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How to Beat the Demagogues

From Sarah Palin putting targets on her enemies to Tea Partiers breaking windows, health care reform has inflamed ugly passions. Mike Signer on how America has overcome militant manias before.

03.27.10 8:58 PM ET

In the last few days following the passage of a new health care system in the United States, Tea Partiers have spit at U.S. Representatives entering the Capitol. They’ve throw bricks through the windows of congressional district offices. On her website, Sarah Palin has put a rifle target on the districts of lawmakers she opposes.

While Americans may flirt with demagogues, they marry the constitutional system.

With unemployment still around 10%, home values falling, and real incomes stagnating, people have been feeling stability slip away for years. The tendency for such insecurity to become anger instead has proven a treasure trove for opportunists—for politicians like Sarah Palin, in votes and speaking fees, and for entertainers like Glenn Beck, in advertising dollars.

In these charged, uncertain times, we’d do well to recall the lessons of the post-Depression 1930s. This was when the Louisiana Senator and Governor Huey Long prowled the national stage, when the charismatic Detroit “radio priest” Father Coughlin assailed FDR’s “communist” methods in favor of religiously-driven economic populism, and when the anti-Semitic reverend Gerald L.K. Smith agitated audiences across the country.

America ultimately emerged stronger than we went in. We directly confronted demagogues like Long, educated ourselves about our constitutional traditions and lawfulness, and tailored reform around action, rather than rhetoric. The 1930s hold several key lessons we should remember today:

1. Ad hominem attacks can backfire. In 1935, Americans around the country walked into soda shops and lunch counters to see the word “Demagogues” on the front page of Newsweek. The week before, General Hugh Johnson, the revered director of FDR’s National Recovery Administration, had lambasted Long as a combination of “Peter the Hermit, Napoleon Bonaparte, Sitting Bull, William Hohenzollern, the Mahdi of the Sudan, Hitler, Lenin, Trotsky, and the Leatherwood God.”

However, Johnson didn’t realize that he had given the canny Louisiana Senator just the opening he needed to achieve national legitimacy. After Johnson’s speech, Long demanded that NBC, which had covered the speech, give him equal time. The network eventually agreed to give Long 45 minutes, free and clear. A stunning 25 million people tuned in. During his speech, Long spent about five minutes calmly dismissing the charges against him, and proceeded rationally to describe and proselytize for his “Share the Wealth” plan. A correspondent wrote that Johnson’s attack had managed to transform the Kingfish ‘from a clown into a real political menace.’” One of FDR’s aides estimated that Long would win six million votes in the 1936 presidential election.

In the end, whether you’re Nancy Pelosi or Keith Olbermann, you need to realize that political outrage is not self-fulfilling; ad hominem attacks against opportunists like Beck and Palin can often backfire, making them both more popular and even more sympathetic.

2. Help educate people about our constitutional traditions. 1935 was also the year that the Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Sinclair Lewis addressed the issue of demagogues. At a blistering pace, Lewis took only a few weeks to pen a novel titled It Can’t Happen Here, a rollicking, terrifying novel that imagines a fascist dictator named Buzz Windrip rising up in the United States, supported by a force of “Militiamen,” similar to Hitler’s Brownshirts.

Lewis’ work was satire, but it was also deeply serious, clearly and thoughtfully aimed at convincing a popular audience to contemplate the constitutional consequences of a demagogue with power. The book was a national best-seller, reaching number five in 1936 (Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was number one). Lewis’ book impressed even Sir Winston Churchill, who said, “Such books render a public service to the English-speaking world. When we see what has happened in Germany, Italy and Russia we cannot neglect their warning.”

The lesson is that the chattering class must translate its concern about stability into forceful, thoughtful, sustained attempts to educate the citizenry about the systemic dangers of demagogues. In 1950, as the world surveyed the wreckage left behind by demagogues like Hitler and Mussolini, a group of social scientists wrote a book titled The Authoritarian Personality. “It seems apparent that any attempt to appraise the chances of a fascist triumph in America must reckon with the potential existing in the character of the people,” they wrote. “[I]t is up to the people to decide whether or not this country goes fascist.” In other words, lawlessness is best defeated by the people themselves.

3. Extreme opportunists usually self-destruct. On Election Day in 1936, Coughlin’s Union Party put up a little-known Republican congressman from North Dakota named William Lemke as its presidential candidate. The candidate imploded, as FDR won with the most lopsided margin in American political history. Yet, Coughlin honestly thought his party could take over the country. When Coughlin heard the results, he sat in his office in Michigan, completely stunned, tears streaming down his cheeks. For him, one expert writes, it was “beyond comprehension.”

The lesson is that while Americans may flirt with demagogues, they marry the constitutional system. So those seeking to turn their opportunism into actual political power should beware their own hubris. Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, even the nativist Lou Dobbs (rumored last year to be looking at a presidential run) may look longingly at actual national power. But they will most likely collapse if they actually seek it and refuse to let go their demagogic ways.

4. Side with the people and show them results. Despite FDR’s incredible electoral successes upon taking office in 1933, Huey Long achieved traction in 1934 and 1935 with economic plans that promised immediate action for an aggrieved, disenfranchised rural majority. After a visit to the U.S., the British novelist H.G. Wells wrote in 1935, “I do not think it is possible to minimize the significance of their voices as an intimation of a widespread discontent and discomfort. . . The actual New Deal has not gone far enough and fast enough for them, and that is what the shouting is about.”

Long took advantage. In his posthumously published My First Days in the White House, he wrote that his economic plans would “give hope and encouragement to the ambitions and aspirations of 125,000,000 more people rather than to excite the greed of fifty-eight.” Long would have limited individual fortunes to $5 million and yearly incomes to $1 million.

FDR entered 1935 in political torpor. Long’s attacks prompted him to move more quickly and effectively to distribute relief through direct job creation, a progressive taxation system, and the “second New Deal.” “I am fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism,” FDR told a friend. “I want to save our system, the capitalistic system; to save it is to give some heed to world thought of today.”

Today’s opportunists are also seizing an opening: broad discontent about the pace and delivery of relief plans, and the perception that programs like the bank bailouts help the elites of “Wall Street” rather than the everyday folks—“Main Street.” Democrats should respond by reassuring angry, unsettled voters that health care and other economic security measures, even if imperfect, are motivated not by an elitist conspiracy to oppress, but a genuine desire to help. They should focus on direct job creation people can see, rather than economic theories they have to believe.

Demagogues have always been a mirror for the people. When democracies turn to lawlessness, it’s because the people abandon constitutionalism for the lowest common denominator. Conversely, when audiences choose the law over vandalism, it’s because the people have decided to protect their country.

The same might be said today. As we digest the recent turmoil, our leaders will need—just as in the 1930s—to educate, work with, and trust the body of the people. Figures like President Obama can emerge stronger than before, leaving melodramatic opportunists like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck where they belong: in the wake of history.

Mike Signer is a Virginia-based lawyer, an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. He is the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (Palgrave Macmillan 2009). In 2009, he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.