Of Democracies and Demagogues

The demagogue has ever been the bane of democracies. By definition, democracies rest upon the choices of the people. When wisdom guides, democracies prosper. As history shows, wisdom does not always prevail, and it never does when demagogues do. Since the demagogue seeks his own power by taking power from others, once the people give him their voice they will be hard-pressed to get their power back; the democracy deteriorates into dictatorship, invoked in the name but never the reality of the rights of the people.

Why would a free people yield their power to the tyranny of the demagogue? It is not reasonable to place your own hands and feet in fetters. In every successful democracy there is a balance between reason and emotion. Rather than advise wisdom, demagogues appeal to the basest popular emotions to overcome reason. American Founder, James Madison, drawing lessons from the best known democracy of history, the democracy of Athens, warned Americans of the danger:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
(James Madison, Federalist no. 55, as quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” Cato Policy Report, Vol.XXIII No.2, March/April 2001, p.12)

Madison recognized that in groups fiery emotion can make for a more persuasive pitch than cooler reason can. He recommended the Constitution as a defense against demagogues, a structure of fundamental limitations on government and against those who would seek to govern by preying upon the passions of the people. The formula has worked and the Constitution has held—against many trials, including a Civil War—for more than 200 years.

The typical demagogue is a forceful speaker who seeks power by stirring up the people, whom he sees as masses to be manipulated and managed rather than as a body politic of reasonable individuals. It does not particularly matter which emotions are invoked against reason; the most successful demagogues draw upon a variety. Perhaps the emotion most powerful to the ends of the demagogue is fear, but he will also use hatred, avarice, envy, sorrow, vanity, vengeance, vainglory, among others. He will even try to invoke love, though love is hard to make compatible with the demagogue’s message of contention, but it can be used to garner sympathy and to get people to let down their guard against an appeal to baser emotions.

Are Americans and the American constitutional democracy perpetually proof against the demagoguery that has destroyed democracies before? The Founders did not think so. A popular watch phrase among them was, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. They were referring more to internal dangers than dangers from foreign enemies.

How do we keep watch on the threshold of the 21st Century? Here are ten tests to help unmask the demagogue:

• He gives powerful, emotional speeches, as public speaking is one of his most powerful tools. “Facts” will usually play a minor role in the speech, and when used will often either be half-truths or outright lies, sometimes very big lies with passionate appeal.

• As discussed, emotion rather than reason predominates in his arguments, with fear the most prevalent emotion.

• He conjures up apocalyptic dangers and manipulates crises (and creates them when none are readily available). The sky seems to be always about to fall.

• Riding on the wave of crisis, he will offer sweeping “action plans” that would cede to him major powers and authorities and push aside sources of opposition. “Forward” is the frequent cry shouted to drown out objections, “the debate is over.” (In a real democracy, can the debate ever be “over”?)

• He dishonors the Constitution and violates it without regret; the Constitution and demagoguery are incompatible. Neither can survive while the other prospers, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter formula for her fictional demagogue.

• He accuses others of employing his own despicable tactics. In order to create fog and camouflage, and blunt criticism of his own actions, the demagogue will often claim opponents are lying, fomenting contention, engaging in petty partisanship, and so on, all the while employing those tactics himself. Note that the accusations will usually employ an appeal to sentiment.

• He points to enemies of the people, enemies that his plans will vanquish. These enemies are usually chosen to evoke emotion, such as “big business” to foster fear, “the rich” to stir envy, race or ethnic divisions to feed hate.

• He calls for unity while proposing plans that divide the nation, opponents of his plans being cast as those who would seek to divide a nation that would be unified by agreeing with him. Issues are chosen that find and feed emotional fissures in public opinion. Most effective, the demagogue will propose to take something of value from a group in a minority and “share” it with the group whose favor he seeks, such as targeted taxes or confiscations to provide some popular benefit.

