Monday, December 04, 2006

Gauging demagoguery

British historian Niall Ferguson wrote a revealing and flawed piece about demagoguery for yesterday's Washington Post. As per usual when mainstream commentators talk about this topic, Ferguson seems to mean by "demagogues" "those popular leaders who are enemies of the United States." He names (also as per usual) Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Nasrallah, linking all these political figures together with ominous references to historical nightmares like Hitler. No attempt is made to analyze allies of the U.S. who might rightly be considered demagogues (does the popular, free press-curbing, xenophobic-towards-Georgia Putin not come close to counting?), and he certainly doesn't consider the question of whether America's leaders are "demagogic" in any way. (Yet when this does come up in political debate, the finger is almost always pointed at John Edwards, seemingly because he dares to talk about poor people and inequality. See here, here, here, here, and most recently here. This will be pertinent later.)

There are further problems with Ferguson's argument besides omission, the foremost being that he never sufficiently defines what exactly "demagoguery" is. We are to understand that demagogues (a) "demonize the arch-enemy," (b) "yell slogans," are (c) "messianic," (d) are "maverick speechmakers," and (e) "promise radical measures." In order that we might distinguish demagogues from your everyday politician, I think we should eliminate (a), (b), (c), and (d) since they are either common to all politicos, are vague, or are simply meaningless. (Is Evo Morales really "messianic"? How could we measure this quality?) That leaves us then with (e). And honestly, I think this really is the factor that has historically pinned political leaders with the "demagogue" label. In other words, the accusation of "demagogue" is a pointedly class-based strategy. The catch, of course, is that the ruling elite rarely frames the matter in such explicit terms, but instead appeals to the status quo as the "best for society as a whole." Those who would dare to disturb the political universe by favoring the poor are "factional," "reckless," or "appealing to the baser impulses of the public." (This last formulation is Ferguson's. For "baser impulses," as they have manifested themselves throughout history, we should understand, I suppose, "not starving," "being able to vote," "receiving an education," "freedom to organize," and "living on more than $2 a day." Isn't it just scandalous what the plebs are asking for this week?)

This trend goes back to antiquity, specifically Thucydides, although he rarely uses the term "demagogos" explicitly. The whole matter is actually quite confusing, because there is in the first place a distinction to be made between "popular" leaders and "aristocratic" leaders. In the first camp we might place Cleisthenes, the chief institutor of the Athenian democracy in 508 BCE, Ephialtes, who was assassinated, and Pericles. In the latter camp belong the general Kimon, Thucydides the politician (not the same as the author), and later on the members of the oligarchic coup known as the Thirty Tyrants, Plato's relatives Critias and Charmides among them. However, a second meaning also develops, according to which those popular leaders who "flatter" the demos are the true (pejorative) demagogues. This is Thucydides' portrait of the orator Cleon, and Plato's depiction of just about anyone who is not a philosopher. We can pretty confidently dismiss most of Plato's charges as simple aristocratic bias, but Thucydides complicates things greatly, mostly because he tends to praise one "demagogue," Pericles, while condemning another, Cleon, even though there was probably not much difference between them in policy, only in skill. (This prejudice has plagued Cleon's reputation, and that of almost every popular leader after Pericles, throughout the history of classical scholarship.)

To get back to Ferguson, it's interesting that he should choose Alcibiades as the "best known" Greek demagogue, citing his enthusiasm for the disastrous Sicilian expedition. In fact, Alcibiades' strategy broke with that of Pericles, the quintessential popular leader, who had advised the Athenians before his death not to expand their empire during the Peloponnesian War. In addition, once the expedition was launched, Alcibiades was charged in absentia for the mutilation of the herms, which was seen as an act of symbolic violence by an aristocrat against the demos. So Alcibiades' status as a "demagogue" remains totally unclear. Pericles is the more obvious candidate, but again historical prejudice tends to prevent us from besmirching his record.

In Roman times, there were similarly class-based political distinctions, namely between the optimates (the "best"--the aristocracy) and the populares. Here our historical record is even more tilted in favor of the elite. We are supposed to understand that populares such as the Gracchi brothers were vicious rabble-rousers, when in fact they simply proposed redistributive land measures (there are those "radical measures" again). For this they were murdered. In this instance, Ferguson is just absolutely wrong in describing Cicero as a demagogue. Although Cicero did not come from a patrician family, he was a dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat. He sometimes played the part of the popularis when delivering public speeches, but when push came to shove he strongly favored the elite.

