The shocking rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United states has popularised one particular accusation; the charge of demagoguery. During his campaign, Trump did much to spark such a scornful trend; he referred to Mexicans as ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers,’ was exposed for his ‘locker room banter’ involving casually boasting about the sexual assault of women, and also threatened his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with imprisonment. Trump has since discovered no sense of moderation. In a recent press conference, he openly attacked journalists, businesses, and critics in a manner one would only expect of a nascent despot. The popularisation of the term ‘demagogue’ is a symptom of a deeper problem which democrats have feared for over two millennia; that the greatest threat to democracy comes from the citizens themselves.
What is perhaps most exciting about history is witnessing the vast time over which we have repeated the same follies. Indeed, at this particular moment, it is hard to read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War without a frequent feeling of uneasy familiarity, despite its events taking place some 2400 years ago. In it, the Greek historian Thucydides tells us of one particular farcical event in Athens which took place thanks to an erudite populist General named Cleon. While Athens waged war on Sparta, Athens’ ally Mytilene revolted against the threat of Athenian domination. In anger, the Athenians passed Cleon’s proposal which would punish Mytilene through the murder of all of the city’s adult men and the enslavement of all remaining women and children. As the next day dawned and their anger cooled, the Athenians grew to realise the true barbarity of their decision and promptly decided to reverse it.
Enraged at their inconsistency, Cleon launched into a spiteful tirade, declaring that “we should realise that a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered, that lack of learning combined with sound common sense is more helpful than cleverness that gets out of hand, and that as a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals.” Today, Cleon might earn a place in the British Cabinet, or even be elected President of the United States, with such sentiment. Instead, Cleon has become an inglorious and timeless symbol of demagoguery who would lose his life thanks to the war he supported so strongly.
It is Diodotus who gave the response to Cleon’s claims, arguing that “haste and anger are… the two greatest obstacles to wise counsel – haste, that usually goes with folly, anger, that is the mark of primitive and narrow minds.” Diodotus continues with a criticism of the tone of Athenian public debate, “what we do here [in Athens] is… if a man gives the best possible advice but is under the slightest suspicion of being influenced by his own private profit, we are so embittered by the idea of this profit of his, that we do not allow the state to receive the certain benefit of his good advice. So a state of affairs has been reached where a good proposal honestly put forward is just as suspect as something thoroughly bad, and the result is that just as the speaker who advocates some monstrous measure has to win over the people by deceiving them, so also a man with good advice has to tell lies if he expects to be believed.” Two millennia later we have not learned those lessons preached by Diodotus. Haste and anger appear like virtues in our current political climate, experts with any link to EU funding or Wall Street banks are written off as corrupt no matter how valid their arguments may be.
Haste, anger, and ignorance have sustained the spectre of demagoguery for millennia. It would be this fear which in which critics of democracy would build many of their arguments. The delightfully named ‘Old Oligarch,’ for example, thought that only those properly educated in government and virtue should be suitable to rule. The masses were seen to have little such understanding of the intricacies of statecraft. At its worst, democracy threatened to impose injustice through ignorance, folly through haste, and barbarity through anger. It has since been each citizen’s responsibility to prove this case wrong.
It was the demagogue who would exploit ignorance and anger in pursuit of their own desires for glory, or their own visions of utopia. This hanging threat would be spotted by scholars from Montesquieu to Machiavelli, but their means would be most eloquently put by H. L. Mencken, noting that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Erudite rabble-rousers such as Cleon embody this ever-present threat that plausible lies often sound more appealing than the boring nuances of those with genuine expertise.
This forms a substantial element of the nightmarish scenario we are presently witnessing across the world. Donald Trump managed to become the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy in true Cleonic fashion; utilising personal attacks, nonsensical emotional appeals to making America ‘great again,’ and through nonchalantly advocating the use of barbaric violence against innocents. Similarly, following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, similar indictments are put to many of those who led the ‘Leave’ campaign. Blatantly false claims, from the monetary cost of EU membership to the impending threat of millions of Turkish immigrants coming to Britain, were amplified by a general feeling of resentment towards the Remain campaign’s ‘fearmongering,’ elitism, and association to EU funds. Subsequently, any notion of overturning the referendum result has been derided as anti-democratic, no matter how unsavoury the economic consequences of the decision of the 52% might turn out to be. The case for any second referendum has been chastised through Cleon’s logic that it is better to be consistent in sticking to bad decisions than inconsistent through changing them for good ones.
What weakens these accusations of demagoguery is when it is deployed as a mere insult. Used lazily, the term becomes a means to write off our opponents’ arguments as stupid and lacking in any intellectual honesty. It is an approach which does not follow Diodotus’ ideal that the good citizen should “prove his case in fair argument,” rather than through smearing. To use the term ‘demagogue’ as a mere insult is to imbue it with hypocrisy. The troubling fact is that demagogues thrive on the resentment caused by injustice. By writing off such concerns because of their spokespeople, we further entrench the demagogue’s power and appeal.
What should draw our scorn when we talk of demagogues is their means, not necessarily their causes, so it is best to be clear on what these means are. The first is in a reliance on common sense, otherwise known as instinct, and emotional appeal as the basis of argument, where supporters are asked to “believe” in plans rather than agree with them. Next is the abandonment of rational argument and debate in place of smear. Trump and Farage find it much easier to deride opponents rather than actually engage with their ideas. They rely heavily on our distaste for ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ or ‘Wall Street bankers,’ so we distrust their opponents rather than trust them. The third practice is to choose their views first and find evidence later. Demagogues frequently use any argument, no matter how contradictory or inconsistent it is, to back up their pre-determined biases. It is in this manner that foreign workers can simultaneously steal your job and also sit on unemployment benefits. Lastly, so to realise their plans, they rely on their supporters to view compromise and respect for their fellow citizens’ right to dissent as an obstacle to achieving the ideal society. This results in politics becoming a tragic mess where one mob side-lines, belittles, and oppresses the other.
Our present woes will not be solved through adopting the practices of demagoguery. Instead, it is the responsibility of citizens who believe in democracy and justice to ‘prove their case in fair argument,’ rather than to satisfy themselves with puerile appeals to emotional instinct. Leaders should not be afraid to honestly confront difficult truths, for example, the fact that immigration is good for the economy and that inequality can be solved through other means than the blunt bludgeon of protectionism and border walls. In facing demagoguery, democratic citizens cannot fear intimidation and belittlement in pursuit of a just and prosperous future for their countries. We must remind others that patriots believe in what’s best for their country, even if they do not agree on what exactly that entails. In the end, it was the calm realisation of their decision’s consequences which overturned the Mytilean vote. One can only hope that in 2017, our fellow citizens will take a similar path.