Nearly a decade before the publication of his book, American Demagogues: Twentieth Century, Columbia professor of history Reinhard H. Luthin penned an article for The American Historical Review entitled, “Some Demagogues in American History.” The purpose was to review the way mass popular appeal had been commandeered into the service of politics throughout American history, from the early republic up to Luthin’s own days. The term demagogue has a very obvious connotation, particularly in political rhetoric, and has for centuries. “The tendency to hurl the derogatory epithet indiscriminately at politi- cal opponents has perhaps led to confusion as to just what it is that constitutes a demagogue,” lamented Luthin. Instead, he offered this comparably less vitriolic definition to be employed in the service of history: “the influential party chieftain who, by vigorous personality and noisy appeal to the crowd, made gross political capital by waging warfare against the affluent minority.” It is this kind of politician which Luthin suggests has dominated the American political scene since the advent of universal, white manhood suffrage.
EVER since the late eighteenth century and particularly since the Jacksonian era, American political history has been colored in part by the campaign opportunism of the “demagogue,” the professional “man of the people.” With considerable histrionic variety and always noisily, he has sought to whip up and intensify the emotions, the prejudices and the passions, of the voting public. And not infrequently his tactics have won out over his more sedate rivals in the political arena.
What would this definition and this evaluation of demagoguery look like if applied disinterestedly to the American political climate today? Who would be labeled a demagogue? Who would be considered among the demagogue’s sedate rivals? I cannot help but immediately call to mind the rhetoric which dominates the most popular media of every stripe regarding Mitt Romney, the cold, detached, disengaged, mechanical, affluent robot. In a bygone era, when “gentlemen of birth, wealth, and education, not the “lower orders,” monopolized elective office” and when “a government office was a prerogative of the “upper” classes, not a paying job to be sought by flattering the voters,” the epithets attached to Romney’s name would have been quite different. In fact, in many respect with regard to his person, he is something a relic, a nostalgic throwback to a period in American political history when office was sought by men of leisure who did not need public positions to afford them all the privileges of rank and power.
That is not to say that he would make a good president. It isn’t even an attempt to call into question Barack Obama’s credentials simply by virtue of his mass appeal and demonizing of affluence. (After all, Luthin formed his definition of a demagogue with no less storied of a figure in mind than Andrew Jackson.) History will evaluate Obama. He may be deemed a good president–as so many political scientists and Norwegians seem to have decided in haste–or a bad one–as so many radio talk show hosts decided just as hastily. It is even possible, though anathema to most, that he may just be an average president, more historically noteworthy for the color of his skin than the contours of his policy. Regardless, the purpose here is to suggest that whatever history has to say about Obama’s qualities as a president, it is safe to declare now that he is one of presidential history’s greatest demagogues. With Luthin’s criteria of mass appeal, self-deprecation in service of populism, impassioned rhetoric, and antagonism toward affluence, Obama is set to ascend into the pantheon of American political demagogues alongside Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan.
This coming election may very well give Americans a chance to evaluate and make decisions about what they want from their most powerful politicians. Will Americans choose the “hopelessly disengaged” plutocrat, who is channeling the Old World notions of a successful business man, a Cincinnatus, who will set aside his wealth and his leisure in service of his country? Would they rather have the young, attractive political superstar, who knows just what to say to whip the masses into a frenzy against the oppressive elites? It will be interesting to see how America’s self-discovery and self-determination play out on the national stage (much as it has been interesting to watch Republican self-discovery and self-determination play out on a smaller scale as Romney is pitted against lesser demagogues like Santorum and Gingrich). This election, however it ends up, will be one more chapter in the ongoing saga of America’s waxing and waning love affair with her demagogues.
As usual, when I comment on politics, I feel compelled to add this disclaimer: I am not in any way attempting to endorse any candidate nor do I intend to encourage Christian participation in politics in any way. The above is offered merely in an attempt to bring the past to bear on the present, which is the purpose of history. It is my firm and longstanding belief that Christians have an ethical obligation to abstain from participation in politics.