Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy

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The three crises of liberal democracy | Ganesh Sitaraman

Some have interpreted this to mean direct political participation by all male citizens. Others have taken it to mean a representative system based on the suffrage of all male citizens. Either way, however, well into the 19th century, the majority of liberals were hostile to the very idea of democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Indeed, it would not be wrong to say that liberalism was originally invented to contain democracy.

Certainly, the founders of liberalism were no democrats.

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Benjamin Constant stood for strict property qualifications for both voting and officeholding. The French revolution proved to liberals like him that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. The most democratic phase of the revolution had also been the most bloody. New words were invented to name his pseudo-democratic regime. They form alliances with religious authorities to prop up their regimes. They take their countries into useless wars to distract people from their treachery, while they enhance their own power, line their own pockets and enrich their friends.

Worst of all, they corrupt their people by tricking them into participating in their lies. Alexis de Tocqueville also had deep misgivings about democracy. Two additional French revolutions, one in and the other in , followed by another Napoleon, depressed him greatly.

It proved once again that the masses were easy prey for demagogues and would-be dictators catering to their lowest instincts. Early liberals like Constant and Tocqueville spent much time thinking about how to counter the perils of democracy. Limits had to be placed on the sovereignty of the people, the rule of law and individual rights guaranteed. But good laws would never be enough, since a popular strongman could easily pervert or simply ignore them. The survival of liberal democracies required a politically educated citizenry.

Constant travelled around France instructing French citizens about the principles of their constitution, their rights and their duties. He published articles and delivered speeches for the same purpose. He fought valiantly for the freedom of the press. Both men also believed that the survival of a liberal democracy depended on certain moral values.

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It required public spiritedness and a sense of community. Constant agonized over the political complacency, moral apathy, and selfishness that he saw all around him. Only dictators profited from such vices. How to counter the moral degradation? They thought about this as well. If we are discerning in our analysis, we can also distinguish extremist rhetoric from merely extreme rhetoric. Extremist rhetoric refers to the expression of single-minded certainty by true believers in their extremist ideology.

Extreme rhetoric often is hard to distinguish from extremist rhetoric because it takes its language out of the same rhetorical playbook, but those who speak the words do not subscribe to an extremist ideology. Why, then, do nonextremists go to rhetorical extremes and sound like true believers? Because they can gain at least a short-term tactical advantage by sounding extreme.

Outrageous, inflammatory remarks make for good copy, and it is often easier to speak in extreme sound bites than in moderate ones. For the sake of our discussion, let us group extreme and extremist rhetoric together under the label of extremist rhetoric, and consider the three most salient questions about extremist rhetoric in democratic controversy. First: what makes it alluring at all? Second: how can it imperil democratic discourse in spite of the constitutional protections of free speech to which it is entitled?

Third: is there any potentially effective way of responding to the prevalence of extremist rhetoric in our political culture other than trying to beat one kind of extremism with another? What is the lure of extremist rhetoric in democratic controversy? After all, most citizens are not extremists. Part of the lure lies in the fact that it is easier to believe passionately in a value or cause without regard to subtlety, reasoned argument, probabilistic evidence, and vigorously tested scientific theory or fact.

Expressions of single-minded visions for solving problems and changing society can make complexity and uncertainty, frustration and regret, all appear to evaporate. Another part of the lure is that having comrades-in-argument is comforting. If extremist rhetoric has popular appeal, at least on its face, what could be wrong with the overwhelming prevalence of extremist rhetoric in democratic discourse?

After all, extremists have a constitutional right to speak in extremist language as long as they are not directly threatening other people. Going as far back in political philosophy as Aristotle, political rhetoric has been employed in the service of reasonable persuasion concerning questions of justice or the public good. The opposite of a sound democratic argument is demagogy: manipulation and deception in order to divide and conquer the democratic populace. Extremist rhetoric is a common tactic of demagogy: it divides in order to conquer.

Aristotle recognized that rhetoric at its best appeals concomitantly to our passions as well as to our character and our reason. The problem with extremist rhetoric is that it mobilizes the base by spurning reason and playing exclusively to the antagonistic passions of disrespect and degradation of argumentative adversaries. Extremist rhetoric insidiously undermines the democratic promise of mobilizing citizens on the basis of some reasonable understanding of their interest and the public interest.

