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The personal factor

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Hang around political people long enough, and you’ll become struck by how personal much of it is. Personal relationships matter a lot in places high and low.

In places like a state legislature interpersonal relationships can sometimes swamp all other considerations, leading to results even many constituents can puzzle over. So how do we figure out when something is personal and when it’s a matter of real difference over public policy?

Take a look at the Ada County Highway District, which recently has seen a squabble on its commission, and try to tease it out.

The debate goes back to midsummer and a proposal before the commission to allow a vote (on the November ballot) on whether to raise car registration fees. Of the five commission members, two - Jim Hansen and Kent Goldthorpe - voted against the idea, and three - Sara Baker, Paul Woods and Rebecca Arnold - were in favor. The measure will appear on the local ballot.

A couple of weeks later, Hansen sent an email to Goldthorpe and Woods, saying he might be persuaded to support the ballot issue if the commission supported some transit ideas he was proposing. Because that discussion involved business before the commission and because the communication involved a majority of the commission (three of the five members), Hansen violated the open meetings law. Goldthorpe in turn sent the mail to other commission members as well, compounding the situation, though he said he did that because he interpreted the Hansen note as a matter of district politics, not debate of formal board action.

The violation still seems clear enough; now, what to do about it? The state attorney general’s office was contacted for an opinion, and Deputy AG Paul Panther promptly delivered one. Yes, the law was violated, he said, but Hansen (and Goldthorpe) could resolve - “cure” - the problem simply by admitting publicly to the communication.  Both of them did that.

He did not recommend further action: “Our office is vested with the public’s trust ... These responsibilities are not served by pursuing a civil action against public officers who have admitted their mistakes and who have sought as individuals to remedy any potential injury caused by their improper conduct.”

That might have seemed like the end of the matter. It was not.

The commission’s president, Sara Baker, sent an angry letter back to Panther. She called on the attorney general’s office to “prosecute [Hansen] to the fullest extent” and “make an example of Commissioner Hansen.” (She gave Goldthorpe a pass because, she indicated, his motives were better than Hansen’s.) The commission voted 2-1 (since Hansen and Goldthorpe both abstained) to send that letter to Panther. In effect, that official commission statement represented the view of less than half of the commission, but Baker pushed it through, as such, anyway.

Panther again declined to take further action.

When we get into the subject of motivations, we wander onto tricky territory because we never can delve inside a person’s mind and conclusively determine what they’re thinking, and why.

But it doesn’t seem a far reach in this case to see at work something more than simple concern for the open meetings law, something more personal. And some of the elements involved with it - the insistence on punishment and making an example, of pushing through a minority opinion masked as that of a majority - may offer some of the indicators worth our watching in other places as well.
 

‘I believe her’

politicalwords

Once again, as this is written, people are divided into those who "believe her" and those who ...

And again we have a failure to communicate.

The he said/she said in this most recent case is that of Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Christine Blasey Ford, who has said he sexually assaulted her years ago when both were teenagers. He has denied it.

What to do about this is the subject of a heated political fight, of course. But the language framing is significant and central: To say that "I believe her" is to take a side, as was the case in many other instances especially in recent years but going back decades through Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill and before that.

The language is problematic because it comes as a reaction to an atmosphere of dismissal.

For we know not how long many, many women have found faced a stone wall when raising a complaint about a sexual/social problem - harassment, assault, rape. Too many have reported not being taken seriously, having their charges dismissed out of hand. The evidence of that reality, and of the hiding and shielding of vast numbers of truly criminal cases, is far too sweeping to be rejected any more. The rejection of mass numbers of cases, a rejection of so many women fearing responses ranging from disbelief to harassment to terrorizing, long has been one of the bigger social ills in American society (and in many other places). It merits decisive correction.

Does that mean every accusation automatically should be taken as hard fact? There lies a problem, because while the strong probability is that the great majority of these accusations point to a real (and criminal) event, not every single one does. And, as one meme suggested, the accuser should not be deemed to be a liar until proven truthful.

Maybe we should re-describe this a bit.

