demagoguery

A Capable Demos

Western_Democracy

The decline of western democracy shown in the domino theory. (Credit: Paraney / Wikimedia Commons)

“In imaginary Demopolis the citizens are capable of governing . . . . But the stunted civic education offered by real modern states may be unequal to the task of producing a capable demos. In the absence of adequate civic education, citizens lack the motivation and the skills necessary to govern themselves . . . . [That lack] fosters unstable perversions of democracy, as opportunistic politicians channel antityrannical sentiment into paranoia and warped nostalgia for a mythic age of national unity and civic virtue.”

Josiah Ober, Demopolis (2017, p. 161)

The illiberal populism of right-wing demagoguery by the likes of Donald Trump is just such a perversion of democracy. It is, as Ober observes (pp. 178-179), an outburst of political polarization that feeds on racial strife and exclusionary nationalism and projects a fierce hostility toward liberalism and liberal values such as tolerance. It is marked by a rhetoric of demonization. Populist despots, Ober insists, “can take power only when citizen self-government is reduced to a simple form of majoritarian tyranny” (p. 180), which can happen in the absence of adequate civic education.

Ober’s formulation of basic democracy is a thought experiment that helps us to envision the minimum conditions for a healthy polity of limited self-governance that provides sufficient security and prosperity without succumbing to tyranny. In addition to adequate security and sufficient welfare, basic democracy promotes political liberty, political equality, and civic dignity, which in turn reinforce and depend on the exercise of interrelated human capacities for sociability, rationality, and communication. (more…)

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The One, the Few, and the Many

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Mr. Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency as a right-wing populist, and with the mindset of a demolitionist,[i] raises a question about the viability of democracy. While it is a mistake to conflate Trump’s demagoguery with democracy, his election to office reveals ambiguities over the meaning of popular governance in US political culture.

Trump has said of the government, “I alone can fix it,” which exhibits a preference for rule by The One. He has appointed a cabinet and undertaken a series of executive orders that reflect the interests and reinforce the power of the economic elite, which demonstrates the rule of The Few. Both tendencies are authoritarian. (more…)

Devilish Lies

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(Credit: U.S. White House)

Lies—big and small, noble or not—are the way of the world, whether we speak of personal, social, and professional relationships or of advertising, media, and politics. Lying is normal—so it seems—yet still disturbing.

When we testify in court, we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is our oath. But as a juror, I find it difficult to determine whether the testifier’s truth telling is stretched, selective, or faked. Truth is not so transparent or objectively known as we’d like to think. Indeed, it is the jury’s job to make a judgment about what is true and what is false.

Among the factors that influence our assessment of a claim to truth, whether in the courtroom, the political arena, or elsewhere, are the credibility of the testifier, the coherence of the story told, common sense, our own experience, and perspective. Seldom, if ever, are we absolutely confident of our judgment, which can leave us feeling uneasy—a little or a lot depending on the circumstances and consequences. (more…)

Populism and the Prospect of Democracy

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Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Time magazine’s feature story, “Trump Goes to War,” observes that “Trump has exposed something real: a populist fury at the decades of bipartisan consensus for a more globalized world.” Trump is the star of “a new brand of populist nationalism.”[i]

Populist fury and populist nationalism are themes common to reporting and editorializing on the notorious presidential campaign of 2016. Most often they signal to readers, on behalf of ruling elites, that democracy (symbolized by the specter of populism) is out of control. In some cases, though, the warning is not so self-serving.

Robert Borosage, a progressive political activist writing for the Nation magazine, asked in early October why the contest was so close: “How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?” His answer: “It’s the populism, stupid.” (more…)

Populist Hatred?

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Caricature of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Credit: DonkeyHotey)

Trumpism is not uncommonly associated with populism as a politics of hate.

Question: How despicable is Donald Trump the presidential candidate?

Answer: He’s a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, an authoritarian . . . and a populist. (more…)