This study explains that the notion of a cult hero is incompatible with democracy as a form of government. Heroes surface in all forms of government and thrive in empires, theocracies, and dictatorships. Democracy, too, is not immune from the rise of political heroes. A political hero is most lethal to the institutional fabric of democracy when they gain popularity as a cult figure. Cultish heroes undermine the national constitutions, pursue autocracy, nurture a law-defying following, incite hatred against opponents, and divide the public into hostile factions. They see themselves as indispensable geniuses, far superior to the system that brings them to power.
For example, several recent cult figures, such as Donald Trump and Imran Khan, have rattled the democratic institutions, refusing to accept the constraints of the constitutional process. The Trump devotees attacked the Capitol to reverse the results of the 2020 general elections that Trump lost. “Nobody has done more for Christianity than me,” claims Trump. The Khan devotees show little respect for the parliament, election commission, the opposition parties, and the state institutions that refuse to side with Khan, who lost the no-confidence vote under the constitutional procedure. “They do not understand Islam… I will make people understand Islam,” boasts Khan.
The secularization of the ruler is an essential attribute of democracy. Some democracies are secular; others are not. In A Theory of Universal Democracy, I argue that a state that affiliates with religion (fusion state), as does Pakistan with Islam and Norway with Christianity, can be fully democratic as a form of government. However, I must clarify that democracy does not view the presidents or prime ministers in fusion states as divine rulers. Any politician claiming divinity is a charlatan, and any followers holding politicians on a hallowed pedestal engage in superstitious infantilism.
Centuries ago, the Greeks set the tone for hero formation and worship, and their ideas permeated many cultures and traditions. Quintessentially, the hero has divine and human qualities as a fusion of god and human. For example, Hercules is a divine hero as he is the son of Jupiter but not a complete god because his mother is the mortal Alcmene. The divine heroes with blood relations to gods are formidable individuals with extraordinary strengths and miracles. They arise primarily in the fields of religion and statecraft. In both cases, the hero claims or the followers attribute to the hero divine powers.
Cult heroes pretend to be liberators and protectors, partly because an infantile and superstitious population searching for “a strong father” or “messiah” empowers them to think so. Yet there is a critical difference between religious and political cult heroes. While religious heroes strive to achieve spiritual authority over the people, political heroes aim to acquire power over the state. The same cult hero may seek religious and political control in a few cases. Influential schemers often build and exploit a cult hero to challenge the church, the state, the empire, or any other establishment for profit.
A democracy needs to protect itself from cult heroes. To hand over the coercive machinery of a modern state to a cult figure who receives revelations from the skies or his ego-infested mind is hostile to the concept of democracy that periodically retests the authority of elected representatives through general elections, mandating that the rulers obey the constitution. In democracies, rulers are fungible, and intelligent democracies use term limits for the highest executive office to promote mandatory fungibility.
A democracy is teamwork. No single individual can understand, much less run, a modern state enmeshed in the global economy and international relations. The domestic complexity of the nation-state divided into ethnic and racial populations further complicates governing dynamics and requires teamwork. More generally, there has been a revolutionary shift in human thinking. Instead of looking up to individuals for answers, the focus has moved to collaboration, where a group of knowledgeable individuals coordinates their expertise, imagination, and skills to diagnose and solve problems. In a democratic legislature, teamwork, even across the political floor, is necessary for legislation and annual budgets.
The idea of the hero as a shepherd caring for the sheep fits with pastoral communities, theocracies, kingships, and dictatorships. However, a godly hero armed with miracles is antithetical to the notion of a constitutional government. Modern constitutions value teamwork, restraining the rise of any single individual, no matter how good or godly, from dominating the state institutions, including legislature and executive.
A presidential form of democracy, such as the U.S., is vulnerable to the notion of a hero, as winning a coast-to-coast presidential election in the world’s leading nation is an intoxicating experience, especially for an ego-plagued individual. However, the U.S. Constitution limits the president’s powers, even though some presidents stretch the laws to grab more authority. The two-terms limit further preempts the president from dreaming of being a hero. In parliamentary democracies, such as the U.K, prime ministers do not carry the glory of U.S. presidents. In some democracies, the prime minister cannot act alone and must consult the cabinet, also elected officials, to make critical executive decisions.
