Regan: Saving an Endangered Demos

Turning fear into hope, hope into pragmatism.

by Joseph Regan | 9/29/16 12:30am

In Sept. 480 BC, Greek citizens took a stand for democracy. Under the leadership of Themistocles, an Athenian statesman and general, an armada of hundreds of Athenian warships and other pledged forces fought in the straits of Salamis, the narrow waters just south of Athens. That day, the Greeks saved Western civilization in one of the seminal battles of the Greco-Persian wars.

In the face of overwhelming numerical superiority, Themistocles lured the Persians into the straits and, still outnumbered three to one, somehow vanquished them. How a fleet of Persian ships, experienced at combat across the southern Mediterranean Sea, were defeated is still not entirely understood. Yet the fact remains that the Greeks won and the tide of the war finally turned. After Salamis, the Persians were doomed in Greece without a fleet to provide them food. It was only a matter of time before they would have to leave.

Themistocles’ victory saved the Athenian experiment in democracy and it has endured in varying permutations for over two millennia. The words for “citizen” and “freedom” were spoken by Greeks first. Such words didn’t exist in any of the tongues spoken in the vast Persian Empire or anywhere else in the world in 480 B.C. Such words have always needed constant defending and redefinition. Similarly, another word of Greek origin is currently being redefined: demagogue.

A demagogue overwhelms a citizenry’s reason with fear-mongering rhetoric. Our leaders, no matter how august or intelligent, cannot vote themselves in. It is up to the public to decide. Therefore, the public must not let fear overwhelm its reason. Fear should be a valuable tool for the voter to identify what issues are the most troubling, but it should not be the sole force behind their vote. Democratic states need reason, are founded upon reason and easily consume themselves if unreasonable people are elected.

To identify a demagogue from its close cousin, the populist, it is best to examine its character and rhetoric. Clues to an aspiring politician’s true identity always seem to lie in what the person seeking power appeals to. Is it fear, racism and exceptionalism to the exclusion of reason and truth? Do they not only bellow forth these messages, but also seem to believe them themselves? Do they treat facts and logic as things to be discarded if and when it is necessary? Do their policies promise to satisfy present wants and desires without any thought for the future? If all, or even some, of these are the case, then the person in question is very likely a demagogue, undeserving of your precious vote.

So when you vote in November, consider whether the person you cast your vote for would honor the ideals of democracy or profane them. Ask yourself if their policy is considered carefully regardless of what the majority clamors for now, because the majority often does not have the foresight it should.

Salamis happened in 480 BC. Without Themistocles, who is now remembered as a hero but faced bitter opposition at the time, Salamis would have been lost by a much smaller fleet. Yet instead of dying disunited, Themistocles persuaded the Greeks to find their strength in unity, just as any democratic state should.

November is less than two months away. The time draws nigh when we must make the sort of final decisions Greeks made long ago. Our enemies are numerous and take many forms. The arguments we’ve become inured to hearing, as I’m sure Themistocles had when he took the floor of the Athenian Assembly, are against pragmatism and for reactive measures that gratify our desire to see action taken now. Like the Greeks before us, we too have our choices: hope or resigned fear.

The Greeks cast their votes with an emotion Themistocles stirred within them. Do we have the same strength, even without anything close to a Themistocles in this election, to exercise the same good judgment? I sure hope so.