three cases, there are reports of light-mindedness, and indecision; of being easily swayed by those mediocrates (I just made that word up) with whom they associated. “Tranquility and ‘gaiety’ in difficult moments…deprived of imagination and creative force…envious hostility toward everything gifted and significant…lacking firmness of character…a passive, patient, but vindictive treachery…” And in the case of all three wives, an even deeper isolation from the masses, and a love of the trappings of power. “…scorned the people, could not endure the thought of concessions…”

Okay, so, here’s the thing: We aren’t going to know until the exposes begin to appear after his presidency is over, but insofar as we can know, do these things strike anyone as familiar? No, Bush’s wife never said, “Let them eat cake,”* but his mother made an awfully similar sounding comment about the Louisiana refugees in Texas after Katrina. Look at some of the hints of Bush’s personality that leak out occasionally, and tell me if they don’t seem terribly familiar.

*Yes, I know Marie Antoinette never actually said that. The point is, the story spread because in every-one’s perception at the time, saying that was exactly in character for her.

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Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.

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  1. I’m not arguing the (dubious at best) merits of any of those monarchs or of Shrub, but I do wonder how much is perception and how much is reality. It takes quite a bit to break the habit of respect for an office, but if the social and political forces of the time are driving people in that direction, it’s…comforting…if they can tell themselves that it *because* the office holder is corrupt, light-minded, and disconnected from the common people, even if he or she isn’t any more (or less) guilty of those traits than the previous office holder.

    You mention Marie Antoinette never saying the “let them eat cake” line, but that the story spread because it fit people’s perceptions of her. But people’s perceptions are built on little stories like that, true or not, as perception feeds stories and stories feed perception. We repeat the stories that agree with our political views and suppress the stories that disagree.

    Similarly, I know that Shrub’s done some good things, on both a personal and political level, because I remember reading about them and being surprised that they existed. But I can’t for the life of me remember what any of those were. I can, on the other hand, tell you dozens and dozens of stupid, bone-headed, insensitive, and down-right nasty things he’s done on a personal level, because I don’t like his policies and thus those are the actions I tend to focus on.

  2. Tortaalik I, of course, has nothing to do with this. 😉 (By which I mean that I always appreciate seeing a link between your writing and your perceptions of the real world.) Although neither “surround themselves by mediocirty” nor “contempt for anyone competent” applies to him.

  3. I felt Barbara Bush’s comments were more indicative of her generation. The comment sounded very much like the sort of thing my non-privileged grandmother would have said.

    I suspect Adina has pretty much hit the nail on the head regarding perceptions.

    I tend to cut Theresa Kerry less slack than Barbara Bush, but I’m sure much of the reason is because of my only half researched perception of her.

  4. It first made me think of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The lackluster advisors she surrounds herself with, past comments about the low middle class and now her use of them showing contempt, a sense of entitlement, and so forth.

    Then I thought of the Bush clan second.

  5. The first thing that occurred to me while reading the post was a remarkable book by Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, “The Communist Party Apparatus” (1966). Avtorkhanov makes some prescient comments about the nature of the bureacracy of the Party in Moscow, how it had become significantly nepotistic, the apolitical and non-ideological character of so many of the recruits who were more interested in the perquisites of power than furthering the revolution (or even governing), and, well, how the Party was doomed. Sounded an awful lot like Trostky’s description — dunno if Avtorkhanov read Trotsky or not.

    Thing is, it seems that the decription fits more rulers than not. It only becomes a problem when there is a (perceived) need for government intervention as a positive force in the lives of the mass of the population. Sure, many of them have grand plans that they believe will “benefit” the people, ranging anywhere from cultural reform (Peter the Great, Mao, most post-1989 French governments) or great measures of defense (The Great Wall, the Interstate Highway system) to wars of aggression (too many to even pick a few exemplary cases). At best, such efforts make it more possible for families to provide for themselves and live in security, but more often than not they have at best a net-neutral effect. But there are more than a few of the indolent who simply enjoy their positions and have no great drive — though we tend to only remember folks like Nero, Nicholas II and Hoover.