I believe the sun will rise in the morning because it always has (in my lifetime and long before) and because there's a sound empirical explanation for why it will. If someone told me they had witnessed a bank robbery earlier in the day, I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand - the description could be correct - but it could be mistaken. Or maybe (for reasons I can't even fathom) the person telling the story just made it up. Not likely, but possible. This is why we don't ordinarily convict in criminal cases based on one person's say-so alone.

So what does it mean, in cases like Kavanaugh-Ford, to say "I believe" the accusation?

What we might say instead is something a little more nuanced, albeit a little less (in some quarters) satisfying. In Kavanaugh-Ford, there is no (as typically there is not) any digital or other conclusive external evidence of what happened; all we know and all we are likely to know comes through the lenses of the two people involved, and possibly one additional witness.

That does not make it an insoluble situation. Ford has produced records from years ago, long predating the Kavanaugh nomination, in which she described the event in similar terms to a therapist, and other people who knew her says she spoke of it long ago. She took and passed a lie detector test (an indicator of willingness to confirm forthrightness, however valid the usefulness of the test may be). Her description was clear and specific and evidently consistent. His account seems marred by some possible inconsistencies and lack of clarity. This doesn't add up to a perfectly certain result, but it does bend the needle of probability more in her direction than in his.

Accusation should not amount to conviction, in the case of sexual assault any more than it does in murder. But that doesn't mean the accusation, if the basic facts and context hold together, shouldn't be taken seriously and acted upon.

Do I take Ford's contention seriously - seriously enough to at least throw strong doubt in the wisdom of a confirmation to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court?

Yes, certainly. Barring additional information to the contrary, it clearly meets that test.
 

Don’t be cruel

schmidt

I forgive ignorance. I tolerate stupidity. I cannot abide cruelty.

If you believe government programs foster or promote or have created slothful citizens, please, look in your heart and figure out where this sort of belief comes from. It is pretty widely held. I just heard a local politician espouse this tripe.

I will not dispute there are lazy people. Sometimes I don’t work as hard as I should, but that’s not because of any government program. The idea that programs developed to ease the burdens we all may experience in life make us lazy and then more likely to wallow in our mistake or misfortune tells me what you think of human nature. And how we react to that concept can be cruel. Don’t be cruel.

When I first ran for office I met with a local group of union workers. Their demeanor and tone told me clearly, they wouldn’t be voting for a Democrat. But I got them to tell me what was important to them. One young man asked, “Why doesn’t Idaho drug test welfare applicants?” I told him I’d look into it.

This is a popular refrain, since many believe those getting a handout from government are slothful, lazy and misusing any of our dear tax dollars. And if this is the case, we could then deny benefits to miscreants, saving tax dollars. I’m all for cutting costs, so I studied it. Many states do such testing. It has told an interesting story. The percentage of welfare applicants who test positive is well below the general population average. This drug screening program, especially when no treatment is available does nothing to reduce tax expenses, in fact the cost of testing far outweighs the money saved in denied welfare benefits.

If your goal is to help people with a drug problem, you’re going to have invest more. If your goal is to just deny benefits, be honest about it and just cut the program. But it would be best to look in your heart before you go designing any program, because that’s where this all starts.

The same can be said for the work requirements being suggested for Medicaid eligibility. Do you really think a single mother of three young kids should go without health insurance because she can’t work more than 20 hours a week?

There is a government program that has this wrong: Social Security disability. I do understand that people can have disabilities that can keep them from doing some work. But to be declared “disabled” then eligible for benefits the rules prohibit the disabled from “Substantial Gainful Activity”. In the past 20 years we have seen our disability rolls skyrocket. About 5% of the workforce are classified as disabled. And they aren’t counted in the unemployment calculations. Less than 1% of folks going onto disability ever return to the workforce. This program can be a cruel trap. A program to help the disabled should not discourage gainful activity.

People can be cruel. Government can be cruel. People are government. Get involved, speak up, vote. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be cruel.
 

The NDA’s gotta go

mckee

Most of the kerfuffle Paulette Jordan’s campaign for Idaho’s governorship is in will evaporate in another news cycle or so, with little actual damage to the candidate or her campaign.

In the ordinary scheme of things, rearranging a political campaign just before the run-up to the final event is not that unusual. Here, it is perhaps a power struggle between the candidate, the home town crowd, and some pros from afar – apparently, a political consultant and his staff brought in from Minnesota.

