Teacher Neutrality and Fairness in a Culture of Demagoguery


Matt Grossman and David Hopkins, when talking about what they call “the ferocity of today’s political battles,“ point out that our political discourse isn’t primarily policy argumentation:

Democrats and Republicans not only attack each other for subscribing to misguided beliefs about optimal public policy but also regularly question each other’s motives, intelligence, and judgment; suggest their opponents are not making good-faith arguments; and accuse each other of merely doing the bidding of special interests or pandering to popular prejudices. (329)

To the extent that we talk policy, it’s about what advocating or critiquing the policy means about the identity of the rhetor—we don’t argue about whether policies are racist, but whether rhetors are. The foundational cultural logic of too much of our public discourse presumes that all questions can be reduced to the question of the motives of the rhetors, and that question can be settled by determining their in-group.

And I need to begin with an aside about what I’m not arguing in this paper since I’ve found this is such a fraught topic. In addition, and this is fundamental to our challenges as teachers—Arlie Kruglanski, Daniel Kahneman, and others have shown, we tend to reason syllogistically. That is, on meeting a new person, or even reading an argument, our first cognitive task is to categorize the person or argument—to put them in a social group, genre, political or philosophical affiliation. We decide what larger group they’re in, and they deduce that because they’re in That Group, they must believe These Things. They must believe the other things we assume are necessarily connected with being in That Group.

Since a large part of what I’m critiquing is the reduction of all political questions to in-group/out-group membership, it might sound as though I’m advocating some kind of neo-Habermasian public sphere of brains arguing with one another, and I’m not. A public sphere in which identity arguments were prohibited would be not only impossible, I suspect, but irrational—identities are relevant claims. I’m not objecting to arguments about or grounded in identity; I am saying that reducing all questions to ones of social group identity (in which each identity group is presumed to be homogeneous and perfectly constitutive) is vexed. It becomes actively damaging when that reduction is tied to the assumption that only one of those groups (an in-group) is constituted of people of intelligence and goodwill whose views are the only valid bases for public policy.

In other words, when the point of raising the question of identity is because we, as a community, are trying to hand deliberative power over to an individual (or individuals) who embody/ies that homogeneous Real American, Real Slaveholder, Real German, then we’re in a culture of demagoguery. There are other characteristic.

I’ve argued elsewhere that we’re in a culture of demagoguery, by which I mean that there are certain widely-shared premises about politics and public discourse:

  • Every policy/political issue has a single right answer, and all other answers are wrong;
  • That correct answer to any political question is obvious to people of good will and good judgment (that is, to good people);
  • The in-group (us) is good;
  • Therefore, anyone who disagrees with the in-group or tries to get a different policy passed isn’t just mistaken or coming from a different perspective or pointing out things it might be helpful for the in-group to know, but bad, and
  • Deliberation and debate are unnecessary, and compromise is simply making a good policy less good.
  • So, in a perfect world, all policy decisions would be made by the in-group or the person who best represents the in-group’s needs,
  • And, therefore, the ideal political candidates are fanatically loyal to the in-group and will shut or shout down anyone who disagrees.

[By in-group, social psychologists don’t mean the group in power, but the social group of which one is a member. So, for some people, being a dog lover is an in-group, even (or especially) in the midst of a culture in which that identity is marginalized.]

This is not the conventional way of thinking about demagoguery—if you look at a dictionary, it will probably define demagoguery as speech by demagogues (in other words, it reduces the issue to one of identity—a demagogic move).

In common usage, demagoguery is often assumed to be obviously false speech that is completely emotional, untrue, and evidence-free on the part of bad people with bad motives.

That’s a useless definition for various reasons (including that it doesn’t even apply to many of the most notorious demagogues); it’s also actively harmful in that it impedes our ability to identify in-group demagoguery—that is, demagoguery on the part of people we like. And it does so because we can tell ourselves this isn’t demagoguery if:

  • we think we are calm while reading the text, and the text (or rhetor) has a calm tone
  • we believe the claims in the text are true
  • the claims can be supported with evidence
  • we believe the people making the argument are good people
  • we believe they have good motives

One of the things I want to suggest in this talk is that teachers of writing are often unintentionally engaged in reaffirming the premises on which demagoguery operates, and we can do so in two general ways: first, by teaching criteria of “bad argumentation” (or demagoguery or propaganda or whatever devil term is in question) that don’t productively identity the problems of certain kinds of public discourse, thereby giving people a false sense of security—as in the above criteria. We can feel comfortable that we aren’t consuming or producing demagoguery when we are. Second, a lot of writing and especially argumentation textbook appeal to the rational/irrational split, assume a binary in epistemologies (so that one is either a naïve realist or relativist), require that students engage in motivism, and rely on a modernist formalism about what constitutes “good” writing.

For instance, if you look at the criteria for determining demagoguery, you can see the standards often advocated for a “good” argument.

If, as I’ll argue, that isn’t a helpful way to think about demagoguery, then the consequent way of teaching argumentation not only ends up reinforcing demagogic premises about public deliberation, but puts teachers in a really difficult place for talking productively about issues like bias and fairness.

