crossposted from Blue Commonwealth
Revolutions in democracies are generally caused by the intemperance of demagogues
Those words, from Aristotle’s The Politics,, are the epigram at the beginning of the first chapter of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies, an important new book by Michael Signer is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor of Virginia. He has a Ph. D. in Political Science from Cal Berkeley (where George Lakoff was on his dissertation committee). Mike has reworked his dissertation into this book.
To learn more about Mike Signer the candidate, I suggest this Blue Commonwealth front page story My focus is on the book, because I think it is well-written, and something to which those concerned about democracy should pay attention.
Signer reminds us that the word "demagogue" has a heritage from its development by the ancient Greeks, who developed the word to "describe a new class of mob leader who quickly evolved to fill a power vacuum left by the demise of a reigning class of elite statesmen" p. 34). He chooses to use a particular American formulation, created - by of all people- James Fenimore Cooper in an 1838 essay. Cooper felt that true demagogues met four rules:
(1) They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, s opposed to the elites; (2) their politics depends on a powerful, visceral connection with the people that dramatically transcends ordinary political popularity; (3) they manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for the their own benefit and ambition; and (4) they theater our outright break established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law. They can break these rules, institutions and laws internally, by threatening tyranny in their own countries, or externally by attacking other nations or groups or by testing the international rule of law. Either way, they are intrinsically violent. p. 35
Signer wants us to realize that one does not have to rise to the scope of Hitler to be a demagogue, and that there is a distinction from populists, who play by the rules, while demagogues tend to bully the rule of law. He also acknowledges that demagogues can sometimes be beneficial, citing as examples the early efforts of Boris Yeltsin in Russian in helping bring down the Soviet system and of Lech Walesa in overturning communism in Poland (although, as Naomi Klein notes, much of what the Solidarity folks hoped to achieve was undercut by the economic nostrums from Jeffrey Sachs).
Signer warns us against obsessing over who is or is not beneficial or destructive, or even a demagogue, since the term needs to be viewed on a continuum. He offers a long list of people, both American and international, who in his mind qualify as demagogues. He offers detailed examination of demagoguery in ancient Athens in a section called "The Cycle of Regimes." The second section is called "Demagoguery in America" in which he begins by explaining why he does not think George W. Bush qualifies). He starts appropriately with Shays Rebellion and the response to it among the Founding Fathers, in the Constitutional Convention and in their other writings as actions, such as in the creation of the Electoral College and some of Hamilton’s words in The Federalist. He also looks at more contemporary events and thinkers as well. Thus the book will, throughout its various sections, provide a context in which to consider demagoguery and its impact.
And yet, this is not a book of history, even as examining that history is an essential part of its task. Rather, Signer’s concern is something he expresses in his introduction, on page 22:
While many people see these demagogues as self-contained demented or outright evil figures, they are instead a phenomenon endemic democracy itself. Whenever we see a demagogue,therefore, we should see not just another villain but instead another challenge in humanity’s ongoing struggle for a lasting state of liberty. It’s especially essential to understand demagogues because they expose the most central danger to democracy: How much ownership are ordinary people willing to take of their countries, and what happens when they fail? Are they willing to deny the demagogue the power he seeks? And from America’s perspective, are we willing to do what it takes to help protect democracy from the demagogues around the world?
There are implications not only in our domestic policy and governance, but also in the foreign policy we follow.
Signer’s focus is on thinkers, some of whom we consider active political figures, others not. He looks at the work, among other,s of Aristotle, Jefferson, de Tocqueville, Whitman, Plato, Strauss, and - most of all - the woman he calls the heroine of the book, Hannah Arendt, because after she came to the U.S. she was able
to provide profound insights into democracy that help explain the greatness of America’s constitutional accomplishment, and help solve the riddle of how foreign policy can genuinely promote democracy p. 23
Signer sets as his task how ideas and individuals "can help democracy win its fight with its worst enemy" as he writes on p. 22. He argues that political theory can help explain how the world ought to be and how we should behave. And he explains his purpose in writing like this:
A world where superpowers pursue Constitutionalism, and where people adopt anti-authoritarian values within their hearts and their governments is a world that will defy demagogues. But that world will need political theory as guidance. This book is an attempt in that direction.