The hoopla over their leaving is a campaign detail that has nothing to do with the candidate’s persona, her policies, or her abilities for the office she is seeking. The problems relate only to her ability to manage a statewide election campaign, and she gets at least a half a pass here because she is new at it on the statewide level. It’s the pros from afar who should have known better. At least, to my mind, there were a whole handful of better ways they could have used to manage the transition roll out.

No matter how pissed-off the political consultant was at getting dumped, as a professional he was obligated to do no harm to the candidate or her campaign as he went out the door. The blithe statements that confidentiality agreements precluded him and his staff from giving any explanations were atrocious. His final responsibility, whether he got fired or quit in a huff, was to design an exit strategy that got him and his people out with no mud, minimal harm, and no messes to clean up after.

Jordan does need to move quickly to restore organization to her campaign, and bland press releases with no details are not the best answer here. And she does need to eliminate the one truly unexplainable and intolerable detail that might remain.

The mere existence of non-disclosure agreements is a red flag that marks clear trouble ahead. Any candidate for high office has to know and accept that every scrap of that person’s life is open to examination; one must be prepared to explain any rough or unsavory spots that might exist and under no circumstances may one be suspected of hiding anything. A non-disclosure agreement is just that - an indication that there is something to hide.

Jordan should immediately get rid of any remaining NDA’s and assure everyone that she has done so.
 

Sovereign citizen

politicalwords

The phrase “sovereign citizen” sounds in its way innocuous, even an expression of basic Americanism - of the idea that the highest office one can hold in the United States is that of citizen.

Many people who aren’t familiar with the SC “movement” maybe suckered in by that. But among people who aren’t simply throwing language around loosely, and who are serious about it, “sovereign citizen” carries a very specific meaning. And it’s ominous.

There’s no central SC organization, or even much of a central contact point; its message is sent out in a diffuse network, carried (in the manner of a mosquito) by people who claim a special insight into the conspiratorial origins of the country. There being no core doctrine or document to quote from them, let’s try the Southern Poverty Law Center’s description of how they view things:

“At some point in history, sovereigns believe, the American government set up by the founding fathers — with a legal system the sovereigns refer to as "common law" — was secretly replaced by a new government system based on admiralty law, the law of the sea and international commerce. Under common law, or so they believe, the sovereigns would be free men. Under admiralty law, they are slaves, and secret government forces have a vested interest in keeping them that way. Some sovereigns believe this perfidious change occurred during the Civil War, while others blame the events of 1933, when the U.S. abandoned the gold standard. Either way, they stake their lives and livelihoods on the idea that judges around the country know all about this hidden government takeover but are denying the sovereigns' motions and filings out of treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces.”

The theory gets a lot more elaborate.

You may find in some SC circles (and other circles in their neighborhood) a lot of interest in gold hoarding and the gold standard.

There’s a reason: Many SC advocates believe the end of the gold standard led to the federal government secretly selling the American people into de facto slavery as a prop for the currency. The fact that baby names on birth certificates ordinarily are written in capital letters is held to have a deep significance (its identity is not your identity, in rough terms) as well.

No, I’m not making this up, but they are.

And so what,you ask? Here’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or “sovereign” from the United States. As a result, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement.
This causes all kinds of problems—and crimes. For example, many sovereign citizens don’t pay their taxes. They hold illegal courts that issue warrants for judges and police officers. They clog up the court system with frivolous lawsuits and liens against public officials to harass them. And they use fake money orders, personal checks, and the like at government agencies, banks, and businesses.
That’s just the beginning. Not every action taken in the name of the sovereign citizen ideology is a crime, but the list of illegal actions committed by these groups, cells, and individuals is extensive (and puts them squarely on our radar). In addition to the above, sovereign citizens:
Commit murder and physical assault;
Threaten judges, law enforcement professionals, and government personnel;
Impersonate police officers and diplomats;
Use fake currency, passports, license plates, and driver’s licenses; and
Engineer various white-collar scams, including mortgage fraud and so-called “redemption” schemes.

