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The New Demagogues

Op-Ed, Washington Post

December 3, 2006

 

"We are confronting the devil -- and we will hit a home run off the devil!"

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was at it again last week, demonizing his archenemy in front of throngs of loyal supporters in downtown Caracas. Forget his opponent in today's presidential elections -- that's not the "devil" he has in mind. Instead, following the example of another great Latin American demagogue, Fidel Castro, Chávez directs his rhetorical fire against the United States and President Bush.

The world over, demagogues are back, yelling their slogans and thumping their tubs.

In Latin America, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador have joined Chávez in heaping opprobrium on the diabolical gringo imperialists. In the Middle East, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah denounce the demonic Yankee crusaders and their Zionist confederates with equal fervor. Others have different targets, but their language is no less inflammatory. In Germany, Udo Pastoers of the xenophobic National Democratic Party won a regional election after calling Europe "a cultural space for white people." In South Africa, former deputy president Jacob Zuma belts out "Mshini Wami," an anti-apartheid anthem that includes the line, "Bring me my machine gun."

Their rhetoric may seem overblown, but no one should underestimate the threat these new demagogues pose -- especially to the United States. Irrelevant in Latin America, impotent in the Middle East, ignored in Africa and isolated in Europe, Washington may be facing its biggest foreign policy crisis since the late 1970s, when the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rocked Jimmy Carter's presidency. And this new generation of rabble-rousers is seizing the moment. The more unpopular the United States becomes, the easier it is for them to win votes by bad-mouthing Uncle Sam.

We have been here before, and it wasn't pretty. When an elected president expresses skepticism about the Holocaust and threatens to wipe the state of Israel from the map, it is not hyperbole to draw comparisons with that most disastrous of demagogues, Adolf Hitler. Like Hitler, Ahmadinejad knows that anti-Semitism is one of the aces in the demagogue's deck, a tried-and-true means of inspiring hatred and suspicion of others -- and of staying in power himself. Hitler also frequently expressed his contempt for the United States, which he dismissed as "a decayed country," racially and culturally inferior to Germany -- and, of course, ruled by Jews. Read Ahmadinejad's latest letter to "the American people," released last week, for a reprise of that theme.

And today, the conditions for truly dangerous demagogues to emerge are almost ideal.

The classic breeding grounds for demagogy are war and revolution. It is no coincidence that Ahmadinejad is a veteran of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the war between Iran and Iraq. In a new mood of "realism," the United States would now like Iran to help prevent its neighbor Iraq from collapsing into civil war. Fat chance. Ahmadinejad is bidding for Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The last thing he needs is to be seen bailing out the Great Satan.

Severe economic volatility can also create a popular appetite for rousing rhetoric. It is significant that economic growth has been so much more variable in Latin America and the Middle East over the past 20 years than it has been in the United States. When people are buffeted by wild fluctuations in income, prices and job security, they are more likely to lose confidence in the political status quo and to heed the words of messianic leaders such as Chávez and Morales.

Also relevant is the level of average income. Today, per capita incomes in poorer Latin American countries and most of the Middle East are similar to those of Central Europe between the wars. (That's important, because studies suggest that a democracy's chances of survival are much higher when per capita income is above $6,000.) Illiteracy rates are probably higher than they were in Central Europe. Urbanization rates certainly are. It's an ideal environment for demagogy: masses of people, stuck between the grinding poverty of agrarian societies and the affluence of today's richest countries, living in crowded cities with lousy schools. In such settings, the center seldom holds for long. Soon the maverick speechmaker is strutting in presidential regalia.

That helps explain why so many demagogues swept to power in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1920s and '30s. Hitler was only one of a host of dictators who combined fiery rhetoric with colored shirts, shiny boots -- and an utter disregard for civil liberties, especially those of ethnic minorities. And that's the critical point.

History's lesson is that personal freedom is all too often the demagogue's first victim, especially when popular sentiment is whipped up against some internal or foreign enemy.

The ancient Greek word "demagogos" means simply a spokesman for the people or, more pejoratively, a leader of the mob. Modern usage implies rhetorical gifts and the ability to arouse an audience, usually with the promise of radical measures. It is to the baser impulses of the public that a demagogue usually appeals -- hence the tendency to identify and denounce enemies of the people.

