Commentary Magazine


Standing Up to Demagoguery

Although John is probably right that the “boomlet” for Paul Ryan fizzled yesterday when the Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special election to represent western New York in Congress, the lasting and more significant lesson is that demagoguery works. Even at a time when Medicare is “headed for a painful collapse” (in Ryan’s words), the Democrats convinced voters that, if elected to Congress, Jane Corwin would cruelly support “the radical Republican plan to end Medicare.”

Whether Corwin was any good at answering the charge is beside the question. Nor is Peter wrong when he says that “Republicans need . . . to become almost as adept at defending the Ryan plan as Paul Ryan is.” The more basic question, though, is not how to defend the Ryan plan—or any other Republican proposal—but how to counter the demagoguery.

Ryan’s ability to untangle complicated policy ideas, as displayed in the five-minute video that Pete posted, is second to none. Moreover, Ryan’s generous impulse to clarify and explain—to treat policy disagreements respectfully—is the ethos of a great statesman. Small wonder that Jonah Goldberg is chanting over at National Review Online: “Run, Paul Ryan, Run.”

But Ryan is doomed to fail. Rational dialogue and respectful policy disagreement cannot stand up to demagoguery, at least not in the American public square, at least not since the summer of 1987, when the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy torpedoed the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court with one speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

Because he was a public figure, Senator Kennedy was not liable for slander, but he crossed a bright moral line into viciousness, and when he was not driven from public life as a consequence, he brought America over the line with him. The only reasonable response to Kennedy was delivered 17 years too late—and to a different senator altogether—but by then Kennedy had already been honored with a public service award named for the vice president of the same administration that nominated Bork.

For much of my adult life, I have watched as the American left destroys careers and reputations with shamelessness and impunity. The right treats the left as the ideological opposition, but the left treats the right as its enemy. And in that sense, the Democratic Party (the electioneering wing of the American left) has ceased to be a party at all. In 1798, John Adams wrote to the inhabitants of Harrison County, Virginia:

The parties ought to be like the sexes, mutually beneficial to each other. And woe will be to that country, which supinely suffers malicious demagogues to excite jealousies, foment prejudices, and stimulate animosities between them.

Democratic partisans will scoff that Republicans are the true demagogues. But as its response to the budget crisis abundantly shows—from President Obama’s cartoonish budget speech last month to the advertisements for Kathy Hochul in suburban Buffalo and Rochester this week—the Democratic Party is not interested in solving a national problem. It is interested only in stimulating animosity against anyone who threatens its power. Demagoguery is not a style of rhetoric, but a mode of conduct. Republicans need not descend into demagoguery to hit back hard—to sharpen its arguments, broaden its characterizations, unleash its ridicule, point its slogans. More than anything, though, Republicans need to acknowledge that they do not find themselves in a debate with friendly opponents, but in a life-and-death struggle for America’s very future. Fight accordingly.