This is a rich book, full of insight. There is too much to quickly summarize. Signer tried to give a sense of the book at a recent book event at Politics & Prose., DC’s preeminent political bookstore and a frequent site for Book TV on CSpan. Let me interweave some of the notes I took at that event with the relevant passages from which Signer either read or to which he referred. Signer sees Plato as being driven by watching what happened to Socrates, and similarly Leo Strauss as being influenced by what he saw in Nazi Germany. He considers the whole book as kind of a revelation of Arendt, a message for liberal progressives, and he makes extensive use of her idea of "natality" - each individual’s ability to cause something to be born. This connects with spontaneity, because - as he writes on p. 193,
Totalitarian demagogues naturally fight natality to the death. "Those who aspire to total domination, " Arendt explained, "must liquidate all spontaneity, such as the mere existence of individuality will always engender, and track it down its most private forms, regardless of how unpolitical and harmless these may seem.:
He sees demagogues, authoritarianism and totalitarianism as markers along a continuum leading in the direction of tyranny. Not all tyrants begin as demagogues, for example, Stalin did not. But someone like Hitler began as one within the "generous opportunities" presented by the Weimar Republican, and did. Arendt lived through the rise of Hitler. And Signer notes on p. 194 that
Arendt’s chief hypothesis was that the long slide from demagogue to authoritarianism to totalitarianism was enabled by individuals’ loss of their own sense of self-reliance and responsibility for society.
Signer views Huey Long as probably the best exemplar of an American demagogue. He fulfilled all four of the rules posited by Cooper. While Signer does not think Long could have won the presidency in 1936 had he not been assassinated, he might well have altered the course of national politics,possibly by - with the assistance of Father Coughlin, Rep. William Lemke, Gerald L. K Smith, and Dr. Frances Townsend, drawing sufficient votes from Roosevelt to elect a Republican administration. That might seem improbably, given than in 1936 Alf Landon only carried two states. But there is no doubt that many Democrats were relieved when Long died. One might also consider how much Long sought dictatorial power, because even as he said he did not believe in dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler, he is quoted as saying
"There is no dictatorship in Louisiana. There is perfect democracy there, and when you have a perfect democracy it is pretty hard to tell it from a dictatorship." p. 120
Signer sees the ultimate defense against the rise of demagogues in constitutionalism as expressed by Hannah Arendt. She had studied - and had an affair - with one of the most important thinkers of the 20th Century, Martin Heidigger, a brilliant man, student of Edmund Husserl, teacher also of Karl Jaspers, and a man who adopted Nazism to advance his career, to his lasting shame and dishonor. Heidigger believed that a philosopher could and should subordinate ideas to political ends, in search of what he deemed the perfect society.
Such a mindset can easily justify authoritarian or even totalitarian rule. Let me quote from p, 191 part of how Signer interprets Arendt’s reaction to the events of Germany under Hitler:
Arendt saw concentration camps as the extreme logical extension of the demagogue’s authoritarian assault on constitutionalism, which, brought to its political extreme, enabled the Nazis’ totalitarianism. She wrote, "The next decisive step in the preparation of living corpses is the murder of the moral person in man. This is done in the main by making martyrdom for the first time in history, impossible. . ." The moral person - the person capable of making individual choices on principle and therefore defining herself by those choices - becomes a victim. Totalitarianism then puts the soul itself to death: "One the moral person has been killed, the one thing that still prevents men from being made into living corpses is the differentiation of the individual, his unique identity." Conversely, the differentiation of the individual is what can prevent totalitarianism.
Arendt, in reflection upon Heidigger’s submission to Hitler, acme to realize a principle that Signer finds in both Greeks like Aristotle and in de Tocqueville’s analysis - that you defeat the demagogue with
a culture of of individual self-reliance. the gift and the radical responsibility of the individual burden of political choice, and the cultivation of a constitutional conscience in the hearts and minds of citizens.
Arendt thus viewed the Constitution as more than a document, as a responsibility for citizens relives each day. It was no so much that it limited power, but that it created new power, in the people, connected to each other. Thus to prevent demagogues we need "a constant state of constitutionalism."