• Following on that point, he develops classes of supporters dependent upon what he promises to give them from the government, benefits that will need his continued care to be sustained. That is what lies at the core of the difficulty in fixing problems with welfare, Medicare, and Social Security, and why the demagogues have a field day when anyone offers reasonable proposals to deal with these very real issues.

• He hates a free and independent press that raises objections of fact and evidence to challenge the emotional appeal, but he loves an obliging press that magnifies his message and drowns out dissident appeals to reason.

It is not hard to recognize demagogues among us today appealing for ascendancy. Democracy in our day demands that we retain our freedom and that we do not yield. More than our freedom is in the balance, but our freedom is in the balance.

(First published August 12, 2012)

Of Dysfunction and Governing the Nation

It seems that no more evidence is needed.  The establishment press, normally loathe to criticize the federal government, has at last become even fond of proclaiming that “Washington is dysfunctional,” although they do so as if announcing something worthy of being “news.”  The Senate has not passed a budget in some four years.  The House of Representatives regularly passes budgets that the Senate will not even consider.  The President—who has no budget-proposing role under the Constitution—proposes budgets that are routinely disregarded while declaring his intent to govern without the Congress.  At the same time, people feel more alienated from their government than ever before, in ever increasing numbers considering the nation headed in the wrong direction, regardless of the party in control of national policy.

In the most recent demonstration of the Washington breakdown, the Congress this year failed to pass the annual appropriations bills before the current ones expired.  Or, better said, the House passed appropriations bills, the Senate demurred, and the President announced that he would veto any appropriations legislation that offered either more or less than what he wanted.

The establishment press, amplifying executive branch efforts to promote panic and stampede the public, announced that “the government would shut down,” and yet 83% stayed open.  Some prominent public operations (that do not require any appropriations to operate) were closed at the President’s bidding, like the Lincoln Memorial and the various veterans and war memorials, but the President seemed to have enough money to travel to various campaign-style rallies to complain about the government shut down.  There was national confusion and consternation.

Perhaps what is news is that there is, at last, general agreement, and the President has helped demonstrate, that the federal government has become dysfunctional, by which we may mean, not doing what it needs to do.  I also notice that this condition has not been getting any better.  In addition to the recent, visible indicators, I would offer some longer-term measures.

Economic growth is depressed and has been declining for decades; employment is also down, with millions leaving the work force.  Government welfare rolls have expanded dramatically, suggesting that a very large portion of the population is either not able to take care of itself or has surrendered its responsibility to do so.  The federal balance sheet approaches ever closer to insolvency.  To avoid being gloomy and doomy, I will not recount dismal education trends, eroding family formation patterns, the precarious condition of national infrastructure, or our worsening international relations (with allies and opponents).

Yet, the federal bureaucracies are far larger, taxes—visible and hidden—are higher, red tape has become ubiquitous, and federal subsidies have fallen behind promises even as they outdistance the ability of the federal government to pay for them.  If government is the solution, then why is more government not making things better?

How could this happen?  Have we as a nation lost our ability to govern ourselves?  Have “partisan politics”—as though something new rather than part of our national intercourse since 1796—frozen the ability to consider, set, and follow national priorities?  Have the problems of modernity exceeded the ability of policymakers to resolve them?

A case could probably be made for each and all of the above explanations.  I think, however, that they are all symptoms of a more fundamental problem, one recognized long ago, at the founding of the nation.

As early as 1787 the Founders recognized that a central government would not work for the United States.  Even with just the original 13 states and 3 million people, the nation was too vast to be governed in detail from one capital.  That is why they created a federal system, under which the few, truly national concerns—such as national defense, trade, international relations, national standards of measures and sanctity of contracts, preservation of freedom and the rule of law, together with the means to fund these activities—would be handled by the national government.  All else was reserved to the States.

Note that I did not say given to the States.  Remember, the States and the people in them created the national government.  The States and the people in them gave to the national government its authority and power.

