Where Demagoguery Can Lead You

Earlier this morning, I led my high school students through a discussion of Waiting for Godot. The students will be making a film trailer for their version of the play (we won’t actually perform the play; just make a trailer for it), so I showed them a bunch of YouTube clips of  various performances and commercials for performances. I also wanted them to see how Godot has influenced playwriting and scriptwriting throughout the 20th century, in case they want to do a trailer for a more creative interpretation of the play.

One of the influences we discussed was Beckett’s use of language, the way he sets the language free, allowing it to take command of his characters rather than the other way around (see Lucky’s monologue for the prime example of this). To get to this point, I showed the students a clip from the BBC sketch show, A Bit from Fry and Laurie, where Fry and Laurie, in a very funny way, discuss this very thing.

In the sketch, Stephen Fry makes a hilarious yet intelligent argument about various elements of the English language, and wonders whether English would even allow such a thing as demagoguery. Fry imagines that, had Hitler been speaking in English to an English audience, the people wouldn’t have been riled up by his words, but rather would have laughed at them. This led me to ask the students if they knew what demagoguery is, which then led to me asking whether they’d ever seen Hitler speak.

And it turns out they hadn’t. So off we went again to YouTube, where we found a Hitler speech that included English subtitles.

Anyway, during the speech, which seems to be a kind of coming out party for the Nazis, Hitler talks about when it was difficult to be a National Socialist in Germany. But he says, even then, “when our Party consisted of only seven members, it already had two principles. First, it would be a party with a true ideology. And second, it would be, uncompromisingly, the one and only power in Germany.”

Okay, so we watch that and move on as a class to talk about the ideas for the trailer.

But here’s the thing. Just a few minutes ago, during a quick break, I checked the front page of the NY Times, and what did I see? An article about the Tea Party candidate who just defeated Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in a primary challenge. The blurb of the article reads, “Richard Mourdock, who defeated Senator Richard G. Lugar in Indiana’s primary, rides motorcycles, runs marathons and believes only one party can prevail.”

Now, I don’t want to say that Republicans (or Tea Partiers) are Nazis. That would be a ridiculous statement used by ridiculous people to make ridiculous points in a political argument. But it is telling that Hitler’s principles above — a party with a true ideology and a uncompromising dedication to becoming the one and only power in the country — are more transferable to the Republican party than to the Democrats. It’s easy to imagine Republicans (or Tea Partiers) coalescing around a demagogic leader who brooks no compromises and rallies the faithful to the “fixed pole” of an ideology. It’s less easy to imagine a Democrat who draws a line in the sand.

The question, of course, is whether President Obama should be categorized as a demagogue. I suggest that he should not. He is a gifted and inspiring speaker, that much is true, but demagogues appeal to prejudices and fears, whereas President Obama appeals to hopes and dreams.

I think it can be safely said that the Republicans run on a fear-based platform that appeals to Americans’ xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and ignorance. I’m not suggesting the Democrats are a heck of a lot better — after all, Democrats seem to be demonizing successful entrepreneurs, as well as some of those who are bound by religious/moral precepts — but generally speaking, the Republican platform has a lot more enemies in it than does the Democrats’.

Some examples from Governor Romney’s website:

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan: “We are not safe from enemies who plot freely against us from the other side of the world”
  • China and East Asia: “If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia”
  • Iran: “The result [of Iran improving its ballistic missiles] will be a nightmarish cascade of nuclear tensions in the world’s most volatile region. Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism would take on a new and terrifying dimension.”
  • Latin America: “Decades of remarkable progress in Latin America toward security, democracy, and increased economic ties with America are currently under threat.
  • Energy: “…for every ‘green’ job created there are actually more jobs destroyed.”
  • Healthcare: “[Obamacare] will make America a less attractive place to practice medicine, discourage innovators from investing in life-saving technology, and restrict consumer choice.”
  • Immigration: “A porous border allows illegal immigrants to enter the United States, violent cartel members and terrorists possibly among them.”
  • Labor: “Unions drive up costs and introduce rigidities that harm competitiveness and frustrate innovation.”
  • Regulation: “Regulations…drive up costs, hinder investment, and destroy jobs.”

If we compare that to Pres. Obama’s policies, we find that:

  • his economic policies, while addressing “too big to fail” and abusive financial practices, don’t have a real enemy
  • his education policies speak to an expansion of education (more grants, easier loans, protections from high interest, etc.)
  • his energy policy, which is an “all of the above strategy,” tries to strike a balance between environmental protections and energy production
  • he has a whole page dedicated to “equality,” where Romney has a page dedicated to “values”; the former looks at ways the president has expanded opportunity, while the latter focuses on the governor’s desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, stop stem-cell research, and “protect” marriage
  • the President’s healthcare policies also talk more about expansion than protection
  • his national security policies reduce our number of enemies to one (Al Qaeda) rather than expanding the list to include China, Russia, Iran, and parts of Latin America
  • his tax policies do go after millionaires and billionaires, but his wording attacks the tax code (and hence, the legislators who created the tax code) more than it does the people who benefit from the tax code
  • his policies on women’s health continues the argument of expanding opportunity
  • at no point does the President attack or demonize anyone or anything, not even the Republicans

Again, to bring it back to demagoguery, I’m not saying Governor Romney and his fellow Republicans are Nazis. I’m just saying that, after watching Hitler speak this morning and then seeing a NY Times article about a Tea Party candidate who won a Republican primary, I immediately saw how the Fürher’s words resonate in today’s political climate.