James Madison

Notes from Our Past: Understanding the Threat of a Demagogue

There’s no clearer sign about the character of this year’s presidential contest than the renewed interest in asking Google,  “What is a demagogue?” Senator Joseph McCarthy (led the Communist witch hunt) and Governor George C. Wallace (defended segregation) have landed in the news again as everyone grapples with whether or not we’re on the verge of electing a demagogue to the highest office.

We all know demagogues are bad and could probably name a couple. What we really want to know is if we have the self-governing skills to recognize a demagogue without the benefit of reading about it in a textbook.

In a brilliant demonstration of how to use our own history to understand the present, Phillip Gourevitch at The New Yorker wrote in March, “Abraham Lincoln Warned Us about Donald Trump.” He points to Lincoln’s concern for a “mobocratic spirit” threatening the country in 1838 when lynch mobs took up the cause of justice on their own terms. In Lincoln’s “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum” in Springfield, Illinois, he warned that the “approach of danger” in the United States would “spring up amongst us.” He shared his concern that there was “something of ill-omen” in the events of the day and prescribed a “political religion” to counter it.

Here’s a small excerpt about the contest between the mobocratic spirit and good men. We gave it our “amplified” treatment to lend some visual interest:

Amplified: Lincoln's Address before the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838

Amplified: Lincoln’s Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838

 

A mobocratic spirit aims to disrupt or suspend government in the name of freedom while threatening that freedom at the very same time. A demagogue uses this strategy to pursue personal gain and to diminish their detractors.

Back to the recent New Yorker piece, Gourevitch tells us Trump has this covered:

Donald Trump personifies the mobocratic spirit; he fuels it and is fueled by it, though it is doubtful that he can control it. All the elements are there: the incessant, escalating lust for violence; the instinct for mobilizing a mob to take the law into its own hands; the claim that whole groups are the enemy; the belief that those who are not with the mob forfeit all protection from the mob and invite attack..

And that’s only half the list.

Last December, The New York Times collected the words of Donald Trump’s public remarks as a way to consider the weight of these accusations  of demagoguery. Analyzing 95,000 words, authors Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman uncovered a “potent language” used to “connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.” They argue that his words create a “threatening dynamic” with only one resolution: “trust-me-and-trust-me-only.”

This observation points us to a demagogue’s operating logic: fear. The NYT analysis shows that fear is the substance of Trump’s appeals:

The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican. He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (“they’re pouring in”), Syrian migrants (“young, strong men”) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.

Healy and Haberman acknowledge that office-seekers often appeal to passions and patriotism, but point to Trump’s ability to “forge bonds with a sizable segment of Americans over anxieties about a changing nation, economic insecurities, ferocious enemies and emboldened minorities.” When assessing a candidate’s potential for demagoguery, we have to consider the possibility that this “us vs. them” thinking could be the logic that governs us.

On this question, Michael Gerson with The Washington Post recommends recalling the work of the American founders. Writing before the Ohio and Florida primaries this Spring, Gerson takes on the question, “Who is to blame for Donald Trump?” He writes, “In a dangerous world, fear is natural. Cynically exploiting fear is an art. And Trump is a Rembrandt of demagoguery.”

Trump is to blame for Donald Trump. There is also an important reminder about the genuine difficulty of democratic government:

With the theory of a presidential nominee as a wrecking ball, we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government. Trump imagines leadership as pure act, freed from reflection and restraint. He has expressed disdain for religious and ethnic minorities. He has proposed restrictions on press freedom and threatened political enemies with retribution. He offers himself as the embodiment of the national will, driven by an intuitive vision of greatness. None of this is hidden.

Demagoguery and democracy make for an easy partnership. The U.S. election of 2016 is only the latest test of our capacity for self-government. This time, it’s up to us so we have to be sure we understand the question.

Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber suggests that calling Trump a demagogue works to “dismiss him as a candidate and amplify him as a political threat.” We need to understand this threat and that it extends beyond our usual partisan politics.

The threat is instability. It’s a threat that has occupied political thinkers since the beginning of political community. It’s the same threat that motivated Madison’s draft of the U.S. Constitution and everything he wrote about it from there.

