A Cure for Demagoguery

Statesmanship—long a topic of serious reflection among political philosophers and philosophic historians—has become an almost forgotten idea. It is barely mentioned in the work of contemporary political scientists, who are more interested in what they regard as the problem of inequality—and particularly the inequalities that arise around differences of race, class, and gender. Words such as “statesman” and “statesmanship” are no longer important reference points in our public discourse.

Despite this neglect, however, we still need statesmanship. In recent years, there have been many complaints about the dangers posed by demagogues and demagoguery. Many of these complaints have been partisan and self-serving. Often, those who condemn demagogic appeals, when they are made by politicians of the party they reject, cheer the demagogic appeals of their own party leaders. Nevertheless, even superficial denunciations of the demagogue necessarily point to the idea of the statesman.

The demagogue—as the term is commonly used—plays irresponsibly on the hopes and fears, and especially the hatreds, of the people, betraying their true interests for the sake of his own political popularity and power. This concept points inevitably to its opposite: the political leader who appeals in a responsible way to the reason and the decent impulses of the people, with a view to securing their true interests. The demagogue, then, is an intelligible normative category that implies the existence of its opposite: the statesman.

Attending to the literal meaning of these terms sheds additional light on the distinction. The demagogue sets himself up as a leader of the people: the demos, that is, the ordinary people, understood in contrast to—indeed, in opposition to—the great and the powerful, the elites of the society. The demagogue, therefore, is a partisan: he seeks to advance the good of one faction in the community at the expense of its rivals. The statesman, by contrast, is concerned with the “state,” understood as the whole political community. As a politician, he necessarily rises to power as the representative of some particular party or faction, but his ultimate aim is nevertheless to take proper care of the whole community, to reconcile and harmonize, to the extent possible, the clashing interests of its various members.

We have probably neglected the idea of statesmanship in part because we assumed that modernity has delivered fully on its promises and established the unshakable prosperity, security, and justice for which modern people yearn. Society, we have told ourselves, will confront no more big problems that require the wisdom, integrity, and courage of the true statesman. Recent events—such as the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine—have discredited this view. Even in the twenty-first century, with all our advantages of science and technology, we still encounter complex and dangerous crises that certainly cannot be addressed constructively by the demagogue, or even by the ordinarily skilled and conscientious politician. They call for political leadership of a higher order. 

Those who recognize our continued need for statesmanship—and, accordingly, for serious reflection on its true nature—will welcome the publication of Daniel Mahoney’s The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation. Students of political philosophy (or at least older ones, like me) will recognize Mahoney’s allusion to George Anastaplo’s 1983 book The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce. The similarities run beyond the titles. Like Anastaplo’s, Mahoney’s book is made up of essays on various great figures, woven into a coherent whole. Like Anastaplo’s, Mahoney’s book serves as a portal from a public culture dominated by superficiality and vulgarity into a world of high intellectual seriousness and moral grandeur. 

Attention to and respect for political moderation is necessary to distinguish the truly great statesman from a dangerous imposter: the revolutionary ideologue.

Mahoney begins with some general reflections on the true nature of political greatness, drawing especially on classical sources, such as Aristotle and Cicero. Then, as his subtitle indicates, he offers several “portraits” of political leaders who show by their lives that great statesmanship, informed by a philosophic spirit, remains possible and necessary even in the modern world.  Here we encounter truly luminous and heroic figures of the Anglo-American political tradition: Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. The book also examines a figure who, though not a part of that tradition, is certainly among the most well-known commentators on it: Alexis de Tocqueville. In addition, Mahoney gives illuminating accounts of men whose careers, though less familiar to English-speaking readers, are no less instructive and inspiring: Charles DeGaulle and Vaclav Havel.  

All of these figures deserve to be known both as “statesmen” and as “thinkers.” Most of them, besides holding positions of political authority, wrote books offering penetrating accounts of the problems of their day, informed by a philosophic grasp of the permanent problems of the human condition. The sole exception, Lincoln, deserves a place among the rest because of the remarkable profundity revealed in the record of his political speeches. In recounting their thoughts and actions, the book compels admiration, not only for these great figures, but also for Mahoney’s own vast erudition, moral seriousness, and good sense.  

The Statesman as Thinker is especially interesting for its effort to bring to light the relationship of great statesmanship to three other phenomena: moderation, gratitude, and religion. At first sight, it seems paradoxical that Mahoney’s subtitle would yoke “greatness” with “moderation.”  They seem to be different and even opposed. Moderation is satisfied with what is reasonable and practical. Greatness seems to aim for the stars. Nevertheless, as Mahoney instructs us, attention to and respect for political moderation is necessary to distinguish the truly great statesman from a dangerous imposter: the revolutionary ideologue.