    Not a few statesmen of revolutionary generations seem to be aware of this tendency. Hence statements like Jefferson’s, that the tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of tyants.

  6. The circumstances of the collapse of the Classic Period Maya raises the likelihood that there was a terrible disconnect between the elite decision-makers and the realities of a declining subsistence economy.

    Much as in pre-revolution France, elite position was sustained by costly prestige-oriented display and staffs of retainers. When the crop yields which sustained this status competition occasionally declined, the priority of Maya nobles probably was ensuring the supply of goods which allowed them to be competitive within their world. More land would be put under cultivation. Sometimes this land should have been left fallow, and over the centuries the food supply shrank — which caused the nobility to push more land prematurely into cultivation — creating a feedback cycle which contributed to the collapse between 800-925 A.D.

    Of course, this is only an explanatory model based on the interpretation of archaeological evidence. I offer it here to illustrate how decision-making contexts and self-interest can have a fairly broad effect. While the Classic Maya are known as a “civilization”, they were mainly 40+ independent city-states in which power was too decentralized for any single personality to dominate events on more than a local level.

    Admittedly, as an archaeologist I tend to be biased against explanations based in personality since my research subjects are fairly dead.

  7. Those thinges strike me as familiar but to me they remind of my own Prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Though his wife is by no way similar to those women and I can probably find some other difrences in his character as well(nothing that makes me think more highly of him).

    Wasn’t that sentence said by Marie Antoinette’s sister?
    One of the israeli ministers said this year(and she was totally serious about it):”If there is no sugar, make jam”.

    That was very interesting Nezahualcoyotl. Now to find a high class that fell in a different way.

  8. Nezahualcoyotl: Thanks for the fascinating comment. Out of curiousity have you studied the Aztec peoples as well?

  9. Kit: Yes, I usually work out of lab near Teotihuacan. It is about 25 miles NE of Mexico City. The Late Postclassic (1300-1519) sites there are Aztec, and the area became a tributary of Tenochtitlan within the Aztec empire.

    I mainly work with Aztec and earlier materials going back to around 500 B.C. Teotihuacan itself was a city of about 100,000 people c. 300 A.D.; by the time the Aztecs showed up, it had been so long abandoned that they thought gods had once lived there.

  10. Oh, but Mediocrates is my favorite Greek Philosopher to use when I need to quote one. He will probably become yours too, after one or two uses.

    Just invent a half-pithy saying, and attribute it to him. And he’s even a little less verbose than Sir Paarfi.

  11. Wasn’t Mediocrates the one who advised Socrates to just have a little of the hemlock, so his hosts wouldn’t be offended?

  12. The one trait that Bush, alas, lacks is indecisiveness. Unfortunately, he makes his decisions without apparently giving the matter any thought. (“I don’t debate with myself.”) He hasn’t surrounded himself with mediocraties either. If only Cheney were mediocre, he could not have done such great damage. He seems to have surrounded himself with evil people rather. Including Condi Rice. Especially Condi Rice who could have been so much better.

  13. I agree with what bigmike@12 has said. To me Bush is a product of Big Oil and Big Church and driven by his convictions and interpretations of how God, Liberty and Freedom should be imposed on those countries who don’t have the political strength (but the oil) to stand up to America. All I can say is God help Nigeria.

    I don’t think Charles I was indecisive . I think he was driven by the “kings are little gods” belief and took exception of the fact he had to go cap in hand in parliament to fund his international religious wars.

    His summary judgements of successive parliament dibandments by way or Royal decrees in conjuntion which not being in touch with true political reality (as opposed to “disconnection from” his “subjects” as you can argue that was the case for all monarchs of his time) lead to his downfall.

  14. And the perception, obviously, is the reality here.

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