In January 2017 a New Hampshire legislator, Richard Marple, tried to introduce a measure intended to fine state agencies $10,000 per instance if they “don’t buy into sovereigns’ legal make believe.” Such as? One story notes "The bill refers to 'sovereigns' as though they were a legitimate legal class, and requires 'all corporations to disclose all elements of any contract,' 'particularly those contracts involving an ens legis or strawman'.”

The terminology is an exercise in pretzel logic, unworthy of your time.

If you hear the phrase “sovereign citizen”, you might ask:
Do you mean by that an informal sense that citizens should be treated with dignity? Or are you talking about a truly bizarre conspiracy theory? There’s quite a difference.
 

Does Kavanaugh have the right stuff?

jones

Because of the carnival atmosphere of Supreme Court confirmation proceedings in recent years, it has been increasingly difficult to evaluate a nominee’s qualifications for a lifetime job on the Court. The Senators on either side like to grandstand with questions they know the nominee either will not or should not answer. The highly-coached nominee gives scripted non-answers to the occasional pertinent question that is highly relevant and should in good conscience be answered.

However, a person can get a sense of the candidate and there are a number of troubling things about Judge Brett Kavanaugh. There are allegations that he was not candid in answering questions under oath during his previous confirmation proceeding for the judgeship he now holds. Rather than rushing this proceeding, there is good reason for the Senate to explore his truthfulness in greater detail.

The Judge is short on moral courage or perhaps has just set it aside in order to get the job. When asked if he agreed with Justice Neil Gorsuch that the President’s criticism of judges and courts was “disheartening” and “demoralizing” to the judiciary, he dodged. Perhaps, he had read the reports that Gorsuch’s comments had almost caused the President to withdraw the Gorsuch nomination.

It is a clear that the continual Write House attacks on judges and the justice system are eroding the rule of law that is the very foundation of this country. Any judge worth his salt should stand up for the system. Gorsuch did and declined to retract his comments.

More concerning, though, is Kavanaugh’s refusal to say he would recuse himself from ruling in a case arising from the on-going investigation of the President. If the person who appointed you is currently under investigation in a case that may well end up before you for decision, there is a serious conflict of interest and recusal should be a no-brainer.

A judge should not sit on a case where his or her impartiality might reasonably be questioned. During my tenure on the Idaho Supreme Court, I did not recuse myself on a case unless there was a real or perceived conflict. Kavanaugh has a real conflict in this situation and should unequivocally commit to recusal.

The Judge has expressed expansive views on the powers of the president and narrow views regarding investigation of a president. His name was only added to the list of potential candidates after the Mueller investigation was launched. And, he has likely witnessed the grief that Attorney General Sessions has suffered for correctly having recused himself in that investigation and heard the President’s comments that he would not have appointed Sessions if he’d known the AG was going to recuse. Kavanaugh’s stance does not pass the smell test for moral courage.

Speaking of moral courage, what happened to what we used to think of as the “greatest deliberative body in the world?” That is what they called the U.S. Senate when I worked there for former Senator Len Jordan in the early 1970s. Senators actually considered the pros and cons of Supreme Court nominees in those days, rather than just voting the old party line.

Senator Jordan, a man of unquestionable integrity, voted against two of his party’s nominees--Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell--because, after carefully studying their records, he determined they were not of Supreme Court caliber. Jordan was joined by 16 Republicans in defeating Haynsworth and by 12 Republicans in turning down Carswell. It did not make President Nixon happy, but Jordan had a good conscience. Wish there were some like him in the Senate today.
 

Taking a knee

rainey

"Believe in something.
Even if it means sacrificing everything”

Those words come from Nike’s new advertising. They appear beneath a black-and-white picture of Colin Kaepernick who used to be an NFL quarterback. It’s the 30th anniversary of the company’s “Just Do It” slogan.

Kaepernick hasn’t played an NFL game since the end of 2016 when the San Francisco 49ers dropped him. No other team has given him a chance to continue his professional career.

His sin? Kneeling, in protest, during the playing of our National Anthem at the opening of football games. His purpose? To call national attention to this nation’s ongoing racial injustice and police brutality dealing with Black men. Just that simple. Just that profound.

But, nothing in professional sports, in my long lifetime, has been so disturbingly twisted and, in far too many cases, deliberately misunderstood. What Kaepernick did was for the reasons he stated. No more. No less. Period. Patriotism, as usually defined, had nothing to do with it. Or, did it? Real love of country could easily be applied.