Hamilton Quote2Barber offers us this leverage on the problem, “Demagogues undermine the stability of a ‘by the people’ form of government particularly by turning ‘the people’ against each other.” She then turns to no lesser authorities than Aristotle and Federalist No. 1 (Alexander Hamilton) to remind us that Trump is “a human distillation of the maxim that democracy ‘is a device that ensures we shall be governed by no better than we deserve.'”

We need to ask a bigger question than Google can sort out for us. It isn’t whether or not Trump is a demagogue or who is to blame for him. We have to ask about our role as “the strongest bulwark” of self-government and how can we convince our fellow citizens to resist the siren call of “us vs. them.”

We have to turn our own gaze from a demagogue’s demands for attention. We have to insist that we deserve better.

 

Seeing America

The second week at Montpelier concluded Friday with this question… What do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

As the American public celebrates independence through fireworks, BBQ and pool parties, the 80 teachers who studied constitutional citizenship at Madison’s Montpelier know we must keep the future as well as the past in our mind’s eye. There’s no reason to skip the fireworks but let’s consider what that particular moment in time reveals to us about our present and our future. If America is an idea rather than a place, it’s essential that we share our ideas about what America is or could be.

It’s that mission that led to our last assignment for our afternoon discussion. We focused on our work as teachers and the role of citizens and elected representatives as constitutional officers, and Jim LeCain shared a quote he thought defined our mission:

Teach the [Constitution’s] principles, teach them to your children, speak of them when sitting in your home, speak of them when walking by the way, when lying down and when rising up, write them upon the doorplate of your home and upon your gates.

–John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution

–Quoted by Chief Justice Warren Burger at the 200th anniversary celebration

The quote resonates with the power of the words in Deuteronomy beginning with 6:5:

Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

And Will couldn’t stop there. If you didn’t hear the cadence of the words in Deuteronomy when you read the quote, you might have remembered a folk anthem instead. Remember these lyrics from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children”…

You, who are on the road
Must have a code
That you can live by.
And so, become yourself
Because the past
Is just a goodbye.

Teach, your children well
Their father’s hell
Did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s
The one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would die
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

With such an important task at hand, what do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 3 of 3)

In the previous installment, I overcame my apprehension at introducing the politicolors, and began to share student responses to political theory.  At one time, I had been worried about the abstract nature of such an approach, yet here they were truly excited to use colored pencils in their notes and making connections of which I couldn’t have dreamed.

I usually turn up the heat on critical thinking skills once students hit sixth grade, but here the fourth and fifth were sweeping off my socks.  I also found that they were a bit more realist than I had been at that age.  This was saying something, in that our police resource officer always comments on our kids’ intelligence, yet inevitably adds that they are oh-so sheltered.

Maybe it had been our cool conversations on the state of nature, but the students saw plenty of disparity between the real world and American ideals.  Whether it be a news story or their own experiences in Detroit, the kids knew that the world wasn’t completely shiny and happy.  Delving further, we explored why they thought that was; if anything, what prevented the notion of Utopia?  Could government make people be better?

Somewhere in here, I suggested that the boxes might move.  Very quickly, A., my sole sixth-grader, realized that if the blue box grew outward, it would effect the red.  “The government would control the people,” he said.  “It would be a dictatorship.”  I offered up several bows.

Fifth-grader J. referenced an earlier conversation on perfection, born out of the wording of the Preamble.  J.’s attentive and he recalled the Aryans, commenting that pushing for a utopia can lead in the opposite direction.

C’mon, I told them.  Our blue box wants right.  We’re America.  (It didn’t come off so sarcastic.)  Couldn’t our government be trusted to mandate good behavior?  Debate ensued with no clear consensus.

Conversely, could the red box push as well?  Would it if the blue box began to grow too big for its britches?  What happened if the red box pushed back so totally that it obliterated the blue?  Didn’t Aristotle also warn of democracy run amok, of mob rule?  What was the consequence of no government?

The model proved itself remarkably effective.

In the end, the students understood quite well when I added the purple box.  The notion of limits had arrived, just before the tug of war ended with a crash.