In the book Signer follows his examination of Arendt with a section entitled "Defying the Demagogue" in which he explores his idea of constitutionalism. He intends this not only for us to apply at home,but also in our foreign policy, which he argues would be very different. Without exploring the implications for foreign policy, let us note how he argues in the introduction to this section. He believes our focus in foreign policy should be less on democracy and more on constitutionalism, because by itself democracy is
like a body without a soul. What powers a successful constitutional democracy is a constitutional conscience among the people. Our foreign policy should therefore seek to cultivate constitutionalism among the peoples of the world, as a matter of our national security - rather than just impose democratic structures and institutions upon them. p. 207
Signer sees the idea of Constitutionalism in the work of de Tocqueville in promoting the private self-worth of the individual and that individual’s sense of responsibility for the success of the democracy, and in operating as a force than stands i opposition to those who seek to aggrandize to themselves power, breaking the rules in the process. There are several sentences on p. 210 that put this in somewhat simpler form:
In the end, constitutionalism is about ordinary people doing ordinary things in their ordinary lives to an extraordinary end.
But constitutionalism isn’t about laws, precisely - its about the spirit that underlies those laws.
This has, as Signer pointedly notes, implications for education. Thus he argues that our attempts to spread democracy must include training in basic democratic principles such as equal rights, judicial review, and preeminence of the law so that such values, essential to constitutionalism and democracy, are inculcated as an ethical level among as many people as possible Civic education is essential. Here I would note that much of what Signer writes in terms of our foreign policy is equally applicable at home. When he offers 8 conceptual goals for which he thinks our foreign policy should strive, I made a marginal note "including school students in the U. S.?" when I read this:
In every country, placing the highest priority on an educated people’s own judgment of their own abilities and importance, as against the state and centralized authorities. p. 220
. Our increasing emphasis on standards and tests imposed from the top down seem very contrary to this idea, as would increasing nationalizing of our educational policy, at least as this one classroom teacher of government and civics experiences it.
Signer ends his book with an argument in support of a different kind of American Exceptionalism. He explores the concept in both its positive and negative dimensions, but ultimately rests on one key point - for better or worse, we are the most successful constitutional democracy, and that does make us exceptional. And for all our faults historically and recently, that gives us at least the opportunity, and perhaps the responsibility, to seek to offer that constructively to the rest of the world. It certainly should shape our foreign policy, which might - if applying the ideas about the individuals to those in other nations with whom we interact - lead to less hubris on our part. Signer cites that had we paid attention to what the Grand Ayatollah Sistani had written, we might well have found a more constructive way to move Iraq in a democratic direction.
Michael Signer concluded the reading at Politics & Prose with the final paragraphs of his book, on p. 246. The primary focus is about reshaping our foreign policy, which is important. There are few sentences from the final paragraph that particularly struck me in a wider fashion:
If history teaches us anything, it’s that the demagogue always lies in wait. Given a momentary opportunity, he will take hold and invade the body politic. The demagogue will never let go and will never disappear. Only vigilance among the people will keep him at bay and expand the reign of liberty. America can help save democracy i its eternal struggle with the demagogue.
But for that to happen we will have to reinvigorate the idea of constitutionalism in our own nation, in our politics and government to be sure, but also in our education and our individual lives.
Michael Signer has thought long and deeply about foreign policy as well as about political theory. This book is valuable on both grounds, especially as it applies to America in the 21st Century. I would suggest that its value goes far beyond trying to reshape our foreign policy to best reshape how our nation interacts with the rest of the world. If you accept his framing as being at all accurate, the contents of the book provide an extremely useful lens for viewing why this nation has not been more at risk of demagogues. After all, in recent years we have seen Pat Buchanan attempt to follow such a path, and in previous times we had our own military man, MacArthur, seeking power in a fashion not totally dissimilar to the rise of military demagogues/dictators in nations around the world. Somehow we have never fully succumbed to the temptation of the demagogue, even though we have seen exemplars on smaller scale, especially in the case of Huey Long. The book is useful in understanding that aspect of our history.
I also found the book exceedingly useful in forcing me to think about the processes of civic education and of how we do our politics. In one sense, the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama give some evidence of how the individual responsibility of which Arendt and Signer write can have a positive effect. Signer takes the idea of such individual responsibility seriously. Not only is he now running for Lt. Governor of Virginia, he has been active in a number of political campaigns in recent years, most notably in the successful Congressional campaign of Tom Perriello in VA-05 in 2008. He served as a principal foreign policy advisor to John Edwards. He was involved in things like election integrity efforts. Thus even though the book is derived from his doctoral work in political science, it also reflects the thinking he has done as an active participant both in foreign policy matters and the political process.
Anyone who is interested in rethinking the philosophical basis of how we do foreign policy should read this book. I would suggest that those concerned about civic participation and political life will also find much of use. I certainly did.