I first learned about the politics of the cult of personality in high school.
Every year, the school would hold Student Council elections. Candidates put up their posters, campaigned and gave speeches--some of them quite substantive. The vote, however, was just a formality, as we all knew who would win. No matter how many times teachers would warn against using the elections as a popularity contest, they always were.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines "politics" in part as "competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership."
The connotation of the term "politics" is not a good one. When we speak of office politics or church politics, we think of things done not in the most just or capable way, but rather in an unfair way, based upon who knows who and which backs they are scratching. Merit does not weigh into the equation.
Enter the Cult of Personality, all too often the antithesis of merit. To further the high school analogy, the Mean Girls clique is a cult of personality. I never sought the favor of the Mean Girls clique because...I thought they were mean and refused to go along with them. What I came to find is that many of the girls, when encountered outside the reaches of the clique, were actually pretty nice people. Among their own, however, they would say things or go along with things they would not dream of doing as an individual. The intoxicant of belonging, of being held in the favor of the Mean Girls, outweighed the fact that they knew what the clique did to others was wrong.
Eventually, of course, we graduate and move on with our lives. We come to discover a lot of the people shrouded in the cruelty of the clique have grown up and have come to regret their actions.
Some people, however, never grow up. They continue to follow an evolving string of cults of personality for the rest of their lives.
A select few form their own cults of personality.
In high school, these social dynamics are more of an annoyance, a character-building life lesson that can at least be escaped at graduation.
When cults of personality dominate government and nations, however, their associated narcissism, cronyism, arrogance and cruelty can lead to devastation.
There are two such cases affecting the world right now.
In North Korea, a cult of personality has surrounded the Kim dynasty for decades. Kim Il Sung, who upon his death was named "Eternal President", has been succeeded first by his son, Kim Jung Il, and now grandson, Kim Jung Un. To the outside world, at least, it appears that North Koreans virtually worship the family, despite its totalitarian reign of terror.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Koreans have starved to death, while the nation's limited funds have been spent on the favored military. Many communities lack food and running water, hospitals lack medicine. Human rights are routinely breached and abused. The saber rattling military actions of the dynasty have led to world isolation, sanctions, and the threat of devastating war.
Meanwhile, North Koreans still hail their leaders, despite the reality of the conditions in which they live.
All on the basis of personality.
In Venezuela, recently deceased leader Hugo Chavez, made his charismatic presence a constant in the Venezuelan media and popular culture. Under Chavez' watch, the Bolivarian movement nationalized the oil industry, using the revenues of the world's largest oil reserve to spend lavishly on social programs--as well as to line the pockets of corrupt government cronies. Chavez' militaristic socialism drove away many multinational companies, thereby negatively impacting Venezuela's economy.
Over the course of Chavez' 14-year term, what started as a treasure trove of promises led to hyper-inflation, high unemployment, and a government on the brink of bankruptcy. Despite its vast energy resources, Venezuelans deal with chronic power outages, shortages of food and medicine, crumbling infrastructure and rampant violent crime. Projects promised with $1 trillion of oil revenue lay unfinished. The treasury is depleted.
Yet, even after Chavez' death, his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, managed to eke out electoral victory, largely from those who have benefited from government largesse and social programs--many of them poor, others well-connected in the cult of Chavez.
Many see Maduro's small margin of victory as a sign that Chavez's cult of personality is not transferable. The 49.1 percent of the country who voted for opposition party leader Henrique Capriles, cite the economic consequences and corruption of Chavez' reign as reasons a growing number of Venezuelans supported the opposition.
Some could argue that in our nation President Barack Obama has assembled his own cult of personality. Hollywood, the media and icons of popular culture adore him. His soaring rhetoric and promises of a post-partisan, post-racial era, along with the possibility of electing the nation's first African-American president led to electoral victory in 2008. Obama won despite his lack of experience, some very questionable affiliations of his past, and ideological underpinnings far to the left of most Americans.
In 2012, despite lingering high unemployment, scandals involving government grants paid out to cronies, record debt and deficits, and the weakest economic recovery in American history, the president was nonetheless re-elected. Record levels of deficit spending bought the loyalty of its beneficiaries. The president also made sure to remain at the forefront of popular culture. A lot of people simply liked him better than Mitt Romney--aided and abetted by hundreds of millions of dollars of negative campaigning, as well as Romney's relatively stiff demeanor.
At some point in time, Americans must begin looking beyond personality and popularity to the bottom line of the measurable economic impact of government policies, as well as the sustainability of its deficit-fueled largesse. This could happen in one of two ways--either these issues are addressed by our elected officials or the consequences overwhelm us and we have no choice but to act.
We as a nation can no longer afford to include personality into the equation.