There is no need to outlaw the notion of a hero, as some humans greatly benefit human civilization. We need to reimagine heroes.
Dictionaries define a hero as “an illustrious warrior,” “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities,” and “a legendary figure of divine descent endowed with powers.” The classical notion of the hero is rooted in the metaphors of war and miracles. Anchored in various mythologies and evolutionary pressures, the hero appears central to the human psyche.
Searching for a savior is natural when living conditions are nasty and brutish. The classical hero of divine descent makes more sense in historical literature. In confronting a mysterious and invincible nature, humans harboring vulnerabilities, fears, deprivation, and death regress to superstitions. They seek protection from deities and godly humans.
Saints, shamans, yogis, pirs, and charlatans step up to offer rescue in tough times. Even after thousands of years of human civilization, economically, emotionally, and intellectually weak humans nurse a compulsive-obsessive need to find heroes among them, attribute magical traits to them, sanctify them, and even worship them as gods. Some such heroes are universal; some are national, political, and cultural.
We need to reimagine heroes as diligent individuals who spend their minds and bodies making life better for others. Unfortunately, the definition of a quiet hero as a civilization builder does not capture human imagination as strongly as mythological heroes fighting demons.
For example, engineers have been the primary architects of human civilization. The engineers in civil, electrical, mechanical, and computer sciences have made it possible for humans to have roads, bridges, electricity, airplanes, clean water, the internet, and everything we see and admire around us, from the pyramids to the space station. Modern life with unprecedented comforts, abundance, and speed comes from engineering more than anything else. Yet, societies are miserly giving credit for what the engineers invent, manufacture, and construct.
Philanthropists who give away their wealth to the poor or invest in hospitals or educational institutions to provide free medical care or education to the underprivileged are heroes. Likewise, persons like Mother Theresa, who spent their life to serving the needs of disadvantaged communities, are heroes, far more helpful than politicians aspiring to rule nations.
Grateful communities celebrate heroes in every field of knowledge, arts, and crafts, the humans who build cultures and societies. Scientists, economists, mathematicians, teachers, writers, playwrights, poets, philosophers, folk singers, indeed every discipline has heroes who leave their inventions, theories, poems, and songs as gifts for the people. They are the builders of cultures, indeed human civilization.
Presidents and Prime Ministers
Attention-starved politicians are the worst genre of heroes, as they, by profession, are power seekers while they disguise their ambition for fame and office in the rosy rhetoric of serving the people. Many politicians indeed work hard to uplift their districts. Politicians, as lawmakers, can do noble things, but those seeking the highest executive office (presidents and prime ministers) are primarily predators.
Under human rights treaties and modern constitutions, every citizen has a right to be a politician. Politicians and political parties are critical for the functioning of a democracy. Elected by the people, politicians serve in the legislature and executive branches of the government. They also organize the opposition parties, hoping to acquire power in the next general elections. Laws protect the right of every person to take part in the conduct of public affairs, to vote, and seek political office without any discrimination.
Very few politicians serve the people without receiving any benefits. The U.S. politicians elected to the federal legislature, Congress and Senate receive handsome salaries, healthcare, and pension. Politicians elected in the states also receive compensation, though it varies from state to state. The chief executives enjoy the renown and rewards that come with the office much more than elected lawmakers.
Studies suggest that persons seeking the nation’s highest executive office have “dark personality traits,” such as Machiavellianism, narcissism, and even psychopathy, which belie the claim that politicians serve the people. These traits are more pronounced in persons seeking the highest political office, such as the president or the prime minister, where they can fantasize about being a hero. Their arsenal includes manipulation, deception, lies, and over-promising in campaigns. Adding any streaks of divinity to the personality of a Machiavellian, narcissistic psychopath seeking the nation’s highest office is a grave mistake.
Democracy does not trust humans as wielders of power, much less divine power. Based on inherent distrust, the democratic competition in each electoral district and for each political office allows the contestants to find faults, lancing each other’s balloons of ego, pride, overconfidence, and an inflated view of the self that candidates bring to politics. Law correctly affords “little protection” to the privacy of politicians in their political careers.
