By Charles Ballard, President, East Penn School Board
Merriam-Webster defines a demagogue as a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power. The word comes from ancient Greece, where the nature of Athenian Greek politics meant that politicians, in order to secure their political power, often appealed solely to popular interests. Demagogues exploit a fundamental weakness of democracy. People have power in a democracy, but nothing stops people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the emotions, prejudices and ignorance of the less educated people of a population.
These types of leaders do not appeal to reason or rationality. Instead, they appeal to class divisions, or play upon people’s fears to score points. A demagogue also claims to represent all the 'people' in an argument, so that any criticism of him is an attack on the 'people'. In addition, demagogues love to be martyred for their beliefs, and any criticism is martyrdom. Of course, their own attacks on the opposition, do not constitute anything other than ‘fair’ criticism. It is important to realize that the last thing a demagogue wants is honest and open discussion of issues - the main approach of a demagogue is to keep opposition points of view from getting a fair hearing.
Demagogues do not encourage deliberation. People need to think about complicated problems, and take time to do it. They should not be governed by knee-jerk responses fueled by their emotions, feelings, or passions. Because the demagogue bases his approach on over-simplifying the situation, polarizing the community and promoting the other side of the argument as evil or uncaring, anyone who advocates careful consideration of all the facts and draws attention to the logical failures of the demagogues positions, is a threat, obviously of evil intent, according to the demagogue.
Demagogues break everything down into two camps, the one the demagogue represents and evil. There are only two options, everything is black or white, there are only two possible policies, and there are only two sides, good and evil. If you are not on the demagogue’s side, passionately and wholeheartedly, then you are against them. The demagogue attempts to intentionally shut down deliberation and move fast, as GOOD decision-making requires time, considering ALL options, and there are hardly ever just two options for any decision.
What I find particularly striking is that although demagogues are willing to lie to achieve their ends, they always claim for themselves the high moral character and beliefs of a person devoted to 'Truth'. What is even more astounding is that the followers of demagogues accept that characterization, primarily because the demagogue appears 'sincere' and these followers value that over things like intelligence, accuracy, compassion and real leadership skills.
The Founding Fathers writing the Constitution, attempted to minimize demagoguery in our form of government, and did not model our government after the pure democracy of Athens, but rather as a representative democracy modeled on the divided powers of Sparta, Athens chief rival. The House (2-year terms) was to be the body that represented popular opinion and the Senate (6-year terms) was the deliberative body that was supposed to take time to think more about complicated problems. The President was supposed to be the executive, and the Judicial Branch was supposed to balance the Congress and the President with the considered rule of law.
We weren't supposed to have a system of popularity polls deciding each and every matter by the whim of whatever was currently 'popular.' Decisions were only to be made after careful consideration of ALL facts and logic, including popular demands as only one factor. Decisions were supposed to be based on deliberation and the considered rule of law, not men, nor polls, nor demagogues.
What we have now is is a situation with incumbent politicians, or would-be incumbents, as demagogues, trying to get or preserve their state-paid jobs. They are trying to determine what we want to hear by constantly testing the waters to see what is popular, not deciding by their own conscience, deliberation and knowledge, what is right. Heaven forbid they do something that is right but unpopular. They might be voted out of office and lose that cushy state-paid job. No wonder they are only worried about being popular, not doing what is the right thing to do. We, the voters demand they act that way.
If we ever wonder why we can't seem to get good people in government, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we continue to vote for people who only tell us what we want to hear, the demagogues. We have met the enemy of good government, and it is us.
Chuck Ballard is the president of the East Penn School Board. This letter is his personal opinion and does not represent any position of the East Penn School District or Board.