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Signer classifies the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr as a demagogue.
Signer classifies the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr as a demagogue.

People power

Books Sasha Polakow-Suransky reads Michael Signer's book on the rise of leaders too popular for democracy's own good.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky reads Michael Signer's book on the rise of leaders too popular for democracy's own good. Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies Michael Signer Palgrave Macmillan Dh99 Before he became world famous for putting forth his theory of a "clash of civilisations", the political scientist Samuel Huntington was known for his work on the processes of democratisation. In his 1991 book The Third Wave, Huntington traced the expansion of democratic freedoms in Europe after the upheavals of 1848 through their demise at the hands of fascist dictators in the 1930s, the post-Second World War wave of democratisation in the Third World that ended in the brutal African and Latin American dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s and, finally, a third wave that reached its height at the end of the Cold War.

In his new book, Michael Signer - a fellow at the Center for American Progress, political scientist, lawyer and current candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia - argues that Huntington's third wave is giving way to a tide of strongmen who take advantage of democratic elections to consolidate their own power. Signer is not alone in worrying that the spread of democracy, if not properly conceived, is potentially dangerous. The Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria's 2003 book, The Future of Freedom, examined the dilemma posed by "illiberal democracies", which go through the motions of holding elections but do not govern by liberal, constitutional principles; the Yale law professor Amy Chua's 2003 book, World on Fire, warned that rapid democratisation in socioeconomically polarised societies could encourage the rise of tyrants who channel popular anger toward economically dominant minority groups, such as whites in Zimbabwe or Bolivia; more recently, the Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond wrote of a "democratic recession". As nascent democracies are cannibalised by corrupt, predatory governments, Diamond argues, they fail to become anything more than states that happen to allow citizens to vote. Signer's book continues in the same vein, but focuses on the peril of instances where a single, popular individual comes to power through democratic means and uses that power to subvert democracy.

Demagogue is, at its core, a meditation on an inherent danger: "As democracy expands," Signer writes, "it increases the potential for its own destruction." Framing his argument around the ancient Greek historian Polybius's cycle of regimes - the notion that monarchy will always descend into tyranny, aristocracy will lead to oligarchy, and that pure democracy will decay into "government of violence and the strong hand" - Signer's book revisits a conundrum that has occupied the great political theorists from Plato, who saw his mentor Socrates sentenced to death by the mob, to Hannah Arendt, who watched as her professor and lover Martin Heidegger was seduced by Nazism.

Signer sets out four criteria that define the demagogue: he is a leader who presents himself as a common man, depends on charisma and a deep emotional connection with the people, exploits his own popularity to satisfy his political ambitions and, finally and most crucially, having achieved power, openly challenges or breaks accepted norms and laws in order to implement his goals. Signer's cast of demagogues ranges from the ancient to the contemporary. It includes the Athenian general Cleon, who used oratory and public appeals to topple the respected but elitist elder statesman Pericles; Hitler, who took advantage of the Weimar Republic's democratic system and widespread popular resentment of the Versailles Treaty to rise to power; and the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who exploited popular outrage at the US occupation, the chaos wrought by the de-Baathification order and Shiites' lust for political power to make himself the leader of a popular insurrection. The world today is full of figures who meet Signer's criteria for demagoguery: Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Hizbollah's Hassan Nasrallah - who leads an organisation that is arguably stronger and more popular than the Lebanese state - are just a few he cites. And there are other potential demagogues lurking, such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, whose heavy-handed populism is raising eyebrows, and Jacob Zuma, almost certain to become South Africa's next president, who some critics fear will take an imperfect liberal democracy and turn it into yet another corrupt African kleptocracy.

Signer looks to the United States as the model of democratic resiliency - a place that has at times flirted with demagoguery without ever succumbing. Among these moments of near unravelling were the election of the rough frontier general-turned-president, Andrew Jackson - during whose inauguration the "unkempt masses" climbed in and out of White House windows - and the rise of the Louisiana governor and senator, Huey Long, who turned his state into a personal fiefdom and intended to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936 but instead fell to an assassin's bullet. George W Bush, whom the anti-war left frequently painted as a power-hungry tyrant trampling the constitution, does not make Signer's list - after all, no matter how hard he tried to distance himself from his blue-blooded roots, he was not a man of the people and never had the oratorical talent or charisma to develop an enthusiastic mass following. Not every populist leader is a demagogue - and not every leader who abridges freedoms and breaks the rules does so in a demagogic manner.

Political scientists specialising in democratic development have been arguing for decades about the necessary conditions for democracy. In the 1960s adherents of "modernisation theory" insisted that economic development was a necessary precondition for democratic government because economic growth begets liberal values; a younger but already influential Huntington focused instead on the necessity of building strong, stable institutions. Recent critics, such as Zakaria and Chua, have warned of the dangers of crash-course democracy, which gives rise to illiberal governments or demagogues who tap into the majority's resentment of market-dominant minority groups - fertile ground for the age-old democratic dilemma Signer so fears.

