Liddick: Demagoguery alive and well in 527’s
In 406 B.C., it looked as though Athens had finally won the Peloponnesian War. This fratricidal conflict fought between Athens, Sparta and their allies had torn the classical world apart for almost 30 years. Sparta had a superior army and so largely had its way on land; from the beginning of the war, they controlled most of Greece, although they were unable to breach the walls of Athens.
Athenian strength lay in its fleet, the most powerful in antiquity. Because of this asymmetry, neither side seemed to be able to strike a decisive blow. But with a stunning Athenian naval victory at Arginusae over a new and numerically superior Spartan fleet, the end seemed within reach. Sparta sent envoys to Athens, offering peace.
Less than a year later, Athens was in ruins and starving; they finally capitulated to the Spartans in 404 B.C. What happened?
It turns out that Arginusae really was the turning point, not because of the battle itself, but because of what happened afterward. Following the battle, a squadron of Athenian ships was dispatched to pick up survivors, but a storm blew in, and the rescue mission failed. News that Athenian citizens had been abandoned to drown caused popular jubilation to turn to fury, and the search for villains began.
One of the captains dispatched on the rescue effort, Theremenes, saw which way the wind was blowing and immediately accused his fellow commanders of dereliction and treason; when they were returned to Athens, he spoke against them, whipping the assembly into a frenzy. Each of the accused was condemned to death; only Socrates spoke against the verdict, for which he was very nearly condemned as well.
Shortly after this travesty, the leaderless and demoralized Athenian navy was decimated by the Spartans, and the inevitable unfolded.
The point of this little trip in the WABAC machine is to illuminate the potentially disastrous weak spot some Athenians, including Xenophon, Aristotle and even Pericles, saw in the democratic system: its susceptibility to being swayed by a demagogue ” which word is also of Greek origin.
Theremenes was the quintessential demagogue. Acutely attuned to popular sentiment, he crafted his assault on his fellow mariners to fit the passions of the citizens. A glib talker, he left reason aside and to play on the emotions of the crowd. Politically astute, he praised his audience and promised them vengeance. And he did it all to advance his own interests.
We have seen many examples of this sort of behavior since. But why should any of this concern us?
Demagoguery is dangerous because of the fog it creates in politics. Blinded by emotion, puffed up by flattery and distracted by vaudeville-stage villains at a safe distance, the victims of demagogues have, time and again, followed their Pied Pipers over the cliff. Around the globe, the previous century is littered with their corpses.
Here in America, perhaps owing to our longstanding experiment in democracy, they seem to have been particularly abundant. From Patrick Henry to the “Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long and numerous others, the cynical melding of emotional argument, appeal to the passions of the crowd and the identification of scapegoats has become a staple of politics. Look around and you’ll see it.
And as if individual demagogues were not enough, American innovative genius has lately produced an entire new subspecies of the type: the 527 organization. These anonymous “legal persons,” which proliferate like flies around a cow patty, are as perfect an example of the demagogue’s art as can be imagined. Here in Colorado, one cannot escape their fulminations and blandishments; they appear in all media, and if you stop watching and listening, well …
They know where you live.
What the effects of this incessant bombardment will be, no one is really certain. Some evidence suggests that it will lead to a sort of pox-on-both-their-houses view of politicians that was on the rise at the turn of the 20th Century; this might go some way toward explaining the current abysmal view of our Congress. Or we might find ourselves swayed by the rhetoric, abandoning ourselves and our country to the maelstrom of emotionalism and spin.
As a remedy against the latter, we might note the results for the Athenians of their enchantment by a demagogue. After their crushing defeat, Athens turned away from democracy, disgusted by their experience with it. The citizens were essentially disenfranchised and 30 Oligarchs were installed to run things. While such a result is not likely in America, we should recall it the next time we hear the voice that says “You have been betrayed, and those are the villains; let us make certain they are punished for their crimes against you…”
And remember Theremenes.
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