Visiting authors discuss ‘problem of democracy’

Authors+and+Louisiana+State+University+history+professors+Nancy+Isenberg+and+Andrew+Burstein+discuss+the+contents+of+their+new+book+%22The+Problem+of+Democracy%3A+The+Presidents+Adams+Confront+the+Cult+of+Personality%2C%22+during+a+lecture+in+the+Amicus+Curiae+Lecture+Series+on+Constitutional+Democracy+Thursday%2C+April+25.

Jesten Richardson

Authors and Louisiana State University history professors Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein discuss the contents of their new book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality," during a lecture in the Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy Thursday, April 25.

One problem of democracy is that it has become a popularity contest, a Louisiana State University professor and author said Thursday in Marshall University’s Brad D. Smith Foundation Hall.

“Is the candidate likable enough, inquiring minds want to know, because you have to come across as likable, the it factor, to be electable,” said Andrew Burstein, a Louisiana State University history professor and co-author of the book “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality.”

“That’s what democracy has come to,” Burstein said, during a lecture in the Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy. “Like high school elections, the right look, the common touch. It’s less a question of knowledge and judgment than a popularity contest— this is one problem of democracy and there are others too.”

This is not a new problem, according to Nancy Isenberg, fellow Louisiana State University history professor and co-author of the book “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality,” who also lectured Thursday.

John Adams, a political thinker and Founding Father who became the second president of the United States, identified the “danger of the ‘cult of celebrity,’” Isenberg said, a term which is defined as “the tendency of people to care too much about famous people” by Merriam-Webster.

Isenberg said this was anticipating the 20th century “cult of personality,” a concept which Burstein explained as “the surrender of one’s political will, one’s political voice, to a charismatic figure, a thorough belief in the word and loyalty to someone whose voice just sort of fills up a room.”

Adams was the first to “watch up close” in France how this earlier cult of celebrity formed, Isenberg said. She said it formed around Benjamin Franklin who “seduced the French educated elite and was America’s first rockstar in Europe.”

“In his 1790 publication, ‘Discourses on Davila,’ the elder (John) Adams zoomed in on the powerful force of spectatorship, of celebrity, the desire among human beings to be seen and loved,” Isenberg said. “Then, there was the opposite— the fear of obscurity, of insignificance.” Long before Andy Warhol said every American wants his 15 minutes of fame, Adams placed the danger of adulation, or excessive praise or admiration, at the center of his constitutional theory, Isenberg said.

Isenberg said what “glittered in the eyes of men and women” was often superficial distractions. According to Adams, “‘birth, riches and beauty’ shored up power in aristocracies,” societies divided people into classes and political parties marketed candidates with “an attractive appearance, a prominent name, a glamorous reputation,” Isenberg said.

Adams said group psychology was responsible for the “worship of the lustrous few,” and “since the majority of the people would never take to the stage, they lived vicariously through idols,” she said.

People felt a special kind of sympathy for the powerful, Isenberg said, and it was not just that politicians got into office on inflated reputations, but “voters lived for the show.”

“Americans tell themselves that they value independent thinking in the Enlightenment sense of the phrase, but in fact, modern psychologists endorse John Adams’ early prognosis,” Isenberg said. “Citizens still swoon over the rich and famous today. They join crowds, cheering fans.”

People tend to forget that the presidency of George Washington, the first president of the United States, “borrowed from all the trappings of royalty,” Isenberg said, with the chief executive being “housed in a grand mansion,” riding in a lavish carriage, holding “intimate courtly receptions with the capital elite,” going on grand national tours and “having his image know to all,” with Americans even keeping portraits of him in their homes.

Adams dissected this cult of Washington, and he explained the worship of Washington in a letter to a friend in 1807, Isenberg said. Adams emphasized that Washington’s “first and most important trait was his ‘handsome face,’” followed by his tall stature. Adams also mentioned Washington’s “elegant form” and “graceful movements” and his “large estate,” she said.

Adams thought it was not Washington’s writing, speaking, or intelligence that made him, “master of the universe,” but his “exaggerated stories of wartime heroics,” his horsemanship and his physical appearance, Isenbergsaid.

“Image mattered more than genius, and Adams knew this,” Isenberg said. “We know this to be true today. Voters routinely take external traits to be signs of innate character.”

Burstein said he hopes people took away from his and Isenberg’s lecture that people should ask difficult questions, and if people want to understand the present, “we have to understand how we got here,” and if people feel that democracy is in danger, then “it’s valuable to understand what earlier generations of Americans did to try to cope with similar social disruptions that tore the country apart.”

The Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy will resume in the fall.

Jesten Richardson can be contacted at [email protected]

Jesten Richardson
Authors and Louisiana State University history professors Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein sign copies of their new book “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality,” following a lecture in the Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy Thursday, April 25.