I study the nature and trajectory of political support for political movements founded by charismatic leaders. Specifically, I investigate the survival of such “personalistic” movements after the disappearance of their founders. My research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Dissertation Project

“Charisma Lives On: A Study of Peronism and Chavismo”

Conventional wisdom suggests that political movements founded by charismatic leaders must transform into institutionalized parties to survive beyond the death of the founder. Curiously, however, several movements have persisted or reemerged while sustaining their personalistic character in countries as diverse as Argentina, Venezuela, Tunisia, and Turkey. My research investigates how such movements can endure without becoming institutionalized. First, I explore this puzzle at the micro-level by examining the nature and evolution of citizens’ deep, emotional attachments to the movement. Rather than “routinizing” into more traditional linkage types based on programmatic or organizational factors, I argue that citizens’ bonds can survive in their original, personalistic state. Moreover, subsequent politicians can strategically reactivate these attachments to garner support. To do so, politicians must convincingly portray themselves as true heirs to the charismatic founder by 1) symbolically associating themselves with the founder and 2) implementing bold, impressive reforms that appear to “rescue” the followers from their suffering.

Next, I investigate the macro-level conditions under which new leaders can effectively implement these strategies to earn the followers’ loyalty and consolidate power. Whereas successors handpicked by the founder struggle to establish authority in their own right, self-starters who emerge years later have greater leeway to step out of the founder’s shadow and rise to greatness. If they can demonstrate their own charisma through symbolic gestures and daring policies, these leaders can revive the founder’s mantle and restore the movement to its political predominance. However, the success of self-starters is temporary: With little foundation in strong institutions, their bold reforms eventually collapse, causing followers to feel betrayed and eroding the leader’s authority. As a result, the followers seek out another, more convincing successor to inherit the founder’s mantle of authority. The short-lived successes and subsequent failures of new leaders cause personalistic movements to develop in a spasmodic fashion that contrasts with the stable, linear trajectories of more conventional parties. The results suggest that personalistic movements can survive without developing strong institutions, undermining citizens’ democratic representation and hindering party-system development.

My project contributes to the literature on charisma, public opinion and voting behavior, and party systems by challenging the notion that charisma is ephemeral and demonstrating how citizens’ attachments to charismatic leaders can persist to undermine the development of party institutions. While scholars stress that the personalistic strategies of such leaders often dominate political campaigns in diverse contexts, I operationalize and measure these strategies to assess their effectiveness in consolidating political support and their long-term impact on the political system. While this project focuses primarily on two countries, in the future I plan to apply the theory and methodological approach to study cases globally where personalistic movements take root.

Articles and Working Papers

“The Revival of Charisma: A Study of Peronism and Chavismo” (under review at World Politics)

I analyze the results of my NSF-funded survey experiments to demonstrate that new leaders who implement two strategic cues—bold (if unsustainable) performance and symbolic ties to the charismatic founder—can reactivate citizens’ deeply emotional attachments to the movement and win support. Next, I rely on qualitative evidence to show that the way in which new leaders rise to power influences their capacity to revive citizens’ personalistic attachments and shapes the trajectory of the movement. Whereas successors who come immediately after the founder encounter formidable obstacles, self-starters who rise years after the founder’s death have greater latitude to convince followers of their ability to assume the founder’s mantle of authority.

“The Power of Charisma: Investigating the Neglected Citizen-Politician Linkage” (under review at Latin American Research Review)

I investigate how voters’ personalistic attachments to charismatic leaders emerge and come to overpower alternative linkage types rooted in programmatic evaluation or grassroots organization. To do so, I conduct logistic regressions using data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). The results demonstrate that perceptions of Hugo Chávez’s charisma influence citizens’ attachment to his movement more than substantive policy preferences or participation in movement-affiliated organizations.

“The Language of Legacies: The Politics of Evoking Dead Leaders” (under review at Political Science Research and Methods), co-authored with Amy Liu

We investigate how leaders can recover public trust and approval when government performance is low. We argue politicians use speeches that conjure up images of a deceased predecessor to temporarily reactivate support. Doing so can evoke feelings of empathy and nostalgia among supporters; this in turn causes them to perceive the current leader with more confidence. We test this argument by using a sample of all speeches made by Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner 2008-2013. We identify all instances when she references Juan and Eva Perón – the charismatic founders of the Justice Party. We find that the number of Perón references increases as Kirchner’s approval rating decreases. Moreover, by leveraging a natural experiment – courtesy of LAPOP – we demonstrate that after the president mentions the Peróns, public opinion improves – but only in the short-term and among Kirchner supporters.

“Rebirth, not Routinization: A Theory of Personalistic Movement Survival” (working paper)

In this article, I draw on my extended fieldwork in Argentina and Venezuela to trace the process through which personalistic movements evolve over time. The article contributes to the literature on party-system development by identifying an overlooked mechanism through which these movements survive: The rise of new charismatic leaders who reinvigorate citizen’s affective ties to the movement and use their magnetic appeal to develop powerful—yet personalistic and temporary—ruling coalitions. My argument challenges existing scholarship, which contends that personalistic movements can only survive by trading dominant, charismatic leaders for strong organizations and greater political stability. Instead, the results show that enduring personalistic movements can develop volatile trajectories that involve frequent crises and prevent the development of stable institutions.