Bob Williams: Democracy, Demagoguery and Health Care

"When did Republicans discover fear and its wondrous political uses? Fear and its concomitants, anxiety, anger and hatred, are the devices of the demagogue and supposedly opposed by the Hamiltonian republic. We can trace the beginning of this reversal to the 1950s: the rise of McCarthyism and the rise of the John Birch Society. ... "
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By Bob Williams
http://www.redding.com/news/2009/aug/17/bob-williams-democracy-demagoguery-and-health/
August 17, 2009

Ever wonder why some people, mainly Republicans, like to refer to our country as a republic and others, mainly Democrats, like to refer to our country as a democracy?

It's not as simple as it sounds and has deep historical roots.

Alexander Hamilton had, as the ancient Greeks often had, great reservations about democracy. Democracy and demagoguery come from the same Greek root. A demagogue, in the pithy expression of H. L. Menken, is "one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots." Demagoguery is the art of swaying the public by appealing to prejudice, emotion and fear.

Hamilton wrote, in the first of the Federalist Papers, "a dangerous ambition ... often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people ... and ... of those men who have overturned the liberty of republics, the greater number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants."

Jefferson advocated democracy. Hamilton supported a republic (having no sovereign ruler) but not a democracy. His republic would be governed by an oligarchy of the elite, those men of education and position who would be sophisticated enough not to be swayed by demagogues.

When Republicans today say we have a republic and Democrats say we have a democracy, it is not just a matter of labels.

When did it all change? When did Republicans discover fear and its wondrous political uses? Fear and its concomitants, anxiety, anger and hatred, are the devices of the demagogue and supposedly opposed by the Hamiltonian republic.

We can trace the beginning of this reversal to the 1950s: the rise of McCarthyism and the rise of the John Birch Society, particularly in Southern California.

These were demagogic movements playing on fears and hatreds of communism and the United Nations.

They helped build a postwar far-right political base within the Republican Party.

Fear of the commies was overtaken in the early 1960s by fear of racial integration. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of that period became the basis for the Republicans' "Southern strategy." This new issue to be feared was remarkably effective while being hotly denied as an issue. The South, solidly Democratic since the Civil War, became almost solidly Republican.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the failure of "dominoes" to fall after the Vietnam War, communism lost much of its power to inspire fear. Al-Qaida provided a new fear, terrorism. This new fear was exploited to expand executive power in Washington, even to the idea that the president could overrule any law, far beyond the limits envisioned by any at the Constitutional Convention, including Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton would have been dismayed to find that the party that insists we were founded as a republic, not a democracy, now finds demagoguery as its main tool for continued existence.

This is not history; this is now and never more evident than in the ongoing debate over health reform.

Distortions of fact to inflame passions are everywhere.

One such inflammatory claim: Passing this bill "may start us down a treacherous path toward government<0x2011>encouraged euthanasia if enacted into law." This has been claimed by House minority leader John Boehner, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.

Other demagogic claims being passed around to stir hatreds: The House health plan will provide government funding for abortions, and the plan will lead to rationing of health care. The passions engendered by these false claims have been used to gather angry crowds to disrupt town hall discussions of health care reform. Demonstrations are a recognized way for minorities to get their views noticed. But a mob that disrupts and blocks a representative's attempts to discuss health reform issues with constituents is not a part of "the democratic process."

The Annenberg Public Policy Center maintains a nonpartisan Web site at FactCheck.org. It provides an unbiased discussion of these allegations on what is or is not in the House health plan.

This is not a site maintained by "a bunch of liberals." The late Walter Annenberg was appointed ambassador to Britain by his friend, Richard Nixon. He was a close friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. His wife, Leonore, served for a time as Reagan's chief of protocol. They founded the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Check it out.

Alexander Hamilton has been proven wrong partially, and right partially. He was wrong in thinking that a republic ensured against demagoguery. He was right in that demagoguery could be a threat to our country.

The seriousness of this threat is being decided now.

Bob Williams is a Millville rancher and a retired UCLA professor. His e-mail address is wmsranch@hughes.net.