There are other ways that we unintentionally get ourselves into a complicated situation:

  • Teaching writing process as first coming up with the thesis and then doing research
  • Teaching research as finding sources to support one’s point
  • Teaching audience in terms of social groups (e.g., teachers, conservatives, women) and identities (as though those identities are necessarily connected to particular values and beliefs)
  • Reinforcing the notion that rational and irrational are issues of logic versus emotion
  • Teaching bias as something that can and should be determined by identity, and thereby encouraging motivism

It’s important to note is that the above criteria for assessing whether something is demagogic are useless insofar as they’re circular—demagoguery is what THEY do. And a community in which we’re all flinging the accusation of demagoguery like bricks over a wall isn’t one in which we’re going to come to good decisions. We’re still participating in public discourse on the basis of assuming that only our in-group is good and has legitimate policies.

This premise—that only the in-group has a legitimate political agenda—has various important premises and consequences:

  • the notion that the true course of action is obvious to good-willed people comes from our cultural tendency to rely on naïve realism (a notion reinforced by public discourse that says the only two possible epistemologies are naïve realism or sloppy solipsistic/relativism);
  • the rational/irrational split: that is, the notion that an argument is rational (unemotional, true, and supported with reasons) or irrational (emotional, untrue, and made by the out-group)
  • the fundamental attribution error (the tendency to attribute different kinds of motives and behaviors on the basis of group membership)

For the next part of the talk, I’m going to go through each of those.

Naïve realism is both an epistemology and ontology—it presumes a Real world entirely external to human cognition or perception (so it’s a foundational ontology) AND that the unmediated perception of that world is easy.

In such an epistemology, the assumption is that we perceive things accurately and then distort those perceptions through the imposition of prejudice or bias. Thus, if you are biased, you can know, because you simply ask yourself if you distorted what you initially perceived—if you are not aware of any distortion, then you can’t possibly be biased.

It is a talking point in some media that you either believe this epistemology (that whether something is right or wrong, true or untrue, is immediately obvious to good people) or else you are a postmodernist, which is a devil term for a sloppy kind of solipsistic relativism—that all beliefs are equally true, there is no right and wrong, and no one has the right to judge anyone else. But those aren’t the only options.

Such a world implies that either there is one right answer to political issues or it’s just a question of what party manages to force its agenda on everyone else—neither of those epistemologies supports democratic deliberation. And neither is accurate for how most of us spend most of our days.

We rely heavily on science, for instance, which is grounded in a foundational ontology, but a skeptical epistemology (with various scientists at various points on a continuum of skepticism about human’s abilities to perceive accurately as individuals or communities, and another continuum about our ability to justify our beliefs—that is, to know whether we know).

So, one thing teachers can do is avoid the false binary of naïve realism or solipsistic relativism, and encourage students to see ourselves as in a place of more and less educated guesses—certainty is a question of degree, not a binary.

The next premise is complicated to explain, and it’s complicated largely because American teaching of argumentation has been unhappily oblivious to the field of argumentation theory.

In formal logic, one can determine whether an argument is logical purely internal by the internal moves. A good argument has certain forms. That works with formal logic, since the arguments are about p and q but, as even Aristotle pointed out, it doesn’t work when you get into the world of politics. Politics, like ethics, is a phronesis, not an episteme.

Informal logic relies on what is happening within a disagreement; it’s about context—the straw man fallacy, for instance, is the dumbing down of an opposition argument. To know if a rhetor has engaged in that fallacy, we have to know what the opposition argument is.

That’s important because it means that it isn’t possible to stay within an informational enclave and judge the rationality of an argument. Being a rational participant in public deliberation doesn’t mean being unemotional—that’s neither possible nor desirable—but it does mean actively seeking out and listening to the best versions of the opposition arguments. It means the opposite of what demagoguery tells us—stop listening to any argument the second you determine it’s an out-group argument—and it also means acknowledging that the out-group is varied enough that there are various arguments that might be made.

Once you start trying to find the best out-group arguments, you quickly determine that there are a lof of non-in-group groups. The whole in-group/out-group binary collapses. We have a tendency to homogenize the out-group, and to treat them as interchangeable, so if we can find one member of the out-group with a stupid argument, we attribute that argument to the whole group.

Rationality isn’t about emotionality or lack thereof; it’s about how an argument works in a disagreement, and it can come down to three rules: first, a rational argument is internally consistent (terms are used consistently, it appeals to premises consistently); second, whatever rules there are apply across groups; third, the issue is up for argument—participants can identify evidence or arguments that would cause them to change their minds. Rational argument is about taking on the responsibilities of argument, and those responsibilities apply equally across groups.

When we rely on in-group/out-group thinking, we apply responsibilities differently.


  Good behavior Bad behavior
In-group Internal narratives of causality External narratives of causality
Out-group External narratives of causality Internal narratives of causality


The in-group always has the moral highground, even if doing something we condemn the out-group for doing: when the in-group behaves well, it’s because that’s who we essentially are. If the in-group behaves badly, we were forced, that’s an exception, it wasn’t a true in-group member.

