Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies

Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies

by Michael Signer

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230606241
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/03/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,207,654
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Signer is Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress and Senior National Security Policy Fellow at the think tank Third Way. He was Senator John Edwards' foreign policy advisor on his presidential campaign. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, and Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and he has been interviewed by The Washington Post, NPR, and MSNBC, among others. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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The Fight to Save Democracy from its Worst Enemies

By Michael Signer

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 Michael Signer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61856-5


Part I

The Cycle of Regimes

Revolutions in democracies are generally caused by the intemperance of demagogues.

—Aristotle, The Politics

* * *


The Federalist Papers literally opened and closed with demagogues. In the first article of this series of eighteenth-century op-eds, written to urge the voters of New York to ratify Congress's recently passed Constitution, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "of those men who have overturned the liberty of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants." In Number 86, Hamilton concluded the Papers by warning against the "military despotism of a victorious demagogue."

These words might just as well have been written in Greek or Latin—which is not to say they were complex but that they literally drew from Athens and Rome. The Framers of the Constitution were all classically educated and literate, if not fluent, in the classical languages. In 1785, two years before the Constitutional Convention, for instance, James Madison wrote his friend Thomas Jefferson, who, as Minister to France, had access to the world's greatest bookstores, to send back "Treatises on the ancient or modern Federal Republics, on the law of nations, and the History, natural and political, of the new world." He specifically requested works "such of the Greek and Roman authors ... where they will be got very cheap, as are worth having, and are not on the common list of school classics." His budget issues aside, Madison received and read hundreds of books that Jefferson sent over the next five years.

Madison and the other Framers read Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, and Cicero, among others. These were dark books with sordid plots andominous endings. Ancient stories of democracy's self-destruction at the hand of demagogues shaped the Founding Fathers' own thoughts. They wanted raw democracy about as much as they wanted another revolution. Elbridge Gerry, for instance, a fiery representative from Massachusetts (and later vice president under President James Madison), thought that allowing ordinary Americans to vote for the president was madness. "A popular election in this case is radically vicious," Gerry lectured his fellow Founding Fathers during the Constitutional Convention. "The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union & acting in Concert to delude them into any appointment." Two months later, he declared that democracy was simply "the worst ... of all political evils."

What was Gerry so worried about? The demagogue. At the time, the nation was still recovering from a revolt of debtor-farmers in western Massachusetts led by a man named Daniel Shays. While Shays' Rebellion in 1786 cost only a handful of lives, it struck terror deep into the hearts of the Founders about whether the ancient cycle of regimes would replay in the modern new nation. Rather than placing trust with the people, Founders like Gerry abandoned hope instead. As the delegates sweltered indoors in the Philadelphia heat, Gerry proclaimed, "The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men."

To understand the concerns that drove the formulation of the American Constitution and that linger in our thoughts even today (though we might not realize it), we need to understand the intimate connection between the most hopeful of political ideas and the most dreaded political villain.

* * *


A few definitions will first be helpful. Let's begin with democracy. At its simplest level, democracy is a political system that grants power based on what large groups of people want. Democracy is unlike an oligarchy, which makes decisions based on what a small group of rich people wants to do, or a monarchy, where only a single person matters. Democracy instead lets the people make decisions. So in a democracy, whoever controls the people, or the authorized representative of the people, has great power. That power can lead to a wide range of actions, from justice to massacres.

There is spirited discussion among experts about how to define democracy, which has only become more complicated over the centuries since its invention. Today we see electoral democracies, liberal democracies, illiberal democracies, quasi-democracies, and incomplete democracies, among others. Electoral democracies are defined simply by the fact that they have elections. However, the basic existence of elections does not tell you much about a country's overall politics, just as a judicial system does not mean a country actually has justice if all it can assemble are sham trials. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was routinely "elected" with more than 90 percent of the vote in Iraq. Liberal democracy is what we familiarly think of in America as "democracy"—its elements include political accountability for everyone with power (meaning the military or royalty do not have a monopoly or some reserved jurisdiction beyond the control of the people), checks among the various branches and institutions of government, freedom of speech, a free flow of information, and judicial review. "Illiberal democracy" is a term made famous by the political scientist and journalist Fareed Zakaria. It describes the backsliding that can occur in formal democracies that substantively are governed by autocracy and, in many cases, demagogues.

