Our Self-Deceptions Spawn Demagogues of Discontent

<i> Richard N. Goodwin is a writer and commentator in Concord, Mass. </i>

The most dangerous form of deceit--itself the most common of human sins--is self-deception, that unobtrusive guide to error, failure and even destruction.

It is often, and most hazardously, twinned with a tenacious “sincerity” of belief. Thus many thousands of years ago the Egyptian Pharaoh discarded the clear evidence of repeated desolation, blinded by the conviction that his own divinity would be more than a match for the powers of an obscure desert God. In our modern times and on a far less significant stage, one recalls the timorous righteousness of a Neville Chamberlain convinced that frail reason and amiable concession would arrest the hordes of brutality that were to engulf Europe and end forever that continent’s dominance of world culture.

I invoke these illustrations not as analogies but as metaphor--a dramatic device for examining the relatively insignificant but not inconsequential self-deceptions of our own public life, to which my attention is drawn by the unanticipated emergence of the cult of Lyndon La Rouche, the Marxist turned fascist whom so many are anxious to explain away as a freak and an accidental exemplar of political negligence.


La Rouche may in fact pass from the public spotlight as rapidly as the Twist and the New Coke. But those of us who not many years ago scoffed at the “fringe” movement called the “Republican Right” should by now have been humbled into taking seriously any new and “extreme” development on the American political scene.

So many fumbling insanities are blended with the La Rouche message that any substantial growth of the cult is unlikely. But the source of its existence, the restless soil that is spawning a host of demagogic movements from Falwell to Farrakhan, will continue to bring forth new and more dangerous growth. For it is composed of a real and justified discontent that finds no outlet and no champions in the established political structure. The irony, indeed the tragedy, is that the immediate beneficiaries of this discontent are likely to be the waxing right wing, which has itself created so many of the conditions of restless distress. Indeed the ruling right, aided by an increasingly timid and servile mass media, seems to have persuaded many Americans--especially those whose money, position or birth gives them disproportionate influence on society--that there is no permanent or unavoidable distress, that things were never better.

These absurdities would readily be exposed and demolished if we had an effective political opposition in this country. If, that is, the Democratic Party were not so desperately scurrying to find shelter under the virtually abandoned tent of moderate Republicanism. Terrified of being tagged as the advocates of special interest, the Democrats are tumbling into the warming embrace of the most formidable interests of all--the wealthy, the large, the powerful. In pursuit of this golden approval they are abandoning the people--not all the people, but those most in need of passionate, committed advocates willing to stake their jobs and power for the most basic principle of American justice.

As for the victims of today’s imposed distress, having lost their Democratic champions, it is little wonder that they are tempted to turn to the La Rouches, the Farrakhans, the Falwells and whatever heralds of dire conspiracies and satanic incursions the future may bring.

Social injustice is not a modern aberration, of course. It is a malady that is endemic to all societies. The real aberration in today’s America is that most of our political leadership is willing to stand silent while the harsh consequences of American injustice--the narrowing of individual opportunity--are allowed to spread.

More than 8 million people are unemployed while one-third of American families receive more than half the national income--the most grotesquely unfair distribution of wealth since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Entire manufacturing industries and their workers have been abandoned to a doctrinaire free enterprise. Hundreds of thousands of farmers are being driven from the land. The poverty of central cities has hardened into an undeveloped world within a world from which there is no escape.

We are becoming a country of three classes--the affluent, the poor and the struggling--who will soon stare angrily at one another across a barrier no longer crossable by common effort and shared growth. When that time comes, we will have demagogues aplenty to fear. And the principal responsibility will lie not with the right wing, which simply acted as it promised to act, but with the “good” people of the left who said little and did less, believing that their salvation lay in associating themselves with policies designed to destroy them.