But, if a member of the out-group does something bad, that bad behavior is a sign of their essentially bad nature, and that is the fundamental attribution error.  And that’s the third factor that contributes to demagogic reasoning and discourse.

And these three factors—naïve realism, misunderstanding rationality, and the fundamental attribution error—contribute to very unhelpful ways of thinking about bias, precisely the ones that get teachers into complicated situations.

“Bias” is often assumed to be the necessary consequence of group identity—that is, having a particular group identity necessarily biases us in specific ways , and that makes sense in a culture of demagoguery—all arguments can be reduced to questions of identity because, in this world, it is assumed that identity is constitutive of belief, and that groups are essentially homogeneous.

As I said, demagoguery appeals to the unhappily common notion that the correct course of action is always obvious, even in politics, and that the in-group advocates that obviously correct course of action.

The only criticisms of the in group that is allowed in a culture of demagoguery are to say that members of the in group are not sufficiently passionate or fanatical about in group policy agenda, or have been allowing the outgroup to get away with too much.

Refusal to engage in substantive criticism of the policies or premises of the in-group is proof that one is not loyal to the in-group—a member of an out-group, in other words. And, since out-group members have distorted perception, criticism of the in-group is, in and of itself, proof of “bias.”

In a culture of demagoguery, the very act of disagreeing demonstrates that one is too biased for one’s criticisms to be considered.

And, since, in a culture of demagoguery, the out-group is figured as demonic, even listening to an out-group member is risking contamination, so disagreement is itself a sign of the presence of evil that is to be crushed, rather than a point of view that might have value. Giorgio Agamben argues that in a state of exception, groups that claim to honor law do so through not-law; I’m suggesting that we might think about not-logic—that some groups claim that we are in such a state of exception that groups claim to be entirely logical by rejecting logic. It’s not-logic.

Since the premise of democratic deliberation is that disagreement benefits a community, and the premise of a college education is that it prepares students for effective participation in a democratic culture, teachers who want to promote the democratic values of empathy, fairness, and reasoned disagreement can find themselves in a fraught situation.

And it’s a situation about which everyone should be concerned.

We live in a culture in which it is only allowed to condemn them—we are supposed to be in such an existential crisis (the in-group is about to exterminated) that we should not allow in-group criticism. We are in Agamben’s state of exception, in which free speech is honored by silencing people who disagree.

One of the reasons that cultures of demagoguery tend to crash is that they cannot learn from their errors—because they can’t admit that they made errors. Think about German nationalists, none of whom would admit that fear-mongering about encirclement, belief in the redemptive power of war, racism, and a sense of entitlement to European hegemony all contributed to the tragedy that was World War I, and so they ratcheted up fear of encirclement, rhetoric about the redemptive power of war, racism, and assertions of entitlement to European hegemony, and made the same mistake again, with tragic world consequences.

Assuming that criticism of the in-group claims or policies signifies bias ensures that the in-group will keep making the same mistake over and over—it precludes argumentation about means and process. Hitler wasn’t just wrong as to whether Germany was entitled to European hegemony, survival of the fittest, and his incoherent racial policies, he was wrong as to how communities should make decisions—he was wrong about content and process.

As teachers, we aren’t just teaching content; we’re teaching process. But people often assume we’re teaching content—in an authoritarian model of teaching, the teacher pours knowledge into the head of students. We are trying to get students to understand that it’s about metacognition.

Students are inoculated to see us as teaching a sloppy relativism, and trying to force them to adhere to our political agenda—that is, a lot of students listen to media that always equates “out-group” and “biased” and that projects their kind of indoctrination onto everyone else. So, the message is that teachers, who are all Marxists, will force students to repeat Marxist talking points.

One way to try to move students to a more fair analysis of politics if for us to be very clear that we don’t equate “out-group” and “biased” by identifying some out-group texts as good, and some in-group texts as biased. We shouldn’t be engaged in demagoguery. We should model that the world isn’t in-group and out-group, but a lot of people with different perspectives.

There is another way that people reason from identity, and it’s very concerning for people who believe in democracy. A disturbing number of Americans believe that they represent true Americans, and that anyone with a different set of political concerns shouldn’t count. Thus people on various forms of government subsidy are outraged about other people on government subsidy, not because they’re hypocrites, but because they believe that their needs (and the needs of people like them) are legitimate because they embody true Americans. The Ur assumption is that there is a single identity of True American—if we could get people past that, everyone would benefit. But that’s a different talk.

So, government subsidies for corn is the government looking out for true Americans, but government subsidies for solar energy is pandering to special interests—because corn farmers are true Americans, and solar energy people are not. That’s in-group/out-group reasoning.

We need to teach a different way of reasoning.

I’m not advocating what is often called a “liberal” pedagogy, in which all positions offered are treated as equally valid, nor a liberatory pedagogy, in which positions the teacher considers oriented toward genuine critique are privileged, but a fair pedagogy, in which all positions are assessed on the basis of whether they engage the most informed and intelligent opposition positions. It is a classroom in which students have to be fair to opposition positions—that is, holding them to the same standards they hold the in-group arguments—and in which teachers do the same.

