January 23, 2017

Demagogues in Democracies

Demagogues have been a serious problem in democracies for millennia. Those who practice equal self-rule in rural settings have known for centuries that many party politicians do not fight for democracy but for their narrow party interests. So they keep their distance when political party hacks come to town right before elections. In ancient Athenian democracy, social elites like Plato and Aristotle feared democracy because it surely threatens the wealth and privilege of ruling elites (and their advisors, such as Aristotle). 

The ancient Greeks also feared demagogues. By not limiting their own ambitions for power and authority, the demagogue was criticized in Athenian democracy for hubris, the failure to limit their narrow, personal interests. The honest orator works to transform the will of the citizens to serve the best interests of the political body. The demagogue fails to regulate the self and serves only his own interests.

This problem in the U.S. did not begin with Donald Trump. Republican Party success in the early twenty-first century at limiting access to the ballot box undermined democratic ideals, such as equality and objective reason. In his award-winning analysis of methods used by demagogues in liberal democracies, How Propoganda Works (2016), Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley focuses on Republican success at appealing to voter fears despite the absence of voter fraud. Fear short circuits reason, and is a favorite weapon of demagogues.

This type of demagogue is particularly deceptive in electoral democracies. Liberal governments prohibit propaganda, and they do not train their citizens to track and reject demagoguery, so citizens generally do not recognize deceptive speech (or Twitter) as a threat that undermines democratic practices.

Using fear is not a partisan problem. Demagogues using fear in the War on Terror may be found in the both major political parties in the U.S. Both President Bush of the Republican Party and President Obama of the Democratic Party wielded fear in their campaigns against terrorism. Party leaders have done the same in England, France, Spain, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other electoral democracies that are actively involved in the War on Terror.

Fear itself is not a threat to democracy. The use of fear to weaken democratic practices is what threatens democracies, according to Stanley’s How Propoganda Works.

So wartime is particularly risky for democracies. War is when security may seem more important than democratic principles. In these times the balancing of security with basic rights, security with equality, security with open debate, and other balancing acts central to liberal democracy can easily collapse. And in The Forever War, as one senior official called it, means that the War on Terror will continue to be a long-term threat to liberal democracy.

The collapse of openness in democracy and the turn towards authoritarian rule is also a long-standing problem for democracies. Some have argued that the struggle between openness and authoritarianism, democracy’s Other, is the central conflict of democratic practices.  Others have argued that the battle of openness to difference against the closure of centralized authoritarianism is the central struggle for democracy for the United States in the twenty-first century.

There are many ways to defend democracy in an age of demagogues. As a long-established problem, much work has been devoted to fighting their deception, their power, and their speech. We can draw on these resources in the U.S. and other sites where democracy is overrun by demagogues. There is much work to do.