Paul Schuler, University of Arizona; Mohammad Khan
How do personality cults emerge under authoritarian rule? Existing political science research suggests that regime-sanctioned cults of personality follow institutional personalization. As leaders consolidate power and sideline rivals, they promote cults to cement their dominance over elites and society. We concur that this process explains some forms of cult production. However, we also show that many intra-regime rivals promote leaders as faces of the regime even before the leader personalizes power. This cult promotion gives the leader a leg up on rivals to consolidate institutional personalization after regime consolidation. Given this advantage, why would a regime promote a leader as the face of the regime? Using social psychology research on anthropomorphism, we argue that aspiring authoritarian regimes have an incentive to promote a leader as the “face of the regime” under conditions of great political uncertainty and where awareness of the regime is low. Using four cases from East and Southeast Asia—China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia—we conduct process tracing exercises to demonstrate the plausibility of our theory.
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