Does that mean that every class has to relitigate evolution, or the causes of the Civil War (if you think it wasn’t slavery, read the declarations of causes), or racism? No.

But it does mean that we either begin the class with an open premise that the conversation of the course will be within certain premises (a literature course about slave narratives can begin with the premise that slavery was bad, a physics course can begin with the premise that gravity is a thing) or we set up the parameters of the writing assignments such that students aren’t writing about something we aren’t willing to relitigate.

In other words, “open” assignments are just asking for trouble, and the resulting papers can’t possibly be assessed by the standards of rational-critical argumentation unless the workload is unethical.

“Open” assignment prompts assume one of two things: either the rationality of an argument is entirely internal to a text, or the teacher assessing the argument knows the entire sphere of argumentative possibilities.

The first is indefensible, and the second requires that someone be even more of a political geek than I am, or that the teacher do massive research for every paper. Or, the teacher is engaged in in-group/out-group thinking and believes that out-group arguments are pretty much all the same. Open assignments mean teachers have an extraordinary engagement in political discourse, an unethical workload, or are promoting demagoguery.

And, unless the teacher really does read all the arguments about all the issues, a teacher cannot assess the logic of an argument.

I’m sure I just alienated almost everyone in this room, but I’m going ahead with this argument, because I think it’s important.

A huge part of the problem in rhetoric and composition is that the most popular textbooks of argumentation are cheerfully uninformed by actual scholarship in argumentation theory. For a long time—such as at least since Aristotle—there have been people who have argued that logic operates differently in spheres of inherent uncertainty (such as politics and ethics) and those who insist that logic is universal (Plato appears to have been in this category, but there are arguments about that—after all, he did have Aristotle teaching rhetoric). Logical positivism tried to ground all discourse in formal logic—that is, the notion that a logical argument has a particular form, one that operates universally. So, a specific argument is logical or not regardless of context. The Anglo-analytic tradition treats formal logic as the true logic, and informal logic as just bad formal logic. That’s a fallacy.

Also, that way of approaching argument led to a binary—since it obviously doesn’t work when people are arguing politics, there was a sense of logic either being a dominating and normative smackdown that seemed to make all actual political arguments illogical, or (and therefore) the embrace of the logic of an argument being determined by audience reaction.

In the 1970s, scholars of argumentation made a move that is still not represented in argumentation textbooks: the logic of an argument is determined by its place in a particular kind of conversation.

Were argumentation textbooks informed by argumentation theory, then teachers would asses arguments on this basis:

  1. Freedom rule
    Parties must not prevent each other from advancing standpoints or from casting doubt on standpoints.
  2. Burden of proof rule
    A party that advances a standpoint is obliged to defend it if asked by the other party to do so.
  3. Standpoint rule
    A party’s attack on a standpoint must relate to the standpoint that has indeed been advanced by the other party.
  4. Relevance rule
    A party may defend a standpoint only by advancing argumentation relating to that standpoint.
  5. Unexpressed premise rule
    A party may not deny premise that he or she has left implicit or falsely present something as a premise that has been left unexpressed by the other party.
  6. Starting point rule
    A party may not falsely present a premise as an accepted starting point nor deny a premise representing an accepted starting point.
  7. Argument scheme rule
    A party may not regard a standpoint as conclusively defended if the defense does not take place by means of an appropriate argumentation scheme that is correctly applied.
  8. Validity rule
    A party may only use arguments in its argumentation that are logically valid or capable of being made logically valid by making explicit one or more unexpressed premises.
  9. Closure rule
    A failed defense of a standpoint must result in the party that put forward the standpoint retracting it and a conclusive defense of the standpoint must result in the other party retracting its doubt about the standpoint.
  10. Usage rule
    A party must not use formulations that are insufficiently clear or confusingly ambiguous and a party must interpret the other party’s formulations as carefully and accurately as possible. (Van Eemeren, Grootendorst & Snoeck Henkemans, 2002, pp.182-183—which I got from Wikipedia, meaning that argumentation textbooks are lagging behind Wikipedia)

These rules are anti-demagoguery rules. If people argued by these rules, demagoguery would not be a problem, and demagogues would be strange relatives in your twitter feed that you eventually block because they’re irritating.

But here is the important for teaching, and especially about “open” assignments: A person cannot assess the logic of an argument by these rules without knowing the conversation in which the author is engaged.

So, I’ll say again, unless the teacher really does read all the arguments about all the issues, a teacher cannot assess the logic of an argument.

What I hope I made clear is that fairness across groups is the antidote to demagoguery. Demagoguery says our group is good, our group is threatened with extinction, anything done for our group or by our group is good, and anyone not in our group should be silenced. When people deeply engaged in demagoguery are asked to behave in a world of fairness, they respond with violence (because they know they can’t win if they have to abide by the ten rules listed above).

