Characteristics of Demagoguery
By Trish Roberts-Miller
In popular usage, “demagoguery” simply means “effective rhetoric on behalf of a political agenda I dislike.” Not only is that a useless definition, but, if anything, it increases the likelihood of people being persuaded by demagoguery. The term once meant “leader of the non-elite” so, essentially, “populist,” and it wasn’t necessarily a criticism. By the 4th century BCE, it seems to have been used often to mean a destructive approach to popular discourse, one that undermines the chances of a community coming to an effective solution to their problems.
If one works backwards from times that communities have been persuaded to solve their problems in ways that ultimately destroy them (such as engaging in genocide, denying rights to some group, or starting an expensive and unnecessary war) one ends up with a definition that does NOT emphasize populism or emotionalism, something like this:
Demagoguery is a discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric through framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and means by which (not whether) the outgroup should be punished for the current problems of the ingroup. Public debate largely concerns three stases: group identity (who is in the ingroup, what signifies outgroup membership, and how loyal rhetors are to the ingroup); need (usually framed in terms of how evil the outgroup is); what level of punishment to enact against the outgroup (restriction of rights to extermination).
Demagoguery is always polarizing, and always relies on binaries. It is not distinguished by emotionalism or populism, not only because lots of very good and helpful methods of deliberation are emotional and populist, but because it is often not emotional at all, and quite often elite discourse. Demagoguery can look “rational” in that it can provide a lot of data, numbers, assertions, and even analyses (as in Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, or Laughlin’s report for the 1924 Immigration Act).
It has certain characteristics:
Binary paired terms. A concept described by Chaim Perelman, paired terms are sets of binaries that are assumed to describe a logical relationship. So, for instance, a common set of paired terms in demagoguery is:
Thus, one either punishes or rewards others. To punish others is strong and manly; to reward them is weak and girly.
Naïve realism. Many people believe that it is both possible and desirable to perceive the world exactly as it is, with no mediation; the most “objective” interpretation is the one with the least interpretation, a mental state to which one can will oneself largely by rejecting complicated thinking about the situation. This model of perception (and cognition assumes that one’s perception of the world is based on “realistic, unbiased interpretations” (“Naive Realism”Encyclopedia of Social Psychology Ed. Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007. p602-603.).
Naïve realism privileges simple explanations (since they are most likely to correspond to direct perception), and increases the tendency toward confirmation bias (since people tend to perceive more easily and quickly any information that confirms their current beliefs). Thus, paradoxically, the belief that one is the sort of person who always sees the world exactly as it is increases the likelihood not just of being wrong, but of being wrong in the same ways and about the same things over and over.
In addition, because naïve realists deny that they are looking at the world in a way that is from a particular perspective (let alone mediated) they see no need to learn to perspective-shift (in fact, they often believe they can see all perspectives from their position). They not only universalize from their perspective (theirs is universal, and all others are particular) but universalize their needs and desires (when coupled with a strong faith in group entitivaty, this universalizes contributes both toward projection and the fallacy of false equivalence).
Finally, naïve realism enhances faith in group entitativity (the belief that groups are discrete categories with essential differences) and negates any need to consider one’s beliefs in terms of falsifiability. In short, while adherents of naïve realism believe that they have direct perception of the world, they are singularly prone to bigotry and authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism. Authoritarianism as a worldview (rather than political system) has three main aspects:
First, authoritarian submission is one's willingness to comply with established authorities placing very narrow limits on people's rights to criticize authorities. Second, authoritarians advocate sanction against those whom they deem detrimental to established authorities. Authoritarian aggression is enhanced by the belief that established authority at least tacitly approves it or that it will help preserve established authority. Thus, the theory of authoritarianism is closely related to the theory of social dominance. Finally, authoritarians tend to commit to the traditional social norms that are endorsed by society and its established authorities. Targets of authoritarian aggressiveness are often directed toward unconventional people or those defined as social deviants, such as homosexuals. (“Authoritarianism.” Encyclopedia of Political Communication Ed. Lynda Lee Kaid and Christina Holtz-Bacha. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008. p45-47. Joon Soo Lim)
Demagoguery correlates strongly to authoritarianism; in fact, I haven’t found any demagoguery that doesn’t appeal to authoritarianism, or is not in service of authoritarian policies. In theory, there could be a non-authoritarian demagoguery, but I haven’t found it.