Demagogy is as old as democracy, but not all democracies produce demagogues. The best known of the ancient Greek demagogues was Alcibiades, who sold his fellow Athenians the (bad) idea of conquering Sicily. The Roman Republic produced Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose devastating Philippics sought to thwart the ambitions of Julius Caesar's friend and Cleopatra's lover Mark Antony. (Cicero called Antony a "madman" who wanted a "bloodbath" in Rome.)

The term took on a new significance in the 17th century. If the English Civil War had its demagogue, it was the Puritan parliamentarian John Pym, Charles I's most vehement critic in the House of Commons -- though it was the plainspoken man of action Oliver Cromwell who emerged as dictator.

Not all revolutions produce demagogues. The American Revolution owed more to lawyerly draftsmen and amateur soldiers than to masters of rhetoric. In France, though, intemperate speechifying was the essence of the revolution. Demagogues such as Georges Danton -- nicknamed "Jove the thunderer" and one of the leaders of the Reign of Terror -- gave firebrand oratory a bad name for the better part of a century.

From the 1880s on, the widening of franchises to include poorer, less educated voters combined with a major economic slowdown to produce a new kind of demagogue: not so much a warmonger or a revolutionary as a vote-winner. The defining moment was William Ewart Gladstone's 1878 Midlothian campaign, when the British Liberal leader made a series of inspirational stump speeches aimed not just at local voters but at the nation.

But as the boom years of the industrial age gave way to deflation and depression, demagogues turned against liberalism. On the left and right alike, from socialists to anti-Semites, radical politicians discovered that the best way to mobilize new voters was to blame economic volatility on enemies of the people. In Austria, the anti-Semite Karl Lueger blamed the troubles of the Viennese petty bourgeoisie after the stock market crash of 1873 on the city's supposedly all-powerful Jews. In Russia, radical socialists such as Leon Trotsky fulminated with equal vehemence against czarism and capitalism. In every case, the demagogue pointed an accusatory finger, blaming this or that group for the sufferings of the masses. Success meant power for the demagogue, and persecution for his targets.

Small wonder, then, that the years between World Wars I and II proved to be the zenith of demagogic politics. After 1914, the world was swept first by war, then by revolutions and finally by the worst depression in economic history. Hitler was of course the arch-demagogue, a hate-filled monster and false Messiah who promised the German people redemption after years of humiliation. But in Italy, Benito Mussolini also strutted and stormed; Oswald Mosley, the renegade socialist who founded the British Union of Fascists, tried the same tricks in England. Central Europe resounded to the diatribes of a horde of similar rabble-rousers. In Poland, National Democrat leader Roman Dmowski prophesied an "international pogrom of the Jews." In Romania, the founder of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, Corneliu Codreanu, pledged to "destroy the Jews before they can destroy us." Hitler was very far from the only demagogue in the 1930s to scapegoat the Jews. When he took Europe to war, he found willing collaborators all over the continent.

The good news about demagogues is that they often find it harder to deliver on election pledges than to deliver election speeches. In September, Morales's deputy, Vice President Álvaro García Linera, called on Bolivia's indigenous people to defend Morales's government "with your chest, with your hand, with your Mauser" in response to opposition in the eastern city of Santa Cruz. Such language belies the reality that the Morales government has been forced to modify its plan to nationalize the country's energy sector (though last week it did succeed in pushing through a radical land reform bill). Economic instability and backwardness may bring demagogues to power. But they also constrain them once they get there.

Still, the fact that Chavez and Ahmadinejad sit on top of 6 percent and 11 percent of proven global oil reserves must give us pause. Perhaps the greatest strategic weakness of the interwar demagogues was their lack of fuel. That, indeed, was one of their motives for conquering what Hitler called "living space" from neighboring countries.

Today's demagogues, by contrast, rule oil-rich countries. This may reduce their need to acquire territory. But with oil prices stuck above $60 a barrel, it also guarantees them large payments from oil-importing countries such as the United States and gives them the means to back up their words with action. And you don't need to know a lot of history to know that hot air plus petroleum is a potentially explosive combination.

Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard, is author of "The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West" (Penguin).

 

 

 

 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Ferguson, Niall. "The New Demagogues." Washington Post, December 3, 2006.

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