As Newt Gingrich implies, cults of personality typically invoke images that are less than flattering. These cults generally occur with a prominent public figure and are a social psychological phenomenon in which the public are lead through advertising or aggressive tactics to have a favorable opinion of the person, regardless of the reality of that person’s deeds. Usually, ones thoughts leap to the god-like manifestations of reverence that Kim Jong-Il commands from the people of North Korea, or the propaganda and blind admiration of Adolf Hitler. While these cults of personality may conjure negative associations, there are others that have more positive and interesting connotations. Additionally, cults of personality can even form around the idea of a person after they are no longer part of the public sphere.
For the cult of personality to occur, positive opinions about the person are spread through mass communication. Generally when an audience is absorbing information they agree with, they will continue to consume from only those sources, due to confirmation bias. This bias makes the connection to the person even stronger. The United States has guaranteed freedom of the press, which means that in theory it is not possible to force all media outlets to favor someone unquestioningly, thus no true cult of personality can occur. Nevertheless, in honor of President’s Day, we want to explore some popular cult-like fan groups surrounding former U.S. Presidents.
The most well-known presidential cult icons are arguably those of Washington and Lincoln. However, this is not due to extravagant campaigns by the two men or their supporters; it was done by men and women idolizing them much later in their presidencies. Rightly so since Washington was our general who lead troops against the British in the Revolutionary War and warned us about two party political systems. Washington is placed on a pedestal as the father of our nation. Lincoln was also admired for his many accomplishments including issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, you can even sign up to be a part of Lincoln’s fan club.
One of the most interesting Presidential figures to arise in the discussion on cults of personality is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s name is still revered to this day; enough to warrant a critical look at any propaganda surrounding his presidency. Unique to him, however, is the pervasive respect he garnered while still in office. Roosevelt’s warm tone and fireside chats endeared him to many and his legacy stands the test of time. He was elected not only an unprecedented third but fourth time into the executive office, proving a large amount of support from the American public.
Are there other American Presidents that you think have been idolized by many? If so, who? Let us know in the comments and Happy Presidents Day from all of us at CPG!