The boxes also helped in another way.  One of the trickiest concepts to impart to the kids had been the differences between a constitution and a constitutional government.  Once they could contrast a purpleless system with a checked one, they easily got it: all governments had a make-up, but not all of them had a healthy one.  This allowed for a connected conversation to propaganda, including places on our maps with “Republic” in their name yet not in their nature.

Our unit’s culminating activity brought out another surprise: Legos!  Using a photo of James Madison’s temple at Montpelier,  we first discussed the importance of order and balance in architecture.  From week one, the kids had been tickled that the structure doubled as a refrigerator.  Now, we went beyond that still-important function to other aspects of the temple’s order, then on to its elegant balance.  Since we’ve been studying the middle ages in history, the students noted parallels with the great cathedrals as well as St. Anne’s , a  cruciform church we’d visited downtown.

madisons-temple

We connected the temple with We the People‘s lesson on the contributions of the Romans to republican government.  Using the computer, we accessed photographs of Washington, DC, then discussed the great buildings as well as the city plan.

Finally, I dumped thousands of building blocks into the center of the room and offered only this direction: build a structure that is balanced and ordered and be prepared to explain how it is each.  Again, I’ve got to exclaim the merits of teaching middle school students.  Yeah, I’m spoiled by small class size (too small with the Michigan economy!), but middle years kids have a ton of energy and they are not so socially focused that they’ve lost their excitement for learning.  The colored pencils elicited ooos and ahhs, but the Legos–in more ways than one–raised the roof.

house1 windmill1 robot bike-factory yellow-pyramid factory

What impressed me is that many kids didn’t sacrifice creativity in the process of fulfilling the parameters.  Some of the creations had elaborate stories which added to their order, such as G.’s–a factory that ran on pizza grease while it created hats.  This activity goes beyond its initial success; it’s an investment in future We the People lessons.  We’ll come back to the ideas of balance and order, and the kids will feel invested as I relate ideas to their structures.

As I said in the beginning, for me, this material has to unfold as a story.  So, I’ll share with you that I’ve already got the climax of our tale.

For, after all of the students had gone, I created my own structure.  It’s a pyramid of Legos: one with the politicolors stepping upward.  Ready to emerge upon the given day–timed smartly with Unit 6, I hope–the seventh color.  From the structure’s center, with each of my student’s names inside.  Hokey?  Hell, I’m glad I can get away with it.  I’m incredibly lucky to teach kids that are yet open enough that this moment can affect them.  I’ll keep you posted as to my progress…

politipieces politipyramid lego-boxes

(I don’t believe there are purple Legos…  Is that because Denmark’s a constitutional monarchy?  ; )

The politicolors are another investment.  We’ll continue to reference them as we delve into the American Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion, and the Philadelphia Convention; the boxes are that powerful a model.  And, although I’m too restrained to declare them a resounding success, I’m damn giddy to see so much of my own excitement reflected in my students’ eyes and all-new thoughts hatching from their minds.

I’ve been fortunate to have dozens of my students return to our school’s annual picnic and remind me how much our little school has shaped them, how they hit the ground running.  I’ve felt vindicated for teaching toward the older students, offering what Will aptly terms a “surplus of knowledge”.  Now, though, I know that given the right structure, even fourth-graders can be mighty theorists; and these kids, they’re capable of flying.

As opposed to last year’s tact, the key lies far from the text.  In fact, the key is the key itself.  That is, creating a classroom open enough for plot twists to be interpreted, for new lines to be added to the script.

What I hope I’ve done is create a much more federalist classroom.  Whether through the construct of the National Academy or the concrete pillars of Madison’s temple, I’ve allowed myself to leave more space.  It’s not about locks on knowledge and thought; for, even elementary students can supply the mind to support (and lift!) the ceiling, if we allow them the will.

This year, that’s what I’ve so far learned.  To get there, I just had to get over the fear of trusting myself even more.

Thanks for sitting by the fire,

Keith

My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 2 of 3)

When last we met, I was explaining my dread, as I contemplated using Will’s boxes with my 4th-6th classroom.  Here was this rich, layered theory, which I still hadn’t mastered; yet, the politicolors had given dimension to the founding, I’d never before imagined.  Could I bring them to life?