And that means that teachers should assign topics about which we can model fairness. We should assign paper prompts about which we don’t have a right answer, that aren’t about identity, and on which we can fairly assess the logic.

I spend a lot of time wandering around dark corners of the internet, and I’m a historian of public deliberation, and I’m normally the one to say that this problem is not new, but even I believe that we are in an era in which the very notion of democracy is under attack.

And it all comes down to fairness.

Demagoguery dies when people promoting their in-group talking points have to argue within those ten rules. So, as teachers, we should live by and impose those rules. It isn’t easy, and it’s operating against our culture of demagoguery, but I think it’s the right, the compassionate, fair, inclusive, and rational thing to do. Just to be clear, what I’m saying is that, in a culture of demagoguery, people assess arguments this way:

There is one perspective from which the truth about our situation can be perceived, and it’s the perspective of TRUE [Americans, liberals, conservatives, lefties, environmentalists, squirrel-haters].

So, to determine if an argument is good, you first determine whether the person making the argument is a true [member of the in-group].

To counter that THOSE people aren’t really good isn’t undermining a culture of demagoguery; it’s reinforcing it.

We need to stop arguing about bias; we need to talk about democracy. And democracy is about fairness. It’s about doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. And that should be a value about which all of us can agree.



Hannah Arendt on lying

A bunch of people are sharing something about Hannah Arendt and lying in totalitarian systems. I have a couple of reactions–first, we aren’t in a totalitarian system, as she meant the term. What’s more relevant is what she said about propaganda (in any system), which is that it degrades truth by making people completely cynical. Second, I have a lot of trouble believing that she said fact-checking is just playing their game (for one thing, that isn’t a metaphor she’d use). I can’t think of any place she makes that argument, and it directly contradicts what she says in the essay she published about lying in politics.

Her “Lying in Politics,” originally a review of The Pentagon Papers, published in TNYRB, became a chapter in her wonderful (and underread) Crises of the Republic. Here are some quotes:

“Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling places in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” (6)

“Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audiences wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.” (7)

“Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute: no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality. The lair, who may get away with any number of single falsehood, will find it impossible to get away with lying on principle.” (7)

In a totalitarian system, the distinguish between truth and falsehood collapses, “truth that can be relied on disappears entirely from public life, and with it the chief stabilizing factor in the ever-changing affairs of men.” (7)

About the political advisers who lied for years about Vietnam: “In spite of their undoubted intelligence–it is manifest in many memos from their pens–they also believed that politics is but a variety of public relations, and they were taken in by all the bizarre psychological premises underlying this belief.” (11)

“What these problem-solvers have in common with down-to-earth liars is the attempt to get rid of facts and the confidence that this should be possible because of the inherent contingency of facts.” (11)

“In order to eliminate Trotsky’s role from the history of the Russian Revolution, it is not enough to kill him and eliminate his name from all Russian records so long as one cannot kill all his contemporaries and wield power over the libraries and archives of all countries of the earth.” (13)

Classical uses of the term demagogue/ry

[I cut this from the book about demagoguery, but other academics might find it interesting.]

  1. Classical uses of the term demagogue

The term “demagogue” is originally Greek, and it’s conventional to rely on Greek sources in order to ground a definition, often with the assertion that there is a binary between demagogues and statesmen (the distinction made by Plutarch). The treatment of “demagogues” and “demagogy” (a closer translation of the Greek term) in texts prior to Plutarch is more complicated than is often granted, and in ways that point to difficulties with the project of criticizing public discourse—whether the criticism is on rhetorical grounds (that is, about the means), the content (that is, the truth, falsehood, or political agenda), or the intent, character, and/or identity of the speaker (such as whether the rhetors mean well, are good people). Since my own work emphasizes the rhetorical criteria, I should explain what’s troubling about the others, and justify my own use of a classical term.

Initially, demagogue meant a political leader of the demes (or sometimes demos); that is, the smaller landowners. Just how economically bifurcated Athens actually was is still in dispute,[1] but it was certainly seen that way by many at the time. As Ober says, “Athenians viewed their society as divided into two major classes and that the key division was between those who had to work for their living and those who did not” (Mass and Elite 195).  The history of the Athenian constitution, according to Aristotle, was one of political figures increasingly empowering the non-leisured class (demes), sometimes through what has been called income redistribution (such as increasing state pay for jury duty). Figures who argued for policies that benefited that class were often seen as leaders of the demes–that is, demagogues.

Hence, at least partially, the term “demagogue” was a political label, much like our term “populist.”[2] People for whom populism is necessarily bad use the term disparagingly (such as H.L. Mencken) . But, people for whom populism can be good condemn some kinds of populism by attaching a negative adjective; Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyon, for instance, refer to “toxic populism,” not because all kinds of populism are toxic, but because some are. It seems to me that many classical writers have been read as condemning all kinds of populists and populism, and hence as using demagogue as an inherently negative term, when a careful reading suggests they are closer to Berlet and Lyon than they are to Mencken.