Authoritarians fear change, and yet, paradoxically, are not averse to enacting radical and very new policies as long as they are framed as a return to or strengthening of “conventional” or “traditional” values. While authoritarians say they are strongly in favor of “traditional” values, those values are often of very recent origin. In other words, “traditional” is not a historical claim (that is, a claim that historical research will show these values, actions, or beliefs to have a long and broad history) but a personal claim (that these values and so on are all that this person has known—it is surprising to me how often “traditional” simply means “how I was raised”).
Assumption/assertion of ontologically-grounded taxonomies. Perhaps because demagoguery relies on binaries, it assumes that either things (ideas, perceptions, values, illnesses, identities, personalities) are either entirely subjective (that is, defined by idiosyncratic belief, transient, and essentially unreal) or entirely objective (that is, eternal, Real, and existing entirely outside individual perception). Thus, demagoguery has tremendous difficulty with social constructed “facts” (such as race, money, gender norms, cultural practices). Such concepts are assumed to be either subjective (so that they claim not to see race) or grounded in the very fabric of the cosmos (and therefore beliefs to which we must submit).
Coupled with naïve realism, this means that demagoguery imagines public deliberation as a place in which people with accurate perception point out the Real Truth to others who, if they are also capable of unmediated perception, will instantly see it. Public discourse is, in other words, primarily a realm in which one demonstrates the clarity of one’s vision, one’s ingroup membership, one’s loyalty to that group, and one’s willingness to engage in punitive action on behalf of the ingroup/against the outgroup(s).
Deductive reasoning. Hence, demagoguery is all about certainty, accuracy, and “facts,” all of which can be deduced from 1) “traditional” practices, values, beliefs (as defined above—they are the most familiar and comfortable to the audience); 2) “traditional” interpretations of authoritative texts; 3) reasoning backwards from what must necessarily be true to maintain current hierarchies (racial, gender, national, or economic).
Thus, demagoguery often reasons from what “must” be true, even in cases when there is adequate empirical evidence. To argue for a particular policy that has often been enacted, one does not reason from what has happened in the past when these policies were enacted, but from what must or should happen if one’s premises are correct. Premises are thereby protected from falsification—the very things that might throw them into question (conditions in which they are shown to be falsified) is rejected precisely on the grounds that it would falsify the premises.
Because of this reliance on deductive reasoning that works from premises guarded from falsification, there is a strong tendency in demagoguery to refuse to redeem claims—that is, demagoguery will not provide evidence that demonstrates the major premises, only arguments deducible from them, or examples (or citations) that support them.
Hence, while demagoguery can look rational (in the sense of having a lot of data and not necessarily having any emotional appeals) what makes it profoundly illogical is that the logic of the arguments often wraps in on itself.
Identity as logic. Probably the most complicated aspect of demagoguery to describe is how identity functions. The central presumption behind demagoguery—and the most attractive promise it makes—is a stable taxonomy of identity, woven into the fabric of the universe. The taxonomy is also a hierarchy; some people are entitled to more goods than others by virtue of being better—they are better by virtue of having a certain identity, regardless of their behavior. Hence, paradoxically, members of the ingroup (by virtue of being essentially “better” people) are held to lower standards, and can behave worse.
Bad behavior on the part of ingroup members is explained externally (they made a mistake, they were forced into it) and is dismissed as meaningless; bad behavior on the part of outgroup members, however, signifies their true identity. Good behavior on the part of ingroup members signifies their true identity, and good behavior on the part of outgroup members is explained by external characteristics or bad motives.
One consequence is that precisely the same behavior in both groups is explained in dyslogistic terms for the outgroup (they are greedy) and eulogistic terms for the ingroup (they are hard-working). This dichotomy enables projection (explained below).
