As February’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) fades from the news, one image still sticks in the mind: Throughout the convention, a larger-than-life golden statue of former U.S. President Donald Trump graced the merchandise hall.
Some have called the installation a perfect metaphor for the state of the Republican Party. Since leaving office, Trump has nonetheless continued personal attacks on prominent members of the party, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while pressuring others within the party to censure, condemn, and purge party leaders who he sees as disloyal—all on-brand for a president who, over his four years in office, sought to steadily increase his own power and influence relative to others in the Republican Party.
The personalization of political parties isn’t unique to the United States. All around the world, democratic politics is increasingly becoming a personal affair; leaders are amassing more power relative to their political parties so politics more strongly reflects the leader’s preferences rather than being a bargaining process among multiple actors and institutions. If the trend continues, liberal democracy will suffer.
Political science has long seen personalism as a problem in authoritarian settings. And since the end of the Cold War, there has indeed been a decisive shift toward personalism in autocracies. Leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega have steadily concentrated power from parties and institutions to themselves. Even in China, President Xi Jinping has bucked decades of consensus-style decision-making, wrangling power away from the Chinese Communist Party and into his own hands.
A quick tour around the world, however, suggests that the trend toward personalism is afflicting democracies too. Beyond Trump, democratically elected leaders such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are dominating headlines and increasing their prominence relative to the traditional political establishment. Personalism isn’t limited to these well-known populists though. The Czech Republic’s Andrej Babis, Senegal’s Macky Sall, Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko, and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina all rank high on personalism but low on populism.
This isn’t just a matter of flashy examples shading perception: Our research underscores the trend as well. Using a set of indicators that measures the relative power between the leader and the political party, we find that personalism in democracies has been on the rise since the early 2000s, accelerating more rapidly since 2015.
In some ways, the move toward greater personalism in democracies has been happening slowly over the course of the last several decades. Researchers have anecdotally linked the rise of personalization to the growth of electronic media, and especially to television in the 1950s and 1960s. Television, including the rise of major televised political debates during national election campaigns, for example, significantly influenced how voters viewed their leaders. The rise of the internet and other digital tools is adding fuel to the dynamic as they allow leaders to reach an even larger audience.
Beyond broadcast’s sheer power, digital technologies also create new opportunities for leaders to selectively censor and manipulate their media environments, more effectively controlling the narratives that surround their leadership. Indeed, data shows that democratic leaders who more effectively use the internet to monitor and censor social media and create social media alternatives tend to be more personalist. This suggests that personalist leaders are using digital tools to lessen resistance to their power grabs and create an environment more conducive to their amassing of power.
Personalization is a major threat to today’s democracies, namely because personalist leaders breed polarization in the societies they govern. That’s because in these systems, policy choices more strongly reflect the leader’s preferences rather than a bargaining process among multiple actors and institutions. Those groups not aligned with the leader and sidelined in the decision-making process are likely to grow disillusioned, deepening the divide between political camps.
The case of Venezuela—long one of Latin America’s most stable democracies—illustrates this dynamic. Former President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to personalize politics splintered Venezuelan society, generating deep divisions over what the rules of the game should be and who should have access to power. This divide widened as he further concentrated power. As the distance between Chavistas and the opposition grew larger, so did the violations of democracy his supporters were willing to accept to ensure his continued dominance. Chavez’s personalization of power paved the way for political polarization, ultimately setting in motion a period of authoritarianism with him at the helm—a system that his successor Nicolás Maduro has sustained.
Ultimately then, personalism and democracy can’t coexist. It enables incumbent power grabs and the incremental dismantling of democracy that has become the most common way democracies break down. In Europe, Erdogan and Orban exemplify the trend. Both leaders successfully increased their own influence and control over their political parties and senior party elite, subsequently facilitating their ability to dismantle other institutional checks on their power.
Meanwhile, personalization gives leaders greater bargaining power over the rest of the party elite, making it more difficult for even aligned elites to push back against the leader’s efforts to consolidate control. In Hungary, Orban’s creation of the Fidesz party and his move from the center-left to the right fractured party leadership and enabled Orban to oust party leaders in opposition to his rule. This paved the way for the rise of officials loyal to Orban, many of whom were not previously part of the Hungarian political establishment and lacked deep government experience. When party elites view their future prospects as being tied to those of the leader, it raises their incentive to support that leader even as he takes away more of their power.
All this should be a cautionary tale for the Republican Party and its current enablers. Should Trump return to politics and head a GOP increasingly dominated by him and his loyalists, the trend toward personalization in the United States would accelerate, with Trump furthering his efforts to pick insurgent primary challengers, increase his control over party funds, and replace traditional conservatives in local branches of the party. With the party fully in his control, it would be hard for U.S. democracy to bounce back.