The leading contemporary scholars of democracy promotion, Thomas Carothers and Larry Diamond, have both recognised that existing democracy-promotion programmes cannot easily change deeper societal problems, such as the values and expectations of citizens. But both Carothers and Diamond reject the notion that a certain set of social norms and values must be in place before democratisation can take root. In a 2007 essay called "The 'Sequencing' Fallacy", Carothers attacked modernisation theorists as well as the likes of Chua and Zakaria for insisting that an efficient state is a precondition for democracy. This, he argues, is an excuse for autocracy, based on the false premise that autocrats will usher in the rule of law and other preconditions for democracy.

More recent proponents of modernisation include Michael Mandelbaum, who argued in his 2007 book Democracy's Good Name that - due to free-market reforms - democracy was continuing to flourish abroad despite failed US efforts to promote it. Owning private property, according to Mandelbaum, itself constitutes a form of liberty and participation in a market economy fosters both trust and compromise - prerequisites for a liberal democratic state. Similarly, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, the authors of Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy, contend that economic development inevitably gives rise to cultural shifts. Whereas their parents were forced to focus on feeding the family, the younger generation in many poor countries is no longer focused on survival. Consequently, they are abandoning traditional and religious value systems, opting instead for a more secular outlook that places a higher premium on individual rights and self-expression.

These individualist values are remarkably similar to what Signer calls a "constitutional conscience", a public attitude towards governance that he sees as the chief safeguard against the rise of demagogues - although he does not argue that markets and economic growth are prerequisites for such an attitude. Channelling de Tocqueville and Arendt, Signer envisions "a living culture of political values among ordinary people" that makes citizens responsible for democracy's success and encourages them to challenge any government abuse of authority. Without these values to nurture a liberal state, democracy is "like a body without a soul," writes Signer.

By calling for the careful nurturing of constitutional values, Signer is trying to bridge the divide between development-focused modernisation theorists, idealistic democracy promoters and democratic pessimists. He does not believe the market will create these values on its own, he warns that democracy promotion without a constitutional component will fall flat and, despite his fear of demagogues, believes that democracy - fortified with constitutionalism - can escape Chua and Zakaria's illiberal trap.

Signer's prescriptions include: expanding civic education; providing election training; encouraging free markets; and tailoring constitutional norms to different cultural and religious value systems rather than merely imposing western models. He also calls for an increased civilian role in humanitarian missions and democracy-promotion efforts, which now rely heavily on the military. Although these proposals are broad and abstract, his critique of US policy in Iraq offers a more concrete sense of what genuine constitutionalism would require.

There the US reconstruction effort failed because it sought to impose a constitution on Iraqis rather than encouraging them to develop one of their own. As Diamond, who was sent to supervise democracy-promotion programmes in 2004, later wrote: "They simply imposed a transition plan on the Iraqi people and political class, rather than engaging in an open, broad-based dialogue." One prominent Iraqi miffed by the US approach was Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, a widely respected Shiite religious leader whose own writings dealt with the question of political legitimacy. Feeling excluded from the transition process and the drafting of the new constitution, Sistani's followers lost faith in the process, paving the way for Muqtada al Sadr's rise. As Signer puts it, "if we want the citizens of the world to adopt and support constitutionalism, we have to offer them a light to follow on an often dark path instead of a whip to drive them forward".

But this approach would come at a cost to American grand strategy as it has been practised in recent years. If Washington begins to view the spread of democratic values - and not just institution building, elections or economic development - as the real linchpin of democracy promotion, then America's own integrity and consistency in its application of those values becomes a more central issue. Maintaining close ties with blatantly non-democratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia while touting democratisation as a rationale for regime change in Iraq struck most observers in the Arab world and elsewhere as remarkably hypocritical. In a world where Signer's views ruled the day, those ties would be even less defensible.

Reviving an old debate over whether America should behave as a "crusader" or an "exemplar" in the international arena, Signer opts for the latter and calls for America to "draw the world to us through inspiring and resolute moral conduct". Indeed, electing a black man with a Kenyan father as president and then carrying out a smooth transfer of power may have done more to promote the idea of constitutional democracy abroad than decades of lectures on elections and good governance. For Arabs and Africans who supported Obama but doubted that a member of an historically oppressed minority group could ever win, let alone survive and take office, the November 2008 election was a revelation and an incredible vindication of the American democratic model.

Unlike the work of many political scientists, whose ideas are seldom debated outside the ivory tower, Signer's book has received high-level attention in Washington. Demagogue has drawn lavish praise from Anne-Marie Slaughter, Hillary Clinton's recently-appointed director of policy planning at the State Department. Some readers will find the recommendations too idealistic or too vague, but they are a start - and admirable for their humility in the face of an immense challenge. One hopes that his readers in the Obama administration, humbled by their predecessors' failures, will carefully tailor their programmes and ideas before deciding to set out on another democracy-promotion adventure.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is an editor at Foreign Affairs in New York.

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