Extreme rhetoric has the same effect as extremist rhetoric because it expresses itself in the same way. It is extreme simply for the sake of gaining attention and mobilizing the base. While we may not worry that extreme rhetoric reflects a dangerous underlying ideology, we should be concerned that it is unnecessarily disrespectful of argumentative adversaries. Unlike extremist rhetoric, extreme rhetoric is almost always either deceptive or worse: It blatantly disregards and devalues truth-seeking understandings upon which citizens in a democracy may make informed judgments.

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It also undermines a basic value of representative politics. When politicians use extreme rhetoric to mobilize their base in cavalier disregard of the vast majority, they strip the moderate middle of a voice in governance. The problem for representative democracy, therefore, is that many people who are not ideological zealots manipulatively use extreme rhetoric for their own mutually disrespectful political ends—at the same time as zealots of all ideological stripes insidiously subvert the compromising spirit of democracy through their use of extremist rhetoric.

It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the cold war itself. This troubling tendency to polarize is by no means reserved for the Right or the Republican Party.

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Many prominent Southern Democrats unleashed virulent strains of extremist rhetoric to whip up the resistance against civil rights for American blacks. President George W. Bush and his administration have frequently been compared to Hitler and the Nazis. One of the most infamous examples is a television ad produced by MoveOn. Lies fuel fear. Fear fuels aggression.

What were war crimes in is foreign policy in Extremist rhetoric is hardly the exclusive domain of party politics.

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There are no innocent bystanders, because in these desperate hours, bystanders are not innocent. In fact, this speaker, Mike Roselle, is an environmental extremist. Extreme and extremist rhetoric tends to divide, demean, and deceive democratic citizens. To put it metaphorically but not inaccurately: Such rhetoric is junk food for the body politic. It clogs two major arteries that nourish constitutional democracy and the inevitably imperfect but all the more important drive to serve the public on salient issues: mutual respect and morally defensible compromise across differences.

Its entertainment value therefore can easily lull us into neglecting and even ignoring its dangers.

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And, as I indicated at the outset, not all extreme or extremist rhetoric is necessarily bad for democracy. Indeed, some perilous times may need a healthy dose of extremist rhetoric. For example, we rightly applaud those who, when confronting slavery in antebellum America, called for its abolition with certainty and single-mindedness and defended liberty as the supreme value.

Yet we also must remember that passionate certainty in the service of a supremely just cause is not enough in politics. In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln , Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts how Secretary of State William Seward, because of his early hard-line rhetoric, surrendered the ability that Abraham Lincoln maintained, by virtue of his own more tempered rhetoric, to unite a coalition to stop the spread of slavery and ultimately to defeat it. Even in a supremely good cause—which the abolition of slavery certainly was—extremist rhetoric tends to appeal to an already convinced base.

It excludes all those who might join a more moderate and more winning political coalition. Being politically effective is morally essential as well. When Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater prepared to accept the Republican nomination for president in , he became the target of widespread attacks from moderate Republicans, who charged that his views were dangerously extreme.

Goldwater directly confronted these attacks in his famous acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

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He was right that extremist rhetoric in a good but single-valued cause—such as the cause of liberty—can be a great virtue, depending on the context and its capacity to mobilize a majority toward advancing the public interest. But Goldwater failed to acknowledge that extremist rhetoric even in a good cause can be dangerous.

Why are Americans rightly wary of extremist rhetoric even in a good cause? First, by its very nature, extremist rhetoric excludes from consideration other important public values. Liberty is not the only important value for American democracy. Education, health care, and opportunity, for example, also matter, and indeed are essential for the well-being of a majority of Americans.

A second concern about extremist rhetoric, even in a good cause, is that it condemns without further consideration those who dare to disagree. The defense of justice, however, is far more resistant to extremist rhetoric, because justice is a consummately inclusive moral value in democratic politics. It internally admits other public values under its rubric, including liberty, security, equal opportunity, and mutual respect among persons. The passionate defense of justice therefore can be a rallying point for nonextremists who want to make a public difference. To sum up the significant dangers that extremist rhetoric today poses to a constitutional democracy:.

Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy
Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy
Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy
Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy
Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy
Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy

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