Sego and Sarko round two: How social identity theory interprets the political process

180px-mrs_texas.jpgA Presidential election offers a test of leadership theory. We look to the emerging ideas of social identity to interpret the dynamics of the on-going French contest between Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. The theory suggests that the voting decision can be seen as the result of a kind of beauty contest. The vote goes to the candidate which most closely matches a mental image of a prototypical (idealized) leader.

Leadership and social identity theory

A recent entry into the leadership textbooks is social identity theory. The fundamental principle is that social actors make sense of their world through their mental maps, which are open to revision, but stable enough to help decision-making in unclear situations. Within the maps, according to social identity theory, we compare and contrast ‘significant others’ such as leaders, lovers, lenders, friends, followers, fashion-setters, and so on. The process is one of sense-making. The charismatic leader is partly created by ourselves. THis is another way of suggesting we get the leaders we deserve.

The theory suggests that our shared understanding of a leader is a social construction. Also, it indicates that preferences, while partly explicable around rationalistic and logical terms, are also influenced by aspirations and psychological needs. The leader is role model, rescuer, and parent. The leader is ‘the person I would like to be’, or ‘the person I would want to help me’. Much research still needs to be done, but we are some way to understanding older puzzles of the charismatic leader.

Which brings us back to the issue under discussion, the continuing battle between Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal.

This is a beauty contest

Social identity theory suggests that we chose our leaders on more than a rational appraisal of their policies. Rather, we vote on grounds of constructed reality of the candidates, tested against what one leadership school has referred to as a leader’s idealised influence. Metaphorically, voters are engaging in selecting the winner of a beauty contest.

Shared social memories mean that our mental libraries of leaders (that is to say, our images of actual leaders) are
By whatever Darwinian process, we have arrived at candidates with considerable physical appeal. The image-makers have not had to work too hard to produce good results, both from photo-opportunities and from the carefully posed press releases.
They could audition successfully as potential stars within the French film industry. On the other hand, I hardly dare to suggest that they share with Ronald Reagan the characteristics out of which a Hollywood-style President could be invented. Hollywoodification and comparisons with a Reagan or a Schwarzenegger would be considered quite inappropriate …

Nicolas Sarkozy, we read, has the impact of a charismatic leader on his followers. Francois Bayrou, still in the public eye as a possible influence in the final stages of the contest, has similar physical appearance at a distance, to Sarkozy. The defeated Le Pen retains echoes of his own earlier charismatic bearing. All three male contenders in the first round matched requisite standards of what a leader ‘should’ look like. As for Segolene Royal, glamorous is one of the frequently used terms to describe her impact, not just on her followers, but on a wider non-politicized public.

The case is a strong one, that in France today, as elsewhere, an attractive physical appearance is a necessary (if not sufficient) quality for a would-be political leader. Whatever else is going on, we are witnessing a beauty contest.

To go more deeply into social identity

To go more deeply into social identity try Michael Hogg’s review of social identity

And the winner is?

The election is only metaphorically a beauty contest. Our theory suggests that the winner is the more beautiful by popular acclaim.

To guess the winner, we might assume there will be little switching by voters who have seen their prototypic leaders win through. We have to consider what happens to the votes of people whose candidates were defeated in the first round. My crude estimate of that puts Sarcozy a smidgeon ahead, a winner by a closer margin than he obtained in the first round of voting. But that’s a view from a different place.

Stop Press: Le Monde reports a voting intention poll showing Sarco still in the lead, but with a slight weakening of his lead over Sego. But there is still the televised debate next Wednesday. Saro says that he’s ahead in the mountains of the Tour de France, but a single slip and all is lost. Not Hollywood then, but maybe Eurosport.

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