He’s made an attention-grabbing “statement” to focus us all on a true national problem. That’s what protests are about. That’s what protestors do. Whether dangling from cables off a high bridge to protest environmental concerns, marching in the streets to demand an end to sexual harassment or sitting in at “Whites Only” lunch counters 55 years ago to demand equal rights for everyone. All of us.

Protests mean nothing if they don’t get attention. Attention and action. Few of us haven’t protested something. Something we felt was unjust, demeaning, illegal, criminal or just plain wrong. We’re a nation of protestors and, like it or not, our governing laws allow us to do so. Urge us to do so.

When Kaepernick decided to take a stand - or a knee, in this case - he said “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish, on my part, to look the other way.” Sounds reasonable. He used his success in football to try to accomplish his goal, while grabbing our national attention doing so. Also sounds smart.

But, there’s an often seemingly deliberate ignorance expressed over the kneeling business. Our egregious president weighted in with one of his infamous, ill-informed tweets: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field now?’” No. No, I wouldn’t.

When those kinds of words are used, the term “deliberate ignorance” is fitting. “Flag disrespect” has nothing to do with it. But, Trump’s not alone. In our little cactus-covered neighborhood, many folks are coming unglued, spewing hate and venom all over our local Facebook columns. Some are posting pictures of their burning Nike gear and bragging of how they’re “protesting” Kapernick and Nike’s stand. They do so without a touch of irony for the fact they, too, are “protesting” a perceived wrong.

Nike management knows all that. Yet, the company has staked its considerable success on a cause that management believes is just and right. We’ll see.

The NFL has, as usual, bungled what varied responses it’s made to all this. It created a “policy” forbidding kneeling. Those wishing to protest were to stay in the locker room until after playing of the Anthem. But, that was put “on hold” in July. So, there really is no “policy.”

It’s been my experience, many who protest the loudest about “disrespect of flag and country” or find other imagined “travesties” in this legitimate protest, can’t explain why such expressions have occurred. They’re too wrapped in hate and feigned “patriotism”to actually understand the issue(s).

Possibly the most “adult” response I’ve heard has come from many veterans. While some claim outrage, others have a more thoughtful - and to my mind - accurate reaction. “What he’s doing is exactly why I did three tours in Afghanistan,” said one. “To see to it he has the right to protest and that no one can take that right away.”

It’s possible to argue the form of protest Kaepernick has chosen. But, it’s impossible to dispute the reasoning. And the necessity. To a nation’s shame.
 

Idaho Weekly Briefing – September 17

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for September 17. Interested in subscribing? Send us a note at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

The Medicaid expansion ballot initiative got some organizational backing last week, as political campaigns continued to gain in visibility around the state.

The Idaho Sheriffs’ Association on September 12 endorsed Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative. If passed, Proposition 2 will provide healthcare for the 62,000 Idahoans who fall into the state’s health coverage gap.

Senator Mike Crapo, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on September 13 voted there to advance the nomination of Ryan Nelson to the full Senate for consideration. An attorney from Idaho Falls and sixth-generation Idahoan, Nelson has been nominated by President Trump to serve as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

ECobalt Solutions Inc. on September 11 said that it has successfully completed pilot-level metallurgical testing for the Company’s 100% owned Idaho Cobalt Project, located near the town of Salmon, in the Idaho Cobalt Belt.

The House Committee on Natural Resources passed H.R. 6510, the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act and H.R. 502 today, which permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Representative Mike Simpson was a leader on both issues having introduced legislation to reauthorize LWCF and address deferred maintenance on our public lands.

During his annual State of the City address this afternoon, Mayor David Bieter called on Boiseans to embrace “kindness and wonder” as the city focuses on how its continued success will shape its future.

Representative Mike Simpson praised passage of H.R. 5895, which includes the Fiscal Year 2019 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved the legislation, which also includes legislation to fund the Veterans Administration, Military Construction projects and the Legislative branch, by a vote count of 377-20.