Not only has Ferguson fudged these historical allusions, but he can't even stick to what is apparently his working definition of a demagogue, a leader who favors the poor with "radical measures." For example, his most frightening example, Hitler, was primarily opposed by German Social Democrats and Communists, who are about as "demagogic" as you can get according to a class-based definition. Also, it's ironic that he should peg fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini with the label, but then blatantly ignore Franco, who was supported by the landed elite, the clergy, and all the most reactionary elements of Spanish society. I also see no way in which one can claim both Hitler and Trotsky as demagogues using the same criteria. Right after he mentions Trotsky, Ferguson says, "Success meant power for the demagogue, and persecution for his targets." Trotsky, the perpetual exile, would probably be amused by a portrait that so inaccurately conforms to historical reality.

There are further complications. Ferguson would like to make Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad parallel, but it's difficult to blow off Nasrallah's anti-Israeli rhetoric as mere bloviating since Israel, you know, occupied his country for 18 years. And when the United States is supplying Israel with the weaponry to attack Lebanon, is he supposed to just play nice towards us? This does not excuse the extreme anti-Semitism that flows from Hezbollah, but it does place their opposition in some historical context outside of mere demagoguery.

Ferguson is also unable to talk away the strength of leftist politics, try as he might. Going back to the class-based presumptions about demagoguery, time and time again Ferguson says things like "[poor people] are more likely to lose confidence in the political status quo [read: capitalism]," "personal freedom [read: capitalism] is all too often the demagogue's first victim," and "as the boom years of the industrial age gave way to deflation and depression, demagogues turned against liberalism [read: capitalism]." Fortunately, Ferguson wants to say, the poor tend to return to the fold when their leaders can't live up to their promises: "They often find it harder to deliver on election pledges than to deliver election speeches." However, he then admits that Evo Morales was just last week able to push through a "radical land reform bill." And if leftist/demagogic leaders quickly fall out of favor, then why does Chavez keep getting elected (by landslides) in free and fair elections?

These are just a few of the problems involved in Ferguson's analysis. It's obviously class-based, yet it wants to subsume all morally detestable views under its purview (I guess this is what the Marxists mean when they talk about the material basis of ideology). It very noticeably refuses to turn the knife on itself, in Nietzsche's phrase. And it ultimately explains nothing about very disconnected political movements. Do I think that we have much to be wary of concerning Ahmadinejad? Absolutely. Do I feel the same about Chavez, especially with reference to some tenuous "demagogic" connection between the two? Absolutely not. Chavez might win elections in part because of scapegoating of the United States, but this isn't the only reason for his popularity. Meanwhile, Republicans kept control of the U.S. government for the past five years thanks to fearful gesturing towards some vague "terrorist" enemy, which it turns out is whomever we happen not to like, in addition to the grossest sort of reactionary attitude towards gays and God. And if populist leftists like Chavez and Morales are "demagogues," then I guess that makes us "plousiogogues," flatterers of the most obscenely wealthy. But of course, a word like "plousiogogue" doesn't exist, because control of society by the wealthy has been so commonplace throughout human history as to be taken for granted.


Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I’m not sure that your critique of Ferguson’s definition of “demagogue” is as sound as you think. In particular, I think your dismissal of “demonize the arch-enemy” as a criterion for demagogic status lacks support. While you would be correct to say that many politicians do this, I think some do it in a way that justifies their being referred to as demagogues. If you look through the list of demagogues that Feguson lists, I think you’ll find that this criterion helps justify his classifications.
You simply can’t say that all politicians demonize an enemy in the way that Hitler, Chavez, and Nasrallah do, or even as Bush does. “Demonizing” is something more than saying that others are your enemy. It is saying that they are your enemy and that they always will be. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush are a few recent presidents I can think of that didn’t demonize their enemies. Willy Brandt, Yitzak Rabin, Boris Yeltzin and Mikhail Gorbachev are some more politicians famous for not demonizing their enemies.
If you define politician as someone who demonizes his enemies, your definition must be very close to that of Carl Schmitt: politics is the realm where the term “Enemy” becomes meaningful. And in fact, I think belief in this doctrine would be a fairly good litmus test for determining if someone is a demagogue. It’s the common element among all of the demagogues to which Ferguson refers.
Furthermore, if we accept this definition, then the need for your class-based deconstruction of the term “demagogue” is eliminated. We can say that all those who persecuted others for political gain were demagogues, which is the definition that makes the most sense to me. Moreover, we can say that these people are dangerous, not for the specific policies they propose, but because they destroy the civil institutions that hold a society together. Look at Chavez: sure, he won an election, but in the process of doing so he used a lot of intimidation and dirty tricks. He has put limits on the free press, linked government employment to political support, and interfered with the campaigning of his opponents. Not all politicians destroy institutions to hurt their opponents and help themselves. It’s this zero-sum view of politics, this hatefulness, which defines a demagogue.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Point taken. The level at which politicians demonize their opponents is a factor. However, I still find Ferguson's piece rife with contradictions. He is at his most convincing when talking about anti-Semites: clearly, any politician elected on an anti-Semitic platform has appealed to the "baser impulses." However, anti-Semites follow through on their rhetoric with equally disgusting policies: namely, the concrete persecution of Jewish people. When leftists like Hugo Chavez get elected however, his demagoguery about Bush has little to do with his domestic policies. Yet Ferguson feels comfortable equating Chavez and Morales' policies with their anti-US sentiment, linking these two different phenomena much in the same way as he links anti-Semitic rhetoric with the persecution of Jewish people. But I don't think that analogy holds up. Latin American leftists like Bachelet, Kirchner, and now Ortega and Correa will presumably also increasingly nationalize industry, at the very least expand the powers of their socialist governments. However, they are not primarily known as Bush bashers. Yet they fit Ferguson's description of having arisen during times of economic instability and bucking the "status quo" (in this case US-approved liberal economics). Aren't they then basically using the same tactic of promising "radical measures"? Aren't they passing or going to pass "radical land reform bills" along Morales-like lines?

That's why I think Ferguson's reasoning is confused. He may be right that Chavez is a demagogue, but Chavez's domestic policies don't follow from his demagoguery in the same way that anti-Semites' actions do. But I think that Ferguson is either wittingly or unwittingly conflating demonization and leftist-brand politics. And I think that this is a typical historical trend in the use of the word "demagogue," as I have outlined above. And I maintain that it's just too convenient that for a conservative like Ferguson, demagogues can only be leftists and anti-Semites. (As if demonizing Jewish people and criticizing the capitalist system were exactly analogous--that's another question in itself.) Clearly, the anti-immigrant hysteria promoted by Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo is rightist demagoguery, if we take demonization to be the main criterion, as is Falwell and Dobson's persecution of gays. As I mentioned in my original post, the Russian government's attitude towards Georgians is right-wing demagoguery. And obviously, there is a storied history of anti-Communist and leftist demagoguery. And now I am having a philologist's crisis, because I realize that I should have been saying "demagogy" all along. (After all, we say "pedagogy," not "pedagoguery.") So it goes.

2:12 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

Really great thoughts here, Scantron and austin-5000. I don't have much to add. A quick thought on Ferguson: that despite his reputation of being some maverick, wildly revisionist historian, he's the biggest sycophant I know when it comes to telling U.S. elites what they want to hear. In this article, he even goes out of his way to remind everyone just how much the American Revolution kicked the French Revolution's ass. What American doesn't want to hear that.

I agree completely that Ferguson is painting with terrifically broad strokes here. As a historian, meanwhile, he particularly dissapoints in his inability -- as you say Scantron -- to give some sort of context to the rise of these new leaders in very different countries, with very different histories, gripes, needs, etc.

That said, Ferguson is correcst about Chavez. While you're partly right, Scantron, to remark that Chavez has not hurt the U.S. in any concrete way (ie. he's still delivering the oil), I think you're wrong to say that his domestic policies don't reflect his demagogy.
First, I'm not sure exactly what any leader could do DOMESTICALLY to demonstrate anti-Bushism, or whatnot. His foreign policy, though, has certainly reflected this need to associate himself with other anti-American, repressive leaders: Ahmadinejad, Castro, and Lukashenko to name a few. What's more, there's no question that calling the president of the U.S. "The Devil" at the General Assembly is a repulsive and demagogic move. Much of his "Bolivarian" rhetoric is.

Most disturbing, as austin 5-000 points out, is his absolute dismantling of republican institutions. There is no real independent judiciary or press in Venezuela, and there is no doubt that with this latest victory he will push to be named President for Life.

Despite all of this, I think the spirit of Scantron's post is right on. If history continues as most expect it to, thirty years from now we will look back at Chavez and see someone who talked a mean game, abused democratic institutions, and invested a lot of his country's resources into helping the poorest of the poor. Hmmmmmm... sounds a lot better than starting an unnecessary war, causing hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths and tortured victims, and possibly inciting three civil wars.

6:22 AM  

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