The debate about defining democracy is important both to understand how to improve freedom and to dissect the various causes of failed democracies. This book focuses not on democratic institutions or systems, per se, but rather on the relationship of people to individual mass leaders. This connection can channel tremendous power to a demagogue; it's also a means by which the people can recover control of their country. Most fundamentally, however, the connection between leader and people can create tremendous volatility. Democracy suffers from an intrinsic paradox—left to its own devices, freedom, humanity's ultimate ambition, can disintegrate into its opposite: tyranny. It is as if humanity is somehow bent on suicide or even matricide, where the demagogue attacks the very system that gave him birth. The pattern emerged in the first democracy in ancient Athens, as well as in the Roman Republic. In the last century, it reappeared most vividly in the destruction of the democratic Weimar Germany under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. And it has replayed in recent years in Iraq.

At the center of this dynamic is the demagogue. The ancient Greeks first invented the word "demagogue" to describe a new class of mob leaders who quickly evolved to fill a power vacuum left by the demise of a reigning class of elite statesmen. The word meant "leader" (agogos) of the "people" (demos). Then, as now, demagogues can always emerge in a political system that grants power, even if initially a small amount, to those who connect with the people. In empires, by contrast, demagogues are unimaginable, because power depends exclusively on a grant from the emperor or his counselors. In strongly party-based or elite systems, a connection with the people generally will not lead to political power. But a democracy—and any other system with an element of democracy—intrinsically creates an opening for a demagogue.

Aristotle likened the demagogue to a gadfly, an insect that you cannot shake free, that has a bitter sting. In this metaphor, democracy is a beast bedeviled by the maddening pest, who goads and pesters and stings until the animal bolts—stampeding away, trampling everything underneath, perhaps rushing off a cliff. But a better metaphor is perhaps a retrovirus, in which the body's defense mechanisms literally begin rewriting the body's DNA until the body turns on itself. Biologists speak reverently of these viruses as gorgeous things—intricate works of nature that, taken alone, inspire comparisons to abstract art or fine lacework. But when left to run their own path, they turn on their host and destroy it, using the host's own raw material as their weapon of death.

The word demagogue has always fascinated people; in 1649 the poet John Milton called it a "goblin word." The word immediately invokes political villains from a hall of horrors, ranging from epic sociopaths such as Hitler and Mussolini, to a modern "ethnic cleanser" like Slobodan Milosevic, to a rabblerousing bigot like George Wallace. But the word is actually far more precise. In ancient Greek, demos, or the "people," was a specific socioeconomic classification describing a range of lower- to middle-class citizens, generally unsophisticated, who could easily congeal into an angry mob. Their leader, mirroring this group of commoners, exhibited a volatile, even violent character. In short, the demagogue, championed by the people themselves, challenged order.

Today, defining and even recognizing demagogues is made more difficult by the casual, ill-informed usage of the term. There are only a handful of books in English on demagogues, and nothing that deals with them systematically at the conceptual level. The word is often used carelessly in daily language to describe any political leader we think of as manipulative, pernicious, or bigoted. This sloppy usage means that we miss the precise lessons a demagogue can teach about the health of democracy itself.

The best systematic account of demagogues was actually given almost two hundred years ago, in an essay written in 1838 by James Fenimore Cooper called, simply, "On Demagogues." Cooper wrote, "A demagogue, in the strict signification of the word, is a 'leader of the rabble.' ... The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people." As Cooper recognized, true demagogues meet four rules: (1) They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, as 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 their own benefit and ambition; and (4) they threaten or 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.

As these rules suggest, demagogues do not need to reach the extremes of a Hitler to undermine democracy. The political scientist James Ceaser has usefully distinguished between "hard" and "soft" demagogues. "Hard" demagogues actively stir the passions through antagonism and division. "Soft" demagogues, on the other hand, employ flattery, currying favor through impossible promises. In both cases, demagogues connect with large groups of ordinary people. And in either instance, they often earn the reputation of a villain, which they usually deserve. But the hostility in Cooper's words above can obscure how a demagogue actually works. Cooper, like many others, thought that demagogues lie, that they merely "affect" devotion. But this isn't always the case. A demagogue can be sincerely committed to his own causes—as long as they facilitate his own relentless ambition and forge a powerful connection with the common people.

This popularity enables the demagogue to carve out a space that he alone dominates, to undermine legitimate constitutional authority, and, in the most extreme instance, when democracy succumbs to tyranny, to create his own state within the state. This is why the fourth and last rule is the most important, distinguishing demagogues from populists. Populists play by the rules, but demagogues most often bully the rule of law. The point was emphasized by Aristotle, who wrote that the most dangerous form of democracy is the one in which "not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and supersede the law by their decrees.... This is the state of affairs," he concluded, "brought on by demagogues." The rule of law is the sine qua non of a successful democracy; conversely, demagogues break rules of order and, often, order itself.

