A ‘Historian of Charisma’ Explains Why Oprah Could Be President

By Steve Kolowich, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2018

Oprah Winfrey wowed the crowd with her speech at the recent Golden Globe Awards.

We live in confusing times, and academics are trying like everyone else to make sense of them. Sometimes that means tweeting your truth.

That’s what Jeremy C. Young, an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University, found himself doing on Monday evening after the chattering classes started heralding Oprah Winfrey, who had just given a rousing speech at the Golden Globe Awards, as a possible candidate for president of the United States.

It was not the first time the professor had thought of Oprah in the Oval. “I’m glad people are finally taking Oprah seriously as a presidential candidate,” he wrote on Twitter. Introducing himself as a “historian of charisma,” Mr. Young then admonished skeptics not to underestimate Ms. Winfrey’s chances. He compared the former talk-show host’s following to a religious movement, and remarked that Ms. Winfrey made the famously magnetic President Obama look like a “potted plant” when they had appeared together.

It was a peculiar thread worthy of a peculiar moment in history, and people took notice — including Nate Silver, the elections forecaster, who promoted the professor’s tweets and praised his insight.

The Chronicle talked to Mr. Young about Oprah, history, and how charisma became such an unwieldy force in American politics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

  1. First things first: What is a “historian of charisma”?
  2. I wrote a book about some social and political movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America that involved really emotional, really popular political and religious and social figures who spoke in engaging ways and who inspired a lot of people. The people who followed these charismatic leaders were making America more democratic.

Before these movements came along, American leaders weren’t expected to have any emotional connection with their followers. Presidential candidates didn’t campaign for office. Ministers would just sort of read from a sermon and never look up at their congregations. People increasingly felt alienated from their leadership, and they felt like their leadership didn’t represent them. Beginning with these movements, they began to demand that leaders give them something emotional to hang on to.

  1. So you study the way that charisma, and the appetite for charisma, has shaped history and reshaped American life.
  2. That’s exactly right.
  3. One could make the argument that charisma has been the determining factor in the outcome of most if not all presidential elections since the beginning of television. But it wasn’t always like that, was it?
  4. I would actually argue that charisma was an important determining factor in elections going all the way back to the 1880s. That’s when politicians and presidential candidates first began going on national speaking tours. Before that, candidates rarely, if ever, spoke to the voters. In fact it was considered to be a bad thing if a politician wanted to speak to the voters, because it meant that he was too interested in holding public office and wasn’t going to be a disinterested statesman.
  5. Why did so why did charisma become so important?
  6. Charisma became important, first of all, because of the availability of mass transportation, such as the railroad, so candidates could travel around and speak to audiences directly for the first time. Also because the growth of industrialization and dramatic population growth made voters much more interested in having some sort of emotional connection with their leaders because they felt increasingly distant from them every other way.
  7. Can charisma be taught?
  8. The difficulty in answering that question is that charisma is very, very individual. The best charisma is built out of someone’s natural speaking style and interaction style. I would say charisma can’t be taught but that it can be coached. You can take someone and see what they’re already doing, and enhance their charisma by encouraging them to do more of the right things. But, contrary to what a lot of management theorists will tell you, there’s no universal lessons.

It’s also very culturally based. Charisma in different societies and different cultures is radically different. We shouldn’t assume that what’s charismatic in America would be charismatic in Southeast Asia.

  1. Sure, and across different American subcultures. The charisma of the singer in a hardcore metal band might be confusing to some people.
  2. Charisma, even within the United States, is very fragmented. What is very charismatic to someone will not be very charismatic to someone else. And that’s particularly true in our age of political polarization, where Democrats almost universally find Republicans uncharismatic and Republicans almost universally find Democrats uncharismatic.
  3. So, the charismatic relationship between a leader and followers is something that can be primed one way or another by outside forces like the media.
  4. Oh, certainly the media have a large role to play in shaping charisma. But I would say that it’s a reciprocal role. One of the brilliant things that Donald Trump did, in 2016 primaries in particular, was to beg and cajole and taunt and lie his way into billions of dollars of free media, which dramatically enhanced his charisma.
  5. You wrote that Oprah’s the most charismatic person in America, but in general, have men have been able to use charisma to their advantage more often than women?
  6. Very much so. And in fact charisma in the period that I study was explicitly gendered. It was viewed as something only men possessed, and when women tried to possess it they were viewed as dangerous and usually shouted down. It’s still true that many women are attacked when they try it. Hillary Clinton had a very good comment in an interview: She said that she used to try to show more emotion, but she was viewed as being hysterical — a term that would have been deeply at home in the 19th century — and so she stopped doing it, and now she’s attacked for being emotionless. And I think that that’s the problem that a lot of women face.

One of the things that’s so remarkable about Oprah is that she has managed to transcend that. She has always been very emotional, and yet she is almost universally beloved.