Another consequence is that effective performance of ingroup membership serves as adequate evidence for one’s claims (people believe the argument because the person seems reliable) and dismissal of counter-claims (she can’t have done that because she is such a good X).
Projection. Demagoguery relies on condemning the outgroup for what the ingroup is doing. This step is absolutely necessary for scapegoating (that is, for holding some group responsible for the ingroup’s problems). This projection has several forms.
Fallacy of moral equivalence. Because demagoguery relies on and reinforces naïve realism, it appeals to a sense that everyone is just like the ingroup, and that helps members of the ingroup to believe that the outgroup(s) is doing exactly what they are; coupled with a sense that all outgroup members are interchangeable with one another, this sense means that one can accuse everyone in the outgroup of doing “just as much” as what the ingroup is doing. Or, in other words, if the ingroup is engaged in any activity that creates cognitive dissonance (we are an honorable group and we are engaged in this dishonorable activity) this dissonance is resolved by asserting that the outgroup does it too. Because that enables the “both sides do it” topos, this belief inhibits any desire bystanders might have to engage in condemnation of scapegoating. It’s the fallacy of false equivalence in that the behavior of fringe members of the outgroup is equated to central members of the ingroup, or single instances of violence are framed as “just as bad” as mass violence, or minor ingroup inconveniences are equated to denial of rights, or criticism is framed as “just as bad” as hate speech (i.e., calling someone racist is “just as bad” as saying something racist).
Cunning projection. Condemning the outgroup for the same thing the ingroup does effectively distracts on-lookers, making it complicated for them to figure out the cause-effect. For instance, demagoguery that condemns outgroup self-defense as “just as bad” as ingroup offensive violence necessitates that on-lookers investigate the chain of events carefully enough to figure out who was the attacker. Since on-lookers generally don’t want to go to that trouble, they are likely to make the determination on the basis of which party seems more likeable. Hence, cunning projection coupled with an attractive persona is likely to enable the continued violence.
If condemnation of outgroup behavior is performed with a very likeable persona, then on-lookers are likely to conclude that the rhetor would never engage in the behavior s/he is condemning. This maneuver is especially effective with people who believe that you can know what someone believes by listening to what values they claim to espouse, and with people who think you can predict behavior by listening to values talk (who believe that “good” believe—that is, people who say the right things—don’t do “bad” things).
Thus, when cunning projection is most effective, rhetors manage the condemnation of a group who has done nothing, or done very little compared to what they have done (what Allport called the “mote-beam” projection).
Even if it doesn’t achieve that end, cunning projection generally muddies the waters enough that the ingroup can continue its policies, as on-lookers are prone to declare a pox on both houses.
Victimization. One thing that surprises people about demagoguery, or that they don’t expect to see, is that it relies heavily on a rhetoric of victimization. The ingroup is being victimized by the situation (often by being treated the same as the outgroup, so there is a kind of political narcissism operating), and the claim is that the ingroup has responded to this victimization with extraordinary patience and kindness. (If the actual history is disenfranchisement and violence, then that behavior is reframed and patience and kindness because it could have been worse.)
Now, however, to react with anything other than punitive violence (to try to think about the situation, or deliberate on it, or include the outgroup in any deliberations) is weak, vacillating, cowardly, and feminine.
As a consequence, demagoguery has to square the circle of inspiring fear while not looking fearful (since fearfulness is being paired with thinking and deliberating)—there are often claims of extraordinary courage in the face of a terrible situation, or a representation of one’s self as calm and reasonable while making apocalyptic predictions, and the odd insistence of the sheer rationality of hyperbolic claims (I will admit, this is one aspect of demagoguery that often makes me laugh).
Metaphors. In addition to heavy reliance on the metaphors related to Strong Father Morality (see Lakoff, Moral Politics, especially Chapters Five and Six), demagoguery associates metaphors of vermin, disease, taint, queerness (that is, transgressive behavior), monstrosity (that is, hybridity), disorder, lack of control (licentiousness), thinking, and demonic possession with the outgroup. It associates purity, tumescence (specifically, and masculinity, generally), order, action, decisiveness, and control with the ingroup. It associates dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness with people considering protecting or defending the outgroup in any way.