This point helps explain why the most dangerous kind of demagogue is the one in power. But the rule also helps explain a paradox: demagogues occasionally can have a positive, progressive effect, if the system of law they subvert is intrinsically corrupt. We might refer to the two different kinds as "destructive" and "beneficial" demagogues. Boris Yeltsin, the populist president of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, for instance, was a demagogue with extreme ambition and a powerful connection with the masses. The crumbling Soviet system that he helped subvert was repressive—so this beneficial demagogue was, in the end, a general force for good. The same could be said of the Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, a bearish leader who stirred the masses against a corrupt and brutal system.

A couple of qualifiers are necessary before completing the definition of a demagogue. First, there are inherent subjective hazards to the definitional enterprise. As with any attempt to define political leaders, beauty (or ugliness) will often lie in the eye of the beholder. Many will disagree about whether a demagogue is destructive or beneficial, for instance, because they have personal biases toward the system the demagogue threatens. Second, we shouldn't spend too much energy disputing whether someone "is" or "is not" a demagogue. To borrow the terminology of social scientists, demagogue is a "continuous" rather than a "binary" variable. In other words, the category is a sliding scale. A leader can have different scores on the four rules, meaning he can be more or less of a demagogue and can range from a minor to a major threat to democracy. But it's certainly true that the most extreme demagogues pose the greatest challenges to democracy and to history itself.

By any measure, demagogues rank among history's most fascinating figures. In the last century in America alone, we can count Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Theodore Bilbo, George Wallace, and Joseph McCarthy as demagogues who met the four rules: they fashioned themselves as leaders of the common people, triggered enormous emotional reactions, used these reactions for political benefit, and tested or broke established rules of political conduct. On the fourth element, they each operated differently. Huey Long consolidated power so effectively in Louisiana that he established one-man rule; Coughlin created a massive, millions-strong movement of angry poor and later turned to anti-Semitism; Wallace actively militated against the federal government and against African Americans; and McCarthy blatantly exploited fears of Communists to violate the civil rights of thousands of Americans.

Internationally, the list of demagogues includes Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia, Jörg Haider in Austria, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Charles Taylor in Liberia, Juan Perón in Argentina, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and, of course, Adolf Hitler. Going back in time, we include Georges Danton during the French Revolution, the radical priest Savonarola in Renaissance Florence, and the golden-haired Athenian warrior, Alcibiades. These demagogues all broke boundaries. Their magnetism lay in their recklessness—in the disregard they manifested for the way things were done. This was the secret to their success, and also to their madness and their danger.

Some try but do not succeed. In recent American history, figures like Jimmy Hoffa, Louis Farrakhan, and Pat Buchanan tried to become demagogues, though their political success was limited and they were never really able to test the rules. Hoffa never met the third rule of achieving political success; Farrakhan did not meet either the third or fourth rules; Buchanan failed the second, third, and fourth rules. But they all introduced the same unnerving kind of political dynamic we see even in just the attempt to demagogue.

* * *

Demagogues are a fearsome adversary as old as democracy itself. But they can be stopped. In the ancient world, where democracy was invented, demagogues emerged almost as quickly as freedom itself. After a period of intense struggle, the Athenians discovered a solution to the demagogues. To remember how to defy the demagogue, we need to travel back in time and visit the birthplace not only of democracy, but of its own worst enemy.


Excerpted from Demagogue by Michael Signer. Copyright © 2009 Michael Signer. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Freedom at the Brink
The Founding Fathers' Nightmare
Defining the Demagogue
Democracy's Own Worst Enemy
Cleon of Athens
An Enemy of the People
The Student Rebels
A City Learns
George W. Bush: Demagogue?
Watering the Tree of Liberty
A Peculiar Institution
'King Mob'
The Reign of Terror
The Demagogue and the Devil
America's Achilles Heel
Americans Fight Back
A Red-Baiter and an American Caesar
Ignoring Iraqis
The Cycle Begins Again
A Philosopher-King?
The Neoconservative Père et Fils
Democratic Dominion
The End of Complicity
Seduction and Resolution
The Errors of the Past
Moving Forward
Theory and Practice
From Hubris to Strength

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