Jason Stanley on Demagoguery in American Politics

In yesterday’s post I discussed the important and timely work of the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley How Propaganda Works.

Stanley also touched on a connected problem in his recent New York Times piece “Democracy and the Demagogue.” In it Stanley wonders why the old rules of at least appearing to be civil in political discussions no longer apply. For example, racists politicians used to disguise their racism with phrases like “welfare queen,” “young buck” or “welfare recipient.” But now we’ve seen racist language in the mainstream and candidates for the American presidency are being rewarded for it. Liberal democratic rhetoric no longer unites but divides citizens; it is explicitly undemocratic.  Given that there once was a facade of equal respect governing political language, Stanley wants to know: 1) what changed the situation, and 2) what risks are involved for democracy given this change?

Theoretically, in a representative democracy, “An election campaign is supposed to present candidates seeking to show that they have the common interests of all citizens at heart.” But this has been undermined by two factors: 1) candidates must raise huge sums of money so they must represent the interests of these huge donors; and 2) they must appeal to “voters do not share democratic values … voters are simply more attracted to a system that favors their own particular religion, race, gender or birth position.”

Another factor is a media culture that encourages “extreme distrust in the political class. That a majority of Republicans think the President is a Muslim underscores its profound effects.” All of this leads to insincere politics and people begin to crave demagogues. Candidates could respond to the widespread disgust to real or imagined hypocrisy by presenting themselves “as champions of democratic values.” But this doesn’t appeal to voters who have rejected those values. A better strategy for winning is

by standing for division and conflict without apology. Such a candidate might openly side with Christians over Muslims or atheists, or native-born Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks, or the rich over the poor. In short, one could signal honesty by openly and explicitly rejecting what are presumed to be sacrosanct political values.

The desire for politicians who are sincere explains the appeal of politicians who won’t compromise. But democracy is about compromise, “It requires giving equal weight to values that one does not share. But too often, commitment to this principle appears weak—a failure to stand by one’s principles.” Voters concerned with authenticity forget:

that commitment to the common interest is a strength, not a weakness. Such a commitment requires more strength, not less, than commitment to almost any other value one can imagine (including for example the values of one’s particular religion). It is much easier to declare that one’s own interests are all that matters. Giving equal weight to a very different perspective requires considerably more strength than simply ignoring it.

While “compromise is a natural expression of a commitment to equal respect” what we see in American politics today “is a yearning for politicians who reject commitment to the democratic value of equal respect,” including paying less attention to “the voices of the wealthy and powerful have far too long been given outsize weight in American politics.” And what are the risks to our democracy given the current state of affairs? Stanley provides a great insight:

Since candidates who reject equal respect win office by explicitly flouting democratic values, there is no reason to think that, once in office, they will suddenly embrace them. There is no reason to think that any democratic value, such as free and fair elections, will be safe from them. We can expect such politicians to engage in undemocratic practices like voter suppression and gerrymandering, all in the service of protecting the perspectives of their voters.

Stanley does not advocate silencing anti-democratic speech. “We cannot force politicians to commit to protecting democratic values by restricting their democratic freedoms, chief among them the freedom of speech.” But he does worry:

… that a “towering despot” will inevitably rise in any democracy to exploit its freedoms and seize power by fomenting fear of some group and representing himself as the protector of the people against that fear. It is for this reason that Plato declares democracy the most likely system to end in tyranny … The fragmentation of equal respect is a clear alarm for the United States. We must heed it by categorically rejecting politicians who seek to gain office by exploiting the mistaken belief that democratic values are weaknesses.

I think Professor Stanley is right to worry, and I worry with him. The anti-democratic forces are real. They believe they have a monopoly on truth. Let us hope the fanatics don’t prevail.

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