Worship Thy Leader
By Lucy Wormald (she/her)
Lifestyle and Culture Editor
Lucy explores how our loyalty to political leaders can foster a political-tunnel vision, akin to how many of us would characterise the foundations of cults.
I am not especially politically savvy. I briefly forgot I wasn’t especially politically savvy and agreed to write an in-depth piece on political cliques and polarisation and then I remembered, I am not especially politically savvy. I am not informed enough to write it with the necessary eloquence or wit. Publishing such a piece would be akin to me standing up in front of a large crowd, legs a-trembling, sounding out large words into a microphone with feedback issues.
For two days I felt sorry for myself about my lack of acuity. I had several daydreams in which I was a tremendously successful political commentator who executed profound and complex arguments which others, failing to follow, decorated with reactions of awe and adulation. Unsuccessful in bringing this dream to quick fruition (a nasty shock), I was left to confront an overwhelming sense of political blindness. And therein I found my fodder.
I claim to subscribe heartily to the left. Due to parallels between my ideals and theirs I confidently support a mish-mash of Greens and Labour and foster a fervent flame for Bernie Sanders. I want to see climate action and a move towards a socialist economy front and centre of political agendas. I would eagerly roll my eyes and huff in somebody’s general direction should they toe the other side of the line. There is an element of unfounded righteousness within this that I often avert my eyes from. There is a passive acceptance of the political zeitgeist of my generation. Sadly, this is about the extent to which I can explain my political stance. It is clear my discernment does not run very deep and my engagement is, if I am being honest, erring on performative.
So why do I feel so solid in my support of political leaders? Why do I feel a red-hot wrath when somebody counters Chlöe Swarbrick? Why do I feel proud and protective of Jacinda? I know I am too uninformed to credit the intensity of these feelings to knowledge. I feel passionate about broad political themes but do not know the policies and legislation in place to navigate them. I favour politicians over what they symbolise rather than what they achieve. And so I realise my political framework is stationed on loose soil. I am blind and emotional in my support of political parties. I put faith into a leadership I do not understand. And to top it off I am reasonably content with my ignorance. While it may be argued that this blindness indicates I am in the hands of a sound and trustworthy government, it may also infer a growing vein of cultism in political partisanship.
Why do I feel a red-hot wrath when somebody counters Chlöe Swarbrick? Why do I feel proud and protective of Jacinda?
Contemporarily, a cult is a social group characterised by its philosophical beliefs or by its common interest in, or allegiance to, a particular personality, intellectual movement, object, or goal. They operate on the basis of three main pillars: tenets (the beliefs and practices of the group), hierarchy, and superiority (the opinion that one’s group is more correct than another). Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton says the two primary features of cults are:
1 A charismatic leader who becomes an object of devotion or reverence, the most defining element of the group, and its source of authority.
2 Followers undergo processes of education or indoctrination that can be seen as thought reform. Often this culminates in members doing things that are not in their own best interests but are in line with the interests of the group or its leader.
Starting to feel a little suspicious, I employed the single purest conduit for truth-telling in the modern era. I took an online quiz. I answered parallel to my political behaviours to see if I met the criteria for being in a cult. Questions included:
• Is there a strong urgency to explain the benefits of the group to those around you?
• Do you consider the groups ideas and principles to be the way forward in solving the problems of the world?
• Have you noticed that the group’s ideas have filtered into all areas of your life?
Results suggested it is 73% likely I am in a cult. Sorry, but quizzes never lie.
I see the motions of cult followers mirrored not only in my own political engagement, but globally. The most concerning characteristics, and ones that can be seen most clearly in Trumpism, are a forfeiting of logic and a personal dissociation in prioritisation of a group identity. Though this is not a stark reality in New Zealand (not to say it is not still present here, that is simply not true), we do have a population making political decisions without referencing policy. This faith in a leader’s principles fosters a political tunnel-vision, inhibiting our ability to question whether or not there are alternative options and ideologies to what is being presented. We live in a culture that does not teach political self-determination or attentivity and this sustains a cult-like following to the hegemony. While I will admit it may be a wee bit of stretch to compare ACT to Gloriavale, I do believe the presence of such blind partisanship in our politics poses the same dangers to a democracy that a cult does to an individual.
This faith in a leader's principles fosters a political tunnel-vision, inhibiting our ability to question whether or not there are alternative options and ideologies to what is being presented.
A reason for this trend may be our 21st century propensity for self-identification. Modern culture dictates that we often align ourselves with groups that share our same views and opinions. In the US, political affiliations are stronger identifiers than race, gender, and religion. Political parties are a fundamental element of democratic systems. Their role is to provide an organisational framework through which individuals can view political issues in a transparent and digestible manner. Psychologist Nicole Satherley explains that party preferences are often deeply held psychological attachments to parties, formed not through objective deliberation of each party’s policy offerings, but through socialisation and an individual’s sense of morality. In this sense, an individual’s devotion to their party tarnishes their view of political matters and allows the views of political elites to dominate the discourse on issues and shape the nature of policies. That I, and many others, are aligning attitudes and judgements with those of a party instead of housing a toolkit of logic and critical thinking, is what bolsters the populism, tribalism, and polarisation we see in current democracies.
After reflecting on all of this, my question becomes: is the best way to engage with a political party really the same as you would engage with a cult? How can we engage with leaders on a more neutral basis that allows policy to sit at the nexus of our political systems?
It is easy and exciting to get swept away in the energy of our personal political affiliations. It feels good to believe in something and feel connected to a greater group of power. But we owe it to ourselves, and to those around us, to not turn politics cult-like. We must critically analyse and contemplate our beliefs outside the spectrum of parties and candidates. If we do not, we are vulnerable to abuses of power and we are vulnerable to losing sight of a functional democracy