Andocides, in Against Alcibiades, condemns Alcibiades not for being a demagogue, but for acting like one (4.27)–that is, pretending to be a champion of the demos, when he really is not. Hyperides, in his attack on Demosthenes, says a demagogue “worthy of the name should be the savior of his country, not a deserter” (Against Demosthenes Fragment 4, column 16b, line 26), suggesting that the term might be used as a term of praise.[3] And, indeed, it was. Isocrates, for instance, praises Theseus and calls him a demagogue (Helen 37); he regularly refers to Pericles as a demagogue (see, for instance, Antidosis 234), and even uses the term in praise (To Nicocles 16, On the Peace 122, Antidosis 234). Like many other writers, Isocrates compares current demagogues to previous ones, criticizing the current ones as worse than those before (see, for example, On the Peace 126). At one point in Aristophanes’ The Knights, one of the slaves explains, “Demagoguery is no longer a job for a man of education and good character, but for the ignorant and disgusting” (The Knights 190). Aristophanes’ “no longer” implies that demagoguery was once a job for a man of education and good character.[4]

Aristophanes may have been joking, and he may always have thought that populists were always low-born and dishonest, but that’s unlikely. Pericles was, in fact, a demagogue, as were Cleisthenes, and Alcibiades—they were leaders of the demes, and they promoted policies, such as extending the franchise and increasing jury pay, that directly benefited the demes at the expense of the wealthy.  So, to say that all classical authors univocally condemned “demagogues” is either to say that the meaning of the word changed over time (from being the term for a political orientation to a rhetorical posture) or that classical authors condemned Pericles, Cleisthenes, Themistocles, and Alcibiades, an implausible claim.

The more plausible explanation is that the term was in flux at the time that Aristophanes was writing. In The Knights, when the two demagogues argue about which is more powerful, the controversy hinges largely on the question of which one is the most passionate lover (erastes) of Demos (a pun on “demos”—the people), a relationship that depends on flattery (735) and bribery; they each boast about robbing the most people and taking the most bribes. They don’t care about what is best for Athens as a whole, nor even what is actually best for Demos, but simply what Demos finds most pleasing in the moment. The chorus says to Demos: “You’re easily led astray: you enjoy being flattered and thoroughly deceived, and every speechmaker (legont) has you gaping. You’ve a mind, but it’s out to lunch” (115-120).  “The fog of war” is particularly useful for keeping Demos “blind” to Paphlagon’s self-aggrandizing policies (800), although Demos can be persuaded even to conduct war badly: “if two politicians were making proposals, one to build long ships and the other to spend the same sum on state pay, the pay man would walk all over the trireme man” (1350).[5]

Aristotle’s discussion of demagogues, and their role in the destruction of democracy, is justifiably famous, but it too is not necessarily an uncomplicated condemnation of populist rhetors. Aristotle argues that unjust policies—ones that put too much power in the hands of the rich—are likely to make a particular kind of demagogue (ones lacking in self-control) let themselves get hired to rouse the demes (Politics 5.9.6, 1304b 35, and 5.8). Out of fear of having their property confiscated, the oligarchs will organize themselves into a revolution, and install a tyranny. The problem, Aristotle says, is that if there are not laws that constrain “the multitude,” then demagogues “always divide the state into two by fighting with the well-to-do” (1310a). If the rich oppress the poor, then the poor will start talking about taking the money of the rich, and the rich will install a tyrant—this narrative doesn’t entirely blame demagogues (nor the poor); as Alan Ryan says, it is a “schematic” understanding of the failure of a democracy.

And, for Aristotle, demagoguery is not restricted to the masses; Aristotle has a brief discussion of “oligarchic demagogues” who might be someone pandering to the oligarchs, or might be an oligarch pandering to the masses (Politics VI).[6] The term often associated with Aristotle’s criticism of demagogues is kalox, or flattery, so one might infer that the problem is not that a bad demagogue gets his power from the demos, but that he flatters them in order to get the power. It may be, then, that Aristotle’s criticism of bad demagogues is both political (they destabilize democracy through spending so much money on state pay) and rhetorical (they rely on flattery rather than deliberation).

There are other times in classical texts when it isn’t at all clear what the term demagogue means. For instance, scholars don’t agree just what Callicles’ accusation that Socrates is engaged in demagoguery, in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, is supposed to convey. Callicles objects to Socrates’ style (which he calls “boisterous” or “hot-headed” [neanieneothai] 482c), so perhaps it’s that Socrates has been using the sort of low-brow style for which the more populist politicians were notorious (Worman’s argument, see 194-5). The problem with this interpretation is that Callicles and Socrates are talking in a relatively small, and very elite, group, and Socrates’ rhetoric—despite Callicles’ claims—is not particularly low-brow. Or, perhaps it’s that Socrates has been “manipulating his audience (in this case young Polus) through the powerful emotion of shame” (Balot 359), except the accusation happens after the exchange with Polus has ended, and Callicles has no apparent problem with emotional appeals.  Since this exchange with Callicles is the point when the dialogue collapses into some fairly heated exchanges—in which various scurrilous accusations are made or implied—it seems to me reasonable that the accusation of demagogue is in the same category of the comparisons to catamites or shitbirds, intended to insult[7]. When Callicles accuses Socrates of being a demagogue, This is perhaps the most common way that the term demagogue is used in contemporary political debate. When Charles Krauthammer or Thomas Sowell called Barack Obama a demagogue, or Ronald Reagan used the term for Tip O’Neill, or Joan Dowlin used it for Reagan, they seem to mean nothing any more precise than a distaste for the rhetor’s political agenda coupled with irritation at the opponent’s rhetorical effectiveness; like Callicles, they’re engaged in making a vague insult.

