Policy advisor Signer provides an overview of the larger-than-life villains who undermine democracy, and the safeguards we rely on to defeat them.
The author, who holds senior positions at two liberal think tanks, views the problem of demagoguery as both timeless and immediate. Among the “new cast of cagey, aggressive mass leaders” confronting the United States and attempting to install autocratic governments in their homelands at the beginning of the 21st century, he includes Hugo Chávez, “furiously charismatic” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr. Signer finds their historical forerunner in Cleon of Athens, who argued in the fifth century BCE that “political decisions should be guided by a harsh calculation of self-interest, no matter the human cost or the sacrifice of our ideals.” Fortunately, the author argues, Cleon’s demagoguery “triggered a wave of self-criticism and self-restraint among Athenians that ultimately helped democracy survive; their example echoes today as a powerful but forgotten answer to democracy’s demagogue problem.” Even identifying a demagogue can be slippery, he acknowledges, offering a checklist of four points first promulgated in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1838 essay, “On Demagogues.” They present themselves as men of the common people, exploit that connection viscerally in a way that accentuates their widespread popularity, manipulate it for their own ends and are willing to violate established rules of conduct, even laws. Huey Long represents the quintessential American demagogue, in Signer’s judgment. Contrastingly, George W. Bush cannot be considered a demagogue, because “he was not a man of the common people, and he did not inspire overpowering emotional reactions among them.” The author constructs a muscular narrative to support his definitions and address disturbing questions, though he spends too much time on side issues such as Hannah Arendt’s decades-long attempt to grapple with her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies and what they revealed about the failings of his philosophy.
Makes a forceful case for civic engagement and eternal vigilance.