IMAGE The Bureau of Reclamation announced that the Minidoka boat ramp construction project, below Minidoka Dam, will begin October 2. The ramp and the surrounding area will continue to be closed to the public, including all boater and angler traffic. The area will re-open after construction is completed, which is on or about December 20. (photo/Bureau of Reclamation)
 

Of demagogues and democracy

This is a guest opinion written by Gregory A. Raymond, which is Distinguished Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Boise State University and a past recipient of the Idaho Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation.

Of those men who have overturned the liberty of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by playing obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.
—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia during 1787 to craft a new system of governance for the United States, they drew upon their knowledge of history to identify potential dangers that might one day undermine the republic. The founding fathers believed that understanding the problems that marred previous experiences with citizen-centered rule would alert them to the perils that America could face in future. Foremost among their concerns was the threat that demagogues posed to civil discourse and democratic norms.

The term “demagogue” (dēmagōgos) arose in Greece during the fifth century bce to describe a new breed of charismatic politicians who sought to lead the masses by arousing their passions and appealing to their prejudices. In contrast to political figures who advocated courses of action that they believed were in the common good, demagogues used their rhetorical skills to promote policies that advanced their self-interests.

In ancient Athens, those skills were used when speaking before the Assembly (Ekklēsia), which met forty times a year on the Pnyx Hill above the city’s bustling marketplace. After speeches were delivered on an issue, the Assembly would vote and pronounce a decree, which was then implemented by magistrates and boards appointed by lot for yearlong terms. Because under the principle of isegoria (freedom of speech) all adult male citizens had an equal right to participate in Assembly deliberations, education in persuasive speaking was popular among Athenians. Gorgias of Leontini, Hippias of Elis, and Protagoras of Abdera were among the most famous itinerant teachers, known as sophists (“men of wisdom”), who offered instruction in the art of rhetoric. Pericles, the leading general and statesman of the period, mirrored the pride that Athenians had in their tradition of civic engagement. “Our ordinary citizens,” he proclaimed, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, …instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.”

Following the outbreak of plague in 430 bce, Athens fell under the spell of demagogues who flattered the common people and vowed to make them “winners.” Cleon, the most notorious of these individuals, was described by the biographer Plutarch as “a fellow remarkable for nothing but his loud voice and brazen face.” The son of a wealthy leather tanner and merchant, he was seen by blue-blooded Athenians as coarse and vulgar. Like an outer-borough New Yorker rebuffed by Manhattan patricians, Cleon was spurned by Athens’ social and cultural elites. He disparaged intellectuals, belittled critics, and lashed out at adversaries, once apparently threatening to prosecute Callistratus, producer of the play Babylonians, claiming that the performance slandered the state.

Although Cleon received an inheritance upon his father’s death, Critias, a controversial Athenian poet, insinuated that he was mired in debt and only recovered after leveraging his political position for personal gain. Knights and Wasps, satirical comedies written by Aristophanes, also implied that Cleon was corrupt, though we possess less evidence about his alleged venality than we have regarding his insolence.

Whereas Cleon was heralded by his supporters for speaking frankly (parrhēsía)—ostensibly, “telling it like it is”—Aristotle demurred that on the contrary bluster and bravado typified his oratory: “He was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language and who spoke with his cloak girt around him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner.” The historian Thucydides added that Cleon was the most violent man in Athens, someone prepared to brand those who disagreed with him as “enemies of the people.” During the fourth year of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 bce), when Mytilene, the principal city-state on the island of Lesbos, attempted to break its military ties with Athens, Cleon urged the Athenians to kill the city’s men and enslave the women and children. The Mytilenians were disloyal, he thundered. They deserved harsh punishment. Not only would this be just, but it would deter others from betraying Athens.

Even though the Athenian Assembly chose not to heed his counsel, over the next few years Cleon goaded its members into adopting a more aggressive strategy toward Sparta. He persuaded his fellow citizens to assault the Spartan position on the island of Sphacteria and reject any peace offers; he convinced them to demand a larger contribution to the war effort from Athens’ allies in the Delian League; and he recommended that they execute the adult male inhabitants of Scione, a city that had revolted against Athens. Ironically, despite his inexperience in armed conflict, Athenian forces under Cleon’s command succeeded in capturing several towns in the Chalcidice. But his ineptitude contributed to their failure to take Amphipolis, an important naval base that controlled access to timber, mines, and grain. Though he was accused by some of cowardice during the battle for the city, we lack independent corroboration of allegations about his behavior under fire. However, what the record does indicate is that Cleon was a shamelessly arrogant politician and mediocre military tactician who fraudulently promised to make Athens great again.

