One of Bell’s insights is to see the man on horseback as a genre. His engaging survey of the four major early-modern revolutions traces the way their messianic leaders learned from and imitated one another, as did the chroniclers who gilded their names ... he advocates for the cultural study of leadership, of the way that shifts in technology, religious belief, and literary taste shape the exercise of personality-driven power.
... insightful ... Much of Men on Horseback’s appeal lies in its wonderful cast of characters ... Charisma, as Bell reminds us, is relational: it is both about the heroic qualities of individuals, and the myriad ways in which these are assimilated and celebrated by their admirers. Men on Horseback offers fascinating glimpses of this dialectic at work ... Bell’s attention to the literary aspects of the charismatic leaders’ legends highlights the significance of a particular genre of heroic narrative, celebrating the extraordinary virtues of Great Men ... Men on Horseback is somewhat more elusive when it comes to the more ethnographic sources of the different leaders’ charisma ... Men on Horseback asserts from the outset that the relationship between charismatic leadership and democracy is 'symbiotic,' and that modern democratic charisma acquired its essential features between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Yet by the end of the book Bell seems less certain, stressing that this period did not witness the emergence of stable democratic institutions, and that the term itself was mostly deployed pejoratively rather than positively.
It’s impossible to read Men on Horseback without the post-2016 world intruding upon your consciousness. Bell knows this and offers twin conclusions. First, he reminds us, charisma is as old as modern politics itself. It has been there from the start, powering dictatorial impulses as often as democratic ones ... Bell concludes that we’re basically stuck within the confines of the heroic masculine model of political charisma that he has so imaginatively traced ... If those lines feel underwhelming to you, it could be because charisma is ultimately unsalvageable for democracy ... Bell doesn’t give us a full taxonomy of charismatic feelings, but it seems true that even the most responsible kind of charismatic love is adulterated by awe, veneration, infatuation, even subjection ... We can hope, as Bell does, for charismatic leaders who will use their powers for good. But the reason that feels unsatisfying is that it doesn’t resolve the tension we sense between the structure of charismatic feeling and the equality that’s supposed to define democratic life. Two hundred years ago, that conflict could be overlooked: The very first modern democratic states needed legitimacy, and post-revolutionary citizens hungered for facsimile kings. Our situation and its psychological demands are different. In the twenty-first century, we’re tasked not with creating democracies from scratch but rather sustaining them under pressure, healing their wounds, and falling back in love with each other as citizens and friends.