January 2017: Demagogues and the Better Angels of Our Nature

January 2017 Inter-Belief Conversation Café

Demagogues and the Better Angels of Our Nature

Monday, January 16, 2017
7 – 9 p.m.
Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)

Since the first demagogues took advantage of the invention of Democracy in ancient Athens, the dictionary has defined them as “leaders who makes use of popular prejudices, false claims, and promises in order to gain power.” Author James Fenimore Cooper identified four fundamental characteristics of the demagogue:

  1. Fashioning oneself as a man or woman of the common people, opposed to the elites.
  2. Politically depending on a visceral connection with the people greatly exceeding ordinary political popularity.
  3. Manipulating this connection and the raging popularity it affords, for personal benefit and ambition.
  4. Threatening or outright breaking established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law.

Cooper was thinking of Andrew Jackson, who graces our $20 bill; but modern candidates also fit the bill. What place do reason and spiritual values have in such politics? And is demagoguery even exclusive to politics — or, as seen in the Scopes Monkey Trial and Father Coughlin’s 1939 anti-semitic radio show, are demagogues a feature of religion as well?

In his first Inaugural, Abe Lincoln addressed Southern demagogues who saw his presidency as an existential threat. Conciliatory, he appealed to “the mystic chords of memory” of shared history, and to “the better angels of our nature.” Rejection led to bloody tragedy; contrary to appearances, we were more polarized in the past. Yet are we again “a house divided against itself” needing our own better angels? Who and what are these “angels” if Lincoln, Trump, and Clinton have all been called “demons?”

It’s tempting to find demagogues solely among those achieving all-time high “Pants on Fire” ratings from Politifact. “Truthiness” has devolved to “Post Truth,” mocking our once-respected adage, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.” But when a politician can defy rules of conduct and speech with impunity, is the problem that we are looking at the wrong problem? Are we more fearful of changes to our value system, and insistent for change in the political system that ignores our fears? Must the messenger saying, “your fears are correct“ and “my changes are mere common sense” have to be perfect, or perhaps the more unconventional the better?

Aren’t our spiritual and/or ethical standards supposed to protect us from demagoguery? Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. opposed demagogic regimes on both religious and moral grounds. They represented and appealed to all we think is best in us. Would we pay the price they did? How many of our better angels will we trade for Supreme Court nominees who will force “correct” social values? How many will we trade to reverse an election outcome, even one swayed by demagoguery? Can a swamp be drained by people who keep their hands clean? Was our nation really headed in the right direction in 2016? If so, why did it then succumb to demagoguery? Or did it? Are we even confident that Donald Trump was the Demagogue-in-Chief of this recent election? Would the solutions of Bernie Sanders, or of Hillary Clinton, have actually worked? Attacking economic elites has been as popular as denouncing illegal immigrants, but have the results been better? Has Obamacare been a success? Did telling the Farmers and Laborers in the DFL to “pipe down and tow the party line” keep them loyal? Haven’t progressive solutions been regulations weighing more and more heavily on small business, and regulatory regimes sending big business offshore?

So who and what represents the better angels and worse demons in the religious and political arenas of our nation, community, hearts, and minds? How do we listen to the better angels of our nature? Do we hear them only through our own preconceptions? How do we get past politics to eternal values? Do we find truth in our religion and ethical code? Do we fear demagogues, or do we just want one demagogue as our own enforcer? Why is the easy answer so appealing, and doing the right thing so hard?

On Monday, January 16 (Martin Luther King Day and Inaugural Week), from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will reasoningly discuss demagoguery versus the conscience that is supposed to guide us. Our non-demagogic agreements of acceptance, open-mindedness, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality should steer us in the right direction. But don’t worry, even demagogues can share the treats!