A vigilant, civically engaged populace is critical to protecting democracy and keeping demagogues at bay, author Michael Signer told the World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond tonight.
Signer, an adjunct professor in Virginia Tech's master in International Affairs program, is the author of "Demagogue -- The Fight to Save Democracy from its Worst Enemies."
Signer, speaking at The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, said that such engagement, which he terms "constitutionalism," can prevent democracies from falling prey to the "cycle of regimes," in which people hand over their freedom and fall prey to a demagogue, who becomes a tyrant and is ultimately overthrown.
Signer, citing figures from Hitler and Mussolini to Louisiana's Huey Long and Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, said that a self-monitored culture of civic values among ordinary people is essential to protecting democracies from the rise of demagogues.
"If the people equip themselves with the kind of values that strengthen democracy, rather than weaken it, the cycle of regimes is stopped and the demagogue is murdered, essentially, in the womb," Signer said.
That ingrained culture of "civic republican values" in which ordinary people get involved, accept personal responsibility and act to control anyone who would pursue extreme degrees of authority, might seem familiar to Americans, Signer said.
But he said it has been rare in world history.
Signer said the Bush administration erred in the first years of establishing a new government in Iraq by paying no attention to ordinary Iraqis.
He praised President Barack Obama's direct engagement with ordinary people in other countries, citing his video address to the people of Iran and his Cairo speech to the Muslim world.
Signer lost the June 9 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor to Jody M. Wagner, currently the Democratic nominee. He noted that in his campaign he pushed for making it easier to restore felons' voting rights once they have served their terms.
The point is not sympathy for ex-convicts, he said. Rather, he said it would "force them to have a sense of accountability to, or responsibility for, the direction of society."