Civic leaders spend most of their time starting things like civic projects and nonprofit organizations. It’s absorbing, complex, difficult work that rewards the patient—and, for many, nourishes the soul.
But leadership is not always sunny. Sometimes responsible leaders are called on to stop things, from bad ideas to bad people. One type you’ll run across at some point in a long civic career is a demagogue, a person elected to office through skillful lying. The lies can be about imagined conspiracies holding back the city or promises that cannot conceivably be kept. Often, they’re both: Demagogues tell people that powerful forces are preventing them from getting unrealistic rewards, but electing them will put everything right.
I’ll let you figure out how to defeat such people at the polls. But the best way to defeat a demagogue is to undercut his effectiveness before he runs for office. Here are two thoughts:
- Do not take these people lightly. If someone is flooding the community with fiction, respond with the truth. Do so in the same volume and with the same talent as the demagogue.
- And practice prevention by praising leaders who do the right things, especially when it’s controversial. It is in these moments—when good leaders do good but difficult things and their supporters remain silent—that demagogues take over. So have your civic organization give the mayor a “courage award.” Write an op-ed article explaining why the mayor’s actions were needed and how they’ll make the city better. Attend city council meetings and speak up for the changes. In other words, preempt the demagogues and you won’t have to face them at city hall.
Let’s say none of that works, though. A demagogue runs and wins. What do you do the day after the election when you find that your mayor was elected on a platform of lies?
First, you can reach out to him, either on your own or as part of a small group. After all, talking is better than fighting. Elections tend to create hard feelings, of course, and you may have said things that make it difficult for him to answer your calls directly, so try reaching out to someone close to him. Let the intermediary suggest the meeting.
What do you say when you meet? You congratulate the mayor-elect on his victory and offer to work with him in any way you can on the issues facing the city. And then you stop and let him talk. You’re listening for hints that, once in office and facing reality, he may become more truthful and responsible. Or perhaps responsible in some areas, while continuing his antics in others.
If he offers those hints, breathe a small sigh of relief. It won’t be pleasant, but it’s possible that this may be someone you can work with in some areas . . . as you hope a better candidate emerges for the next election. (Keep in mind: This is a skillful liar. So, as Ronald Reagan said, trust but verify. And don’t be surprised if he says something different to the next group that walks in the door.)
There’s an equally good chance that he’ll use the meeting to threaten and rant. If so, listen without comment, thank the mayor-elect for his time, shake his hand, and leave as politely as possible. Or he may not meet with you at all. Then what?
You have to become part of his opposition. But here’s the problem: You want to stop the demagogue but do so in ways that do not harm the city. Otherwise, you’ve won a Pyrrhic victory. The demagogue is gone, but the citizens are so divided and cynical, progress on the real issues facing your city is impossible.
Here’s another problem: Demagogues rise because they have a talent for whipping up their followers with lies, prejudice, and a strong sense of victimhood. They are often good at innuendo and character assassination. If you fight on their terms, you will almost certainly lose.
The answer: You have to move the debate from terrain that favors demagogues (a clash of personalities) to that which favors you (the role of government in improving your city). As long as the narrative remains “the mayor vs. the Powers that Be”—which probably includes you—the mayor will win. But when it shifts to “the mayor vs. the job he can’t do,” you will win.
And this gets to the dirty little secret of demagogues: With few exceptions, they don’t have much interest in the job itself. They’re interested mostly in the position. Often, they don’t even understand the job.
I saw this up close in 1966 when I was in high school and my home state, Georgia, elected a demagogue as governor. Lester Maddox was a small man with large glasses and a gleaming bald head who ran a fried-chicken restaurant in Atlanta and bought ads in the local newspapers railing against federal civil rights laws. He more or less dared African Americans to integrate his joint.
When they did, Maddox made sure photographers were on hand to witness him and his associates, armed with guns and clubs, run them off. Incredibly, he wasn’t arrested for this, but he was forced either to integrate his restaurant or close it. He closed it. And then ran for office as a martyr for segregation.
Almost everyone in Georgia’s political, media, and business establishment considered Maddox a crackpot. But after a bizarre chain of circumstances—including finishing second in the election—Maddox was installed as governor in January 1967. And he was almost immediately paralyzed by the job, which involved appointing people to management positions, submitting a budget, announcing policy positions, and dealing with the legislature.
As his incompetence became apparent, he fell back on doing what had made him famous: stunts. He held “Little People Days” at the state capitol, where he invited people to show up and talk with him. He called photographers to the governor’s mansion to witness his talent at riding a bicycle backwards. (I’m not making this up.) He complained endlessly about news coverage. (When his official state portrait was painted, he insisted it include an image of a newspaper wrapped around a dead fish.) When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and his funeral held in downtown Atlanta, Maddox ringed the capitol building with state troopers to prevent . . . whatever. (Nothing other than a solemn funeral and cortege took place, events attended by scores of national political leaders and thousands of citizens.)
In time, the voters had had enough of Maddox’s antics. When he ran for governor a second time, he was defeated by an earnest state representative whose campaign slogan was “A Workhorse, Not a Showhorse” and who promised . . . well, to do the job he was running for. The opponent won with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Maddox was undone by his own shortcomings. But his downfall was aided by a set of leaders who figured out how to handle him. What did they learn, and what have others learned who’ve dealt successfully with demagogues?
Here are seven big lessons:
Don’t return fire when attacked. Demagogues are masters at name-calling, and you can’t win by trying to match them insult for insult. Remember: They aim to turn politics into a them-vs.-you battle. Don’t take the bait.
Don’t make fun of demagogues. The temptation will be strong to poke fun at their clownish behavior, but keep in mind that demagogues rise by telling people that powerful others are taking advantage of them. Treat them as clowns and it only bolsters their claims. Not only are people taking advantage of you, the demagogue will tell his followers, they’re laughing at you as well.
Treat the demagogue like a serious politician. When he promises fantastic things, analyze his promises the way you would a more serious leader’s. Tell the public what it would cost, what it would yield in benefits, who it would benefit, and who would pay. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t condemn. Just state the facts. But make sure your analysis is widely available and discussed.
Keep pointing out the issues not being addressed. Demagogues tend to have narrow bandwidths. They talk endlessly about their hobbyhorse issues but are easily bored by other, often more important matters. Use that boredom to emphasize the winning message: This mayor doesn’t want to do his job.
Praise responsible politicians. Find some “workhorses” and praise their efforts to take on the city’s neglected issues. (How about a “Workhorse Award?”) Let others draw the distinction between these workhorses and the showhorse in the mayor’s office.
Talk past the demagogue to his followers. Some unhappy citizens sent you a message in the election that they felt neglected. Find out what is bothering them and make their concerns part of your communications. You won’t win all of them over, but you may lessen the anger that is fueling the demagogue’s rise.
Beware of the manufactured crisis. As demagogues fail, they sometimes try to gin up support by creating crises—then demanding that others fall in line behind them. If this happens, start asking questions: Is this a genuine crisis or a problem the city has faced time and again? If it’s an old problem in a hyped-up guise, how has it been dealt with in the past? How did those solutions compare with what the mayor is suggesting now? If you can direct the debate along these lines, calmness will replace crisis. And there’s nothing less useful to a demagogue than a calm city.
Final thought: Hey, bad things happen to good cities. Don’t take it as an indictment if your city elects a demagogue who throws things into chaos for a while. Cities can learn from taking a wrong turn. It’s your job as a civic leader to gently steer yours in the right direction.
Photo by Robert Palmer licensed under Creative Commons.