NEW YORK —Democracy requires political disputes. There is an important line, however, between strong, even angry disagreement and demonization of the character of political opponents and of their ideas, according to Tom De Luca, Ph.D., professor of political science and director of the International-Intercultural Studies Program at Fordham University.
Liars! Cheaters! Evildoers!: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics (New York University Press, 2005), written by De Luca and long-time friend and colleague John Buell, a former professor of political science, and now a columnist for the Bangor Daily News, highlights the rise of what the authors label the “demonization” of American politics, and calls for a return to civil debate where democracy and freedom of speech can coexist in a productive, idea-rich environment.
“This is not an argument against rough-and-tumble politics,” De Luca said. “It’s an effort to analyze some of the human temptations, and American political and cultural pressures toward demonization of opponents, and to argue that now is the time to restore a respect for individuals and groups with whom we don’t agree politically. De Luca asks: What about American political culture promotes demonization? And what in our culture can serve as resources to combat it?” For De Luca, these two questions are paramount.
The authors identify what they call the “politics of moral personae,” a characteristically American form of political attack, where a leader’s personal character is assailed. These purported flaws are presented by opponents as moral defects that are representative of that leader’s political platform and supporters. Retaliation often mimics the attack, and the demonization perpetuates itself.
Tough criticism should not slip into demonization—by which an opponent is transformed into consummate evil—De Luca insists. Terms like “evil” should be reserved for those who really deserve them, like Osama bin Laden, he said. Otherwise, we corrupt our ability to have serious moral discourse.
The concept for the book originated during the media frenzy surrounding the Clinton scandals of the late 1990s, De Luca said, and continued to grow through the polarized political environment that manifested itself in the elections of 2000 and 2004. According to De Luca, the media fueled animosity between the opposing political parties during this time, and distracted the country.
“The competition among talk shows prompted many of them to devote virtually every show for a year to charges and countercharges, leading up to and through Clinton’s impeachment, ratcheting up the rhetoric … Meanwhile, the planning for 9/11 was already underway.“
The book is a product of a 30-year discussion between De Luca and Buell, who met in the early ’70s as Ph.D. students in Amherst, Massachusetts, on the “simultaneous needs in politics and society for both individual and community, for liberty and justice,” according to the book’s introduction. It illustrates a growing trend of character attacks fueling political campaigns and offers strategies for finding where to draw the line between critiquing public service and political platforms—and demonizing personal character. The authors call for a “Democracy without demons.”
“Sometimes in the name of righteousness, whether from the right, left or center,” De Luca said, “people go beyond the pale in their attacks.”
“This book is a modest effort to re-inject a higher moral purpose back into politics,” he said, “to discover how we, as a people, can together achieve a higher quality of life-including our spiritual life.”