It was understood that I had a looooong way to even near Will’s grasp.  After all, I’d still look back at photos of the concept maps and ponder the meanings of words written in the corners of the boxes or lines that could sometimes be dotted, and I’d wish for a National Academy 2.0.  However, I easily recalled Will’s self-effacing persona: one that was not just a style, but his genuine self.  He was always open with our crew, explaining that he was still discovering new meaning here, that our questions were important to the illumination.  And that was a comfort to me: that I didn’t need to know everything to open the pack of multi-colored Expos that would paint our white board.

A few lessons into the We the People curriculum, I had introduced the philosophers: Cicero, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Madison.  Knowing they were a well-educated assembly of Framers, the students understood that the Constitution had not appeared out of thin air.  It helped that I teach across curricula: Cicero could be connected to math and the laws of physics, and Aristotle’s biology background could be easily referenced with our studies of classification.  I guess my grasp of Cicero is a bit weak, because the kids latched on to the “body politic” notion far more tightly than the music of the spheres.  Perhaps it was because we had been using the microscope that week, for they related well to the idea of citizens as cells and their functions as differentiation.  The students ran with one of the last Aristotelian nuggets I offered up: “One who is not in the polity, must be a beast or a god.”

One student alluded to the notion that no man is an island; while several realized that one would have to be almost extra-terrestrial to not need others, if not a “deranged, crazy guy”.

This provided a perfect segue to my next lessons on Thomas Hobbes.  For me, Hobbes had been the most difficult philosopher to access, yet ultimately the most rewarding.  For my Nat’cademy project, I’d even chosen one of his pages for my writing assignment.  I wanted so dearly for the students to know him for more than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Indeed, they would have to, for Hobbes was represented by the red box.  The kids needed to understand the idea of what it meant to be a people.

As providence runs, we were heading into the last week of school before the holiday break.  Here was my chance to access Hobbes just as I had.  For in the July sun of Loyola Marymount, my unveiling of the red box: sprung from Will’s lectures, then rose with the provocation of  preceptor break-out sessions, only to finally land firmly in the sagacious realm of… Dr.Seuss.

Improbably, in the dead of summer, I found myself in Marina Del Rey purchasing a copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

grinch1

That night was to be another unveiling, Rowling’s last Harry Potter book, and Barnes & Noble was abuzz.  The sales clerk looked a bit sidelong at me as I slid the book across the counter.  I expected to hear some smart Alec response along the lines of really early gift shopping?!

But instead, she proceeded to tell me how her favorite tale hands-down was Horton Hears a Who.  (Another text with great connections to the boxes, I’ve just realized.)  I smiled and insisted I needed this one.  I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling that they didn’t have a copy of it at the University’s library.

Fast forward a year and half, and across the country, to Michigan.  Well, once I’d finished reading the story to my students, they were out of their seats trying to identify the philosophy in it.  They saw Aristotle’s beast, with Whoville as a polity.  They explored the Whos as a people.  They connected the Grinch to Hobbes, as he was never really out of the community.  And, in a moment of sublime, one student linked the outsider to the homeless we’d seen in Detroit on a recent trip to St. Anne’s.

There have been many memories so far this year.  One can never prioritize them, but there is a fourth grade girl that’s just amazing me.  I’ll call her S. here.  The thing about S. is that she’s totally into this stuff, so much so that she goes home and writes poems about it.  And she’s got a great theoretical mind.  One of the most powerful examples to date came when we studied the early philosophers and their notions that there could be many successful ways in which to rule effectively.  I’m mostly referring to Arsitotle’s idea of the Good King, Aristocracy, or Democracy.  After contrasting each with its negative, S. just kind of blurted out, “Why not mix them?”

Yeah.  That’s what I’m talking about.

My other favorite S. moment to date came when she raised her hand and asked, “What do you think James Madison would think of this, if he were here?”

I smiled, then added, “I think he is.”

As the class cracked up, she inquired, “What, his ghost is here, like, sitting next to me or something?”

Waiting for the giggles to subside, I explained, “Not his ghost, his spirit.”

It was the perfect plant for my already envisioned denouement.  On the last day of Civics, I intend to conclude with the end of James Madison’s life.  It is said that upon his deathbed, Madison’s last words indicated that his passing was “nothing more than a change of mind.”

TOMORROW: Conclusions and Questions   notes-2