15 June, 2009Issue 9.8Politics & Society

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The Right Side of History?

Robert Nelson

toibinMichael Signer
Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from its Worst Enemies
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
272 Pages
ISBN 978-0230606241

Champions of democracy have long been haunted by the spectre of a demagogue lying in wait. Fear of this nemesis has produced some creative solutions. The ancient Athenians, after enduring the rise and fall of the brutal demagogue Cleon, resolved to end the prospect of tyranny once and for all. Citizens were required to take an oath:

I shall kill by word and deed, by vote and with my own hand, if I can, anyone who subverts the democracy of Athens…and whoever tries to become a tyrant or helps to install one. And if anyone else kills such a person I will regard him as blameless before the gods and demons as having killed an enemy of the Athenian people.

A bold effort—but there must be a better way. Yet attempts at democracy have repeatedly fallen victim to those men who, as Alexander Hamilton lamented, “have overturned the liberty of republics…commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

The Greek historian Polybius explained that democracy can disintegrate into tyranny just as rust dissolves metal—through internal, organic decay. Demagogues destroy democracy from within through skillful deception: by fashioning themselves as leaders of the people, their charisma propels them to political power, only to use the levers of government to establish autocratic rule. Disguised as mere populists, by the time their true ambitions are revealed, it’s too late.

Polybius believed continual struggle was inevitable—history overwhelmed those who dared to defy its eternal logic. Societies followed a “cycle of constitutional regimes” in which government by the people alternated with “government of violence and the strong hand”. In that cycle, demagogues turned the wheel. But Michael Signer believes the wheel can be slowed—and, ultimately, stopped. In other words, the demagogue may be doomed. For Signer, the endgame of history (and, therefore, a central goal of American foreign policy) must be to accelerate “the ultimate resolution of the cycle of regimes”.

Signer’s book charts the course of demagoguery through portraits of villains and heroes—tyrants, both powerful and petty, and the political philosophers who struggled to out-think them. He’s most interested in how the world’s oldest democracy has fared, starting in 1786, when farmer-demagogue Daniel Shays led a 9,000-strong militia in an insurgency against New England elites. The uprising prompted George Washington to wonder whether founding a republic rested on “too good an opinion of human nature”. But in the end, the insurrectionists were apprehended in time for the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

Other potential American demagogues also turned out to be false alarms. For example, populist military hero Andrew Jackson’s rise to the presidency in 1828 led Senator Henry Clay to predict his country would “march in the fatal road which has conducted every other republic to ruin.” A century later, when Governor (and later Senator) Huey Long turned Louisiana into a state of virtual one-man rule, directly commanding the state militia and even instituting martial law, his own brother likened him to the infamous Roman emperor Nero. Newsweek featured Long in a cover story titled “Demagogues”. Long’s bid to unseat Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 election was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Without endorsing the murder, Signer tempts us to see it as a re-enactment of the Athenian oath.

What accounts for the durability of American democracy in the face of demagoguery? Signer points to the strong “constitutional conscience” of the American people—a “conscience” distinct from the Constitution itself. As political scientist Robert Dahl has explained:

To assume that this country has remained a democracy because of its Constitution seems to me an obvious reversal of the relation; it is much more plausible to suppose that the Constitution has remained because our society is essentially democratic.

Dahl and Signer are describing a society in which people “adopt anti-authoritarian values within their hearts”, infusing both their culture and their government. Individuals can exercise those values by “taking responsibility” for their democracy and “short-circuiting” demagogues on the rise.

Signer draws on a rich intellectual tradition to develop this argument. Jefferson thought republicanism was found “in the spirit of the people”. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that democracy depended on “the whole moral and intellectual state of a people”. Hannah Arendt argued that a democratic constitution rested on the political culture of citizens committed to fulfilling their civic responsibilities.

However, the very strength and vitality of the constitutional conscience in America (and in other established democracies) can lead those raised in that tradition to forget the arduous, gradual struggle required to develop an “anti-authoritarian” culture. “There is nothing harder”, Tocqueville wrote, “than the apprenticeship of freedom.” Signer argues that the United States must devote more attention to cultivating constitutional consciousness when promoting democracy abroad. Insufficient attention to such cultivation proved dangerous in the occupation of Iraq, contributing to the rise of the violent demagogue Muqtada al-Sadr.

Signer calls on the new US administration to resist “democracy fatigue” and “reclaim” the central role that democracy promotion has held in American foreign relations since (and arguably even before) Woodrow Wilson. Instead of democracy “installation” on the Iraq model (he somehow neglects Afghanistan), Signer proposes to undermine demagogues through a new policy of “constitutionalism”. This approach would shift the focus from the often-hollow trappings of elections (which can produce “illiberal democracies”, in Fareed Zakaria’s phrase), to the patient cultivation of democratic values within civil society—more akin to what Signer calls “weeding and tending”.

But as Michael Mandelbaum has noted about many proposals to “promote” democracy, Signer repeatedly relies upon “a particular kind of verb which denotes the earnest intention to act without conveying any particular action.” It’s ultimately unclear how to effectively transmit a “constitutional conscience” from one society to another. His most concrete prescription is to increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization established under Ronald Reagan (and championed by George W. Bush) to help build institutions and support civil society in fledgling democracies. Can history be transcended by budgetary adjustment? We are left only vaguely hopeful.

Signer, a political theorist by training, placed second in the lieutenant governor race in last week’s Virginia Democratic primary. Although Signer was not victorious himself, his approach to democracy promotion is already winning adherents in the Obama administration. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the US Department of State’s policy planning director, has provided Demagogue with a book-jacket endorsement. President Obama seemed to agree with Signer’s aversion to democracy installation in his 4 June speech in Cairo, stating: “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”

Signer has been rightly praised for reminding us that just when we think liberal democracy is on an inevitable march, demagogues can swipe the rug out from beneath its feet. But he actually betrays as much confidence in history’s “ultimate resolution” as Francis Fukuyama did after the Cold War, while offering few new ideas for advancing democracy’s triumph. Arguably, in his belief that democracy will prevail without military might, he is even more confident than the neoconservatives he pillories.

Confidence in democracy promotion may still hold steady in American foreign policy. But it calls for tremendous patience, and in the meantime, the waiting requires what can only be called a measure of faith. However, that is a faith President Obama seems prepared to accept. As he warned today’s tyrants in his inaugural address: “Know that you are on the wrong side of history.” Let’s hope they’re not just on the underside of history’s wheel.

Robert Nelson is an MPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.