Cleon and the other demagogues of ancient Greece are removed from us by over two millennia. Their stories are intriguing, but what insights can we gain from them that might promote a better understanding of the political challenges of our day? Of course, the past never exactly presages the future, but examining history in a careful, discriminating way can help us think more deeply about the present.

By rebuking would-be tyrants who manipulated the anxieties and resentments of the crowd, the historians, playwrights, and philosophers of antiquity have forewarned us of the dangers that demagogues pose to democratic governance. Uppermost among these dangers is what demagogues do to civic life. Although, as Plato observed in the Republic, demagogues portray themselves as “protectors of the people,” they widen social cleavages by peddling conspiracy theories, playing one group of citizens against another, and by singling out scapegoats to blame for both real and imagined problems. They further degrade public discourse by hurling insults and spurious allegations at anyone who dares to challenge them, attempting to cow opponents into silence.

Demonizing the opposition, denying its legitimacy, and calling for its leaders to be locked up undermine the prospects for fair, inclusive, and competitive elections. Within this toxic climate, political divisions become almost impossible to bridge, which dissuades elected officials with differing viewpoints from deliberating together.

Thucydides presents a shocking description of what can happen when a society becomes polarized and political debate is infected by mutual loathing. During the fifth year of the Peloponnesian War, he depicts how Corcyra, an island located in the Ionian Sea, descended into a hellhole of civil strife. In the mayhem, political rivals became mortal enemies, with partisan loyalty transcending the bonds of family, religion, and ethnicity. Language was perverted as words lost their ordinary meanings. Recklessness came to be seen as courage, prudence as cowardice, and temperance as weakness. Extremists were considered honorable; moderates, traitorous. Piety and law were distorted for factional ends, as militants in each camp disavowed common moral ground.

When language is debased, and conventions governing honest discourse weaken, demonstrably false claims presented as “alternative facts” increasingly contaminate policy discussions. “What you are seeing,” demagogues tell the populace, “is not what is happening.” “Truth,” their apologists assert, “isn’t truth.” Deliberately employed to sow doubt about what to believe, incessant falsehoods overwhelm listeners and beget resignation, inducing people to live public life as passive subjects rather than as active participants. In this environment of uncertainty and suspicion, civic trust erodes and the normative pillars of democracy—tolerance, forbearance, and compromise—crumble.

America’s founders recognized that modern demagogues, like their ancient predecessors, posed a serious problem for democratic governance. Armed with beguiling words but bereft of realistic plans for solving social and economic problems, demagogues hope to capitalize on the chaos they provoke. Writing in Federalist No. 68, Alexander Hamilton cautioned against any “man unprincipled in private life” and “bold in his temper” who would “throw affairs into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind’.” Rather than embodying what the Greeks called sōphrosunē—discretion and self-control—such a person, Hamilton feared, would act impulsively and “fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day.”

The founders believed that the Hellenic world’s experience with demagogues was worth pondering because the ancients wrestled with questions about the advantages and drawbacks of rule by the one, the few, and the many. Demagogues would occasionally gain power in democratic political systems, the Greeks acknowledged; nevertheless, no matter how entrenched such aspiring tyrants might seem, their footing remained insecure. Deep-seated character flaws ultimately would trip them up.

Individuals who unendingly boast of their intelligence and wealth, who traffic in malice and divisiveness, and who bully and humiliate others, show symptoms of hybris—unbridled arrogance.

“All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears,” warned the tragedian Aeschylus. His portrayal in Persians of King Xerxes’ catastrophic losses at Salamis to a smaller flotilla of Greek warships underscores the heavy reckoning ordained by overweening pride. Those suffering from hybris lack the capacities for empathy and introspection. Callous and unreflective, they succumb to atē, the commission of an outrageous, morally blind act that leads to their fall, or nemesis. “A man’s character,” concluded the philosopher Heracleitus, “is his fate.”