Today, the United States stretches across a continent and reaches to the isles of the sea, with over 300 million inhabitants.  It is even more impossible than ever to govern from a single capital, by a centralized government.  We all have seen the evidence, in addition to the growing dysfunction of Washington.  Everyday, people all over the nation struggle with rules made by the federal bureaucracies, rules that are often nonsensical where people live and work and play, rules governing the volume of water in our toilets, the content of our children’s food, the gasoline in our cars, the content of our communications, the form of our financial affairs, and many other elements of daily, personal life.  Even worse, they have become too vast and complex to be administered faithfully or complied with loyally. 

We could fault the executive branch bureaucrats who make them or the Congressmen and Senators who write the laws, but these people are no smarter or dumber than the rest of us, and just as well meaning.  They just have an impossible job.  No one can know enough to run so many things from Washington.

Consider the big issues that seem to have Washington all tied up in knots—in turn afflicting all the rest of us.  The new national healthcare systems are breaking down even as they get started.  National rules for farmers have Congress stuck over who should get subsidies and who should not.  National tax plans designed to take from some to give to others divide the people into winners and losers.  Environmental regulations impose costs on some in order to subsidize someone else.  National education programs follow each other in rapid succession, each with a new and high-sounding name, none of which do much to stem the continued decline in education.  And ever present with all of these national rules are unintended consequences that were not and probably could not be foreseen but which crush people’s businesses, destroy jobs, and disrupt lives.

These are all issues that the Founders never intended for the national government, issues that if governments should address at all should be left to State and local governments, where decisions can be made closer to the people who have to live with the results.

We have at hand a better, competent government, or at least its blueprint.  It is found in the structure of our Constitution that created a federal system.  Our Constitution is the recognition that only through a system that keeps governing as local as possible can a great nation exist in union and harmony.

What we are seeing play out before our very eyes is that our nation not only should not be governed by a central authority, but that it cannot be.  The sooner we recognize that and return to the federal plan of the Founders the happier, and the sooner Washington will be able to function as it should for the benefit of all rather than frustration for all.  The task is too big otherwise and doomed to failure.  It will not be a pleasant failure.

Of Fasting and Unity

The practice of the fast, particularly of Fast Sunday, among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a feast of unity. Its chief effect is to reinforce the oneness of the saints. The mechanics of the fast are simple: refrain from food and drink for two consecutive meals, all the while emphasizing prayer and all that directs the heart and mind to God.

First of all, there is a oneness in the voluntary collectivity of the monthly fast. The whole membership of the Church, worldwide, is engaged in the fast together. They are further united in purpose, to bless and provide for the poor and needy while approaching spiritually to God.

The blessing of the poor and needy comes from the donation of the cost of the foregone meals. The entire amount of this donation goes directly to benefit those in need, not a penny used for administrative expenses (administrative costs are borne by the tithing donations of the members). Properly done, there is no cost to the donor, since he is merely offering the financial value of what he would have eaten, and yet there is significant direct and real benefit to the recipients of the donation.

Of even greater significance, though, is that through this fast spirituality increases. I do not refer to a spiritualism of familiar spirits, but rather to a spiritual communion of divinely revealed knowledge through the influence of the Holy Ghost. All observing this fast partake of the same Spirit and are tied together thereby. They increasingly become of one heart and one mind, the heart and mind of Christ. The saints thus know and understand one another. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

This spiritual growth is manifested in a spiritual feast joined in by all in a special Sunday worship service: the Fast and Testimony meeting. Here the saints share with each other spiritual insights and knowledge of the Savior and His work, revealed to them through the Holy Ghost. These testimonies are born of the Spirit of the Lord that unites the membership of Christ’s church. Members give vocal expression to the testimonies obtained by the Spirit, and by that same Spirit these testimonies are received by those who hear. Speaker and listener are both edified and understand one another.

The unifying Spirit, access to which is facilitated by fasting, flows within us, wells up and flows out through the sharing of testimonies–the sharing of spiritual experience–and then is received by that Spirit and continues to flow and to grow within us. Hearts become knit together in mutual testimony of the risen Christ and His mission. This is the communion of the saints.

(First published August 7, 2008)