Anyone seeking to rule a country or make laws for the people must face a raging fire of scrutiny. An independent and free media, a vital institution of a vibrant democracy, rips up the self-serving claims of politicians running for various offices after diligently researching their personal and political past. Throwing the filth of their words and deeds at politicians is a primary duty of journalists and public scholars. Any leniency shown to politicians is a public betrayal.
The U.S. media did a superb job in tearing apart the lies, self-promotion, fake religiosity, racism, and the divinity of Donald Trump. Still, TV journalists like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson promoted Trump’s charlatanism. The Pakistan media has been more subservient to Imran Khan, celebrating Khan as a prankster in a low-budget movie wearing dark glasses and holding the prayer beads in his hand, giving uneducated sermons on the economy and Islam. TV anchors like Haroon Rasheed and Arshad Sharif breach their democratic obligation to the nation by elevating Khan as a godsend for handling Pakistan’s corruption and chronic problems.
More than Donald Trump, Imran Khan invokes a superstitious morality between good and evil, painting himself as good and the other politicians as evil while summoning the people and armed forces to side with the good. Years ago, George W. Bush also invoked the binary division of good and evil to demand that either you are with us (good) or with them (evil). However, Bush branded the terrorists as evil, but Khan attributes evil to opposition political parties, including religious parties.
In the apocalyptic morality of ancient literature, the aura of heroes deepens when contrasted with the villains. The heroes are noble and honest; the villains are corrupt; the heroes lift the nation’s spirit, whereas the villains bring shame and ruin to the people. The heroes are winners; the villains are losers. The hero has a thousand faces, all lovely; the villain is ugly no matter how they turn.
Democracy neither endorses apocalyptic morality nor embraces the binary cleavage of good and evil. The rhetoric of good and evil is the language of self-righteous dictators and theocrats who view opposition as evil.
The script of democracy is simple: Political parties diagnose the nation’s problems. They offer solutions. Choosing among parties, the people elect a government for a prescribed term. If no single party wins a majority, the parties join to form a coalition government. In the presidential form of democracy, whoever wins the nationwide elections forms the government. In no case is the winner good and the loser evil. Democracy does not promise that good will triumph over evil.
While divinity is infallible, democracy generously admits its faults. Accordingly, the metaphysics of democracy is revisionist by nature. As democracy ages, the notion of good may also change. A hero becomes a villain when ideas shift, the people regroup, and the definitions of good and evil swap. Once worshipped, the protestors spit on the fallen busts of heroes, kicking them with their dirty shoes. The gigantic statues of heroes mounted in public squares tumble, pulled down with ropes and cranes. Such iconoclastic scenes empower the people in a democracy to review the past and reject what is no longer acceptable.
Democracy is an inexhaustible contest of ideas that sharpens the minds of competitors and the citizens. A charlatan may deceive and win, but democracy carries the scissors to lay bare a repeat scoundrel. The torch of competition passes on to the next generation, breaking old records and reaching new heights. In the ever-flowing stream of democracy, the notions of good and evil, vice and virtue, hero and villain liquefy and reform. “The protection against the one genius is—a second genius.” (Agonistics – Arenas of Creative Contest).
The language of good and evil, the doctrine of divine humans, and leaders as messiahs are notions hostile to democracy. No politician is sacred or indispensable or endowed with godly qualities. The rulers are imperfect and will always be. No magic or miracles, but well-thought-out policies make an outstanding government. Democracy is a system of the humans, for the humans, by the humans.
Since no single individual can govern a modern state enmeshed in the global economy and international relations, democracy offers teamwork as the governing formula. The notion of a single hero slaying the dragons is a good script for a children’s book; democracy needs no such fictional hero but uses councils, committees, parliaments, cabinets, and similar team-based institutions to conduct statecraft.
Individuals such as Donald Trump and Imran Khan pretend to be godly heroes. They are not. They are vying for a second run, and they must be stopped. They must not have a free hand to use democratic rights and liberties — such as freedom of speech, assembly, and the right to seek the highest executive office–to establish a cult and impair the roots of democracy. The law must come hard on impostors who see themselves not as elected presidents and prime ministers but as divine redeemers. Extra effort is required to identify and expose such lunatics; their followers who break the law must face justice. The media, the academy, and public scholars have a special responsibility to educate the masses about the dangers of embracing cult heroes as the nation’s chief executives.