My point in this discussion of classical uses of the terms “demagogue” and “demagoguery” is partially to show that usage was more varied than sometimes granted, but, more importantly, to note that there have always been tensions in its meaning. One can certainly say that classical authors complain of rhetors who persuaded groups into disastrous courses of action, but it isn’t simple to say just what their complaint was. Was it that the political figure swayed the masses? Or that he did so through bad appeals? That is, is populist rhetoric inherently bad, or just some kinds of rhetorical strategies? Or is the figure himself? Was the distinction between Pericles (conventionally presented as the ideal statesman) and Cleon (conventionally presented as the ur-demagogue) that they argued in different ways, or that Pericles was simply a better person than Cleon? Or, perhaps, was it that Pericles argued for better policies than Cleon?

That is, a definition of demagogue/ry might emphasize one of three points: the moral character of the rhetor (especially intent), the political agenda of the rhetor, or the rhetorical strategies. And, if the determining criterion concerns rhetorical strategies, what, exactly, makes some strategies demagogic—that they are appeals to populism, flattery, appeals to emotion, and/or appeals to greed? Or, as implied in Plato’s Gorgias, that they are untrue?

This same tension—whether the accusation of demagoguery is a claim about form, content, impact, character, or intent—continues in later discussions of demagoguery. Thomas Hobbes’ condemnation of demagoguery is openly anti-populist and anti-emotional; the masses are inherently emotional (and feminine), and democracies fall to demagogues because the masses are incapable of self-control. In 1838, James Fenimore Cooper identified the “peculiar office” of the demagogue as “advanc[ing] his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people” (99). The demagogue, according to Cooper, not only has bad motives, but bad arguments and strategies, relying on flattery, “appeals to passions and prejudices rather than reason, and is in all respects, a man of intrigue and deception, of sly cunning and management” (100), looking out for a small number of people while claiming to be concerned about the whole. The flatter/chide binary, so important to Socrates’ discussion of ethical versus unethical discourse in Gorgias is echoed in Cooper, who says that the good rhetor “is frank and fearless” and “oftener chides than commends” (100).  Cooper especially emphasizes that the demagogue appeals to prejudice rather than the truth.

Reinhard Luthin, in his 1954 American Demagogues, Twentieth Century, argues that a demagogue is

a politician skilled in oratory, flattery, and invective, evasive in discussing vital issues; promising everything to everybody; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices–a man whose lust for power without recourse to principle leads him to seek to become a master of the masses. (3)[8]

Charles Lomas’ discussion of demagoguery seems to shift the weight slightly more toward the kind of rhetoric in which a demagogue engages, but the determining characteristics are still in the demagogue: demagoguery is

the process by which skillful speakers and writers seek to influence public opinion by employing the traditional tools of rhetoric with complete indifference to truth. In addition, although demagoguery does not necessarily seek ends contrary to the public interest, its primary motivation is personal gain (165).

Ultimately, then, the most important axis is still the person of the demagogue: to determine if something is demagoguery, one looks to the demagogue, to see if s/he is indifferent to truth, and primarily motivated by personal gain.

  1. Justin Gustainis’ summary of scholarship on demagoguery includes rhetor, content, and strategies. He says

The work of those who have studied what is normally called demagoguery leads to the conclusion that the demagogue is a person who possess at least three characteristics: he is motivated by self-interest, he evinces little concern for the truth, and he is an opportunist. (156).

He also discusses the axis of rhetorical strategy; the demagogue, in order to develop “his own power, influence, and popular acclaim,” (157) uses recurrent rhetorical strategies: inflation of racial hatred (157), identification (especially as a “common man” 158), representation of himself as the savior willing to take “drastic action” (158), personalized appeal, oversimplification, emotional appeals, specious argumentation, ad hominem attacks, anti-intellectualism, and political pageantry (158-160).

More recently, Michael Signer’s Demagogue relies on the demagogue/statesman distinction, using Cooper’s definition in order to emphasize four characteristics:

(1) They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, as opposed to the elites; (2) their politics depends on a powerful, visceral connection with the people that dramatically transcends ordinary political popularity; (3) they manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition; and (4) they threaten or outright break the established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law. (35)

Signer’s definition, like Luthin’s, mixes consideration of motive (the third criterion), rhetoric (the first and second), and political agenda (the fourth), and explicitly makes demagoguery a populist discourse.

