Op-eds and Articles

How to Beat the Demagogues

By / 3.29.2010

The following is an excerpt from Mike Signer’s column published this weekend in the Daily Beast:

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 thrown 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.

With unemployment still around 10 percent, 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.

Read the rest of the article on the Daily Beast.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/savannahgrandfather/ / CC BY 2.0