The New Demagogues

By Niall Ferguson
Sunday, December 3, 2006

"We are confronting the devil -- and we will hit a home run off the devil!"

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was at it again last week, demonizing his archenemy in front of throngs of loyal supporters in downtown Caracas. Forget his opponent in today's presidential elections -- that's not the "devil" he has in mind. Instead, following the example of another great Latin American demagogue, Fidel Castro, Chávez directs his rhetorical fire against the United States and President Bush.

The world over, demagogues are back, yelling their slogans and thumping their tubs.

In Latin America, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador have joined Chávez in heaping opprobrium on the diabolical gringo imperialists. In the Middle East, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah denounce the demonic Yankee crusaders and their Zionist confederates with equal fervor. Others have different targets, but their language is no less inflammatory. In Germany, Udo Pastoers of the xenophobic National Democratic Party won a regional election after calling Europe "a cultural space for white people." In South Africa, former deputy president Jacob Zuma belts out "Mshini Wami," an anti-apartheid anthem that includes the line, "Bring me my machine gun."

Their rhetoric may seem overblown, but no one should underestimate the threat these new demagogues pose -- especially to the United States. Irrelevant in Latin America, impotent in the Middle East, ignored in Africa and isolated in Europe, Washington may be facing its biggest foreign policy crisis since the late 1970s, when the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rocked Jimmy Carter's presidency. And this new generation of rabble-rousers is seizing the moment. The more unpopular the United States becomes, the easier it is for them to win votes by bad-mouthing Uncle Sam.

We have been here before, and it wasn't pretty. When an elected president expresses skepticism about the Holocaust and threatens to wipe the state of Israel from the map, it is not hyperbole to draw comparisons with that most disastrous of demagogues, Adolf Hitler. Like Hitler, Ahmadinejad knows that anti-Semitism is one of the aces in the demagogue's deck, a tried-and-true means of inspiring hatred and suspicion of others -- and of staying in power himself. Hitler also frequently expressed his contempt for the United States, which he dismissed as "a decayed country," racially and culturally inferior to Germany -- and, of course, ruled by Jews. Read Ahmadinejad's latest letter to "the American people," released last week, for a reprise of that theme.

And today, the conditions for truly dangerous demagogues to emerge are almost ideal.

The classic breeding grounds for demagogy are war and revolution. It is no coincidence that Ahmadinejad is a veteran of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the war between Iran and Iraq. In a new mood of "realism," the United States would now like Iran to help prevent its neighbor Iraq from collapsing into civil war. Fat chance. Ahmadinejad is bidding for Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The last thing he needs is to be seen bailing out the Great Satan.

Severe economic volatility can also create a popular appetite for rousing rhetoric. It is significant that economic growth has been so much more variable in Latin America and the Middle East over the past 20 years than it has been in the United States. When people are buffeted by wild fluctuations in income, prices and job security, they are more likely to lose confidence in the political status quo and to heed the words of messianic leaders such as Chávez and Morales.

Also relevant is the level of average income. Today, per capita incomes in poorer Latin American countries and most of the Middle East are similar to those of Central Europe between the wars. (That's important, because studies suggest that a democracy's chances of survival are much higher when per capita income is above $6,000.) Illiteracy rates are probably higher than they were in Central Europe. Urbanization rates certainly are. It's an ideal environment for demagogy: masses of people, stuck between the grinding poverty of agrarian societies and the affluence of today's richest countries, living in crowded cities with lousy schools. In such settings, the center seldom holds for long. Soon the maverick speechmaker is strutting in presidential regalia.

That helps explain why so many demagogues swept to power in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1920s and '30s. Hitler was only one of a host of dictators who combined fiery rhetoric with colored shirts, shiny boots -- and an utter disregard for civil liberties, especially those of ethnic minorities. And that's the critical point.

History's lesson is that personal freedom is all too often the demagogue's first victim, especially when popular sentiment is whipped up against some internal or foreign enemy.

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