Both are guided by a transcendent conception of the good, but in different ways and with different results. Guided by knowledge of the good, the statesman discerns what is good in the community with which he is entrusted, and tries to preserve it and to improve upon it where possible—always keeping in mind the limits imposed by an imperfect human nature. The revolutionary ideologue, in contrast, tyrannizes his own people by demanding that they live up to an impossible standard of perfection—a vision of utopia often utterly unrelated to that people’s history and character. As Mahoney reminds us, Aristotle’s magnanimous man displays a kind of greatness by believing (correctly) that he deserves to hold the highest offices in the community. But the ideologue claims to deserve to hold the highest offices, not with a view to governing and caring for the community, but out of a desire to transform it into something radically new. This is not greatness but hubris, and it brings with it the disastrous results that follow upon hubristic enterprises. The true statesman seeks and delivers for his people such political happiness as human conditions allow. The revolutionary ideologue promises imaginary happiness and delivers genuine misery.        

The statesman is, in DeGaulle’s memorable and beautiful phrase, a “born protector.”

On Mahoney’s account, gratitude is also essential to a full appreciation of statesmanship. In the first place, the achievements of the statesman, and the qualities of mind and character he displays in pursuing them, command gratitude—particularly from his fellow countrymen, of whom he is the immediate benefactor, but also, more generally, from all human beings, who are elevated by contemplating the excellent display of humanity afforded by the great statesman’s public career. Such gratitude is, of course, now under assault. One of the book’s pleasures is found in reading Mahoney’s spirited defenses of his subjects against the “cancel culture” or “culture of repudiation” so common today. It is worth emphasizing, however, that Mahoney’s treatments are never hagiographic or simplistic. He acknowledges the flaws and limitations of the great leaders whose “portraits” he paints, thus reminding us that gratitude and admiration are not the same things as mindless reverence. 

In the second place, gratitude is itself a key motivation of the great statesman and the basis of his political moderation. In contrast to the revolutionary ideologue, the statesman is grateful for the civilization into which he has been born. This is why he is not interested in the arrogant project of fundamentally transforming what he and his countrymen have inherited. The statesman is, in DeGaulle’s memorable and beautiful phrase, a “born protector.” The man who understands himself in this way necessarily believes that he has been entrusted with something worth protecting.

Finally, The Statesman as Thinker sheds important light on how religion—Christianity in particular—has influenced the great statesmanship of the modern world. The statesman’s relationship with ordinary people is somewhat problematic. On the one hand, his task is to care for them. On the other hand, he cannot help but realize that he is far superior to them in important ways—which might in turn make him wonder whether they are worthy of his care. This tension is evident in Aristotle’s famous account of the magnanimous man, who is said to look down on others while claiming to deserve to govern them.  

Despite their self-conscious superiority, the modern figures whose careers Mahoney traces all showed solicitude for the common people. Tocqueville, for example, appreciated the dignity that ordinary citizens can achieve by participating in local self-government. Churchill dedicated serious efforts to building the British welfare state to ease the condition of the working class. Lincoln cared about the slaves. Whether or not they were orthodox Christians, these men were shaped by a civilization the moral assumptions of which had been influenced for centuries by Christianity. It is hard to believe that they could have combined their ambition for greatness with such care for the lowly if they had not taken in, with their mothers’ milk, the idea that each person is created in the “image and likeness of God,” and Jesus’ admonition that “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” 

Most strikingly, and perhaps most profoundly, Mahoney presents the reader with Vaclav Havel’s suggestion that statesmanship and the morality it presupposes depend on belief in the immortality of the soul and in a personal God. According to Havel’s Summer Meditations, genuine politics has a moral basis. Politics is experienced as a “higher responsibility,” a duty to care for the community. This sense of responsibility in turn depends on a certain “metaphysical grounding: that is, it grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere ‘above us’—an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is subject.” 

“Genuine conscience,” Havel concludes, is “explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are observed ‘from above’, that everything is visible, nothing is forgotten.” 

The great statesman wants to do noble deeds of lasting importance. But if there is no eternity, if everything—including nations and history itself—passes away into nothingness, then no deeds can be of lasting importance; and even the distinction between the noble and the base seems to become insignificant in the face of the coming darkness. The great statesman, the “born protector,” wants to take good care of the people who have been entrusted to him. But what motive is there for such care if those people, and the human race itself, are doomed to oblivion?

In contrast, the motives to care and to act become intelligible and unshakable if we understand that our deeds have an eternal significance, and that those we help have an eternal destiny. The deepest lesson of Mahoney’s book is that moral politics depends not only on our looking up to the great statesman, but on his looking up with us to something even greater. Although the statesman is a ruler who occupies the highest political office, he answers to an even higher authority. And his greatest reward is not the praise of his fellow citizens, but, after his labors in time are done, to be told in eternity: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”