P.M. Carpenter’s definition, on the other hand, is almost exclusively rhetorical, arguing that the demagogue is identified by “extensive use of unidimensionality” (“simplistic solutions offered in answer to complex sociopolitical questions, one-sided expositions intended to exclude rather than expand democratic public debate “) and scapegoating. Whereas many scholars of demagoguery emphasize the person (so the determination is made largely by the motives, psychology, and strategies of the person, whose discourse is then named demagoguery), Carpenter reverses the emphasis. Instead of demagoguery being what demagogues do, demagogues are people who engage in demagoguery. The “intended to exclude” suggests, however, at least some speculation as to the motives of the rhetor; presumably, a rhetor who significantly, but sincerely, simplified a situation would not be engaged in demagoguery.

And another set of scholars don’t use the term “demagoguery,” but are clearly talking about a similar phenomenon. Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyon’s discussion of “right-wing populism” identifies many of the rhetors and movements often associated with demagoguery in America—Father Charles Coughlin, pro-segregationists, white nationalism. They identify several characteristics that mix rhetorical and political criteria: producerism, demonization and scapegoating, conspiracism, apocalyptic narratives, and a right-wing political agenda (see especially 6-15). Kenneth Burke’s “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” similarly discusses Hitler’s psychology to speculate on the sources of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but otherwise uses psychological concepts to explain why Hitler’s rhetorical strategies would have been so effective with the German people; Burke also has some astute points about how the Nazis strategically used violence in their meetings (which might be more the policy axis than rhetoric), but he is mostly concerned with rhetorical tactics, such as shifting materialization/spiritualization, projection, scapegoating, narratives of symbolic rebirth, unification through division, and the non-economic explanations of economic phenomena.

David Neiwert uses the term “eliminationist” rather than demagogue, and he too connects the rhetoric and the politics—the trend he studies is “the positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement” (7). Neiwert argues that this rhetoric has policy consequences, and tends toward fascism (what he calls “para-fascist”); hence, Neiwert’s primary emphasis is on the rhetoric and policy. Like Burke, Neiwert discusses psychology, but it isn’t part of the criteria for determining whether the rhetoric is eliminationist.

My argument is that this last strategy is the most useful. Trying to distinguish demagogues from statesmen on the basis of good v. bad intent is almost certainly wrong. While some rhetors notorious for demagoguery do seem to have adopted a racist and hate-mongering discourse out of a cunning estimation of the most effective route to power—Michael Mann says that “Milosevic was only opportunistically a nationalist” (Mann, Dark Side 369; see also 424)—it’s also clear that many of them were quite sincere. Cleon, for instance—one of the earlier examples of demagogues—may well have believed that the policy of genocide would genuinely benefit Athens; there’s no good reason to think he didn’t. Theodore Bilbo was sincerely committed to segregation, quite likely did believe that lynching was a useful form of social control, and was so committed to his hateful policy of repatriation that he continued to advocate it when a savvier politician would have recognized the political costs and toned it down, relied more on dog whistles, or kept the racist rhetoric for non-recorded performances.[9] Hitler was sincerely anti-Semitic, as were many of the architects and even foot-soldiers in the Holocaust; Hitler’s sincerity is most powerfully demonstrated in his actions toward the end of the war when he sacrificed military outcomes to keep the genocide as effective as possible; it’s plausible that some of his otherwise inexplicable decisions in regard to Stalingrad make sense in the context of someone who believed that Aryan forces would necessarily triumph over “inferior” races, regardless of the practical challenges. That Hitler would take time out of strategy meetings to lecture his generals on the racial makeup of troops suggests he was sincere (see, for instance, his meetings with his generals regarding Stalingrad, Hitler and His Generals). Roger Griffin says that Hitler “thus seem seriously to have seen himself as heralding a new phase of human civilization based on the racial-nationalist rebirth of the German people” (101).

It is wishful thinking to believe that people advocated repressive and eliminationist policies are only looking out for themselves. This belief suggests that people who do bad things are aware that the things they are doing are bad; we want to believe that Hitler knew that the Holocaust was cruel, and that he knew he was hurting Germany; we want to believe that McCarthy knew he was lying about the number of communists and the degree of infiltration; we’d like to think that Bilbo secretly knew that segregation and lynching were wrong.[10] However, despite what we might wish, they almost certainly believed that they were doing the right thing. Thus, if we try to identify “demagogues” as people who are motivated by self-interest rather than public interest, we are in the murky area of determining what people really believe, and we end up with a list that doesn’t include major advocates of genocide.

Saying that demagogues are people who engage in certain kinds of policies also limits the definition to the point that it is useless. While it’s hard to imagine an argument for genocide that isn’t demagoguery, some arguments for war involve scapegoating, and some don’t. Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party rhetoric, while almost always populist and vehement, do not always rely on scapegoating, nor on evasion of policy arguments (in other words, there is demagoguery in both, but also much discourse that doesn’t fit most definitions); Charles Coughlin’s arguments for New Deal policies were demagoguery, but I haven’t found any of FDR’s arguments that fit the definitions provided by Burke, Neiwert, or my own. There isn’t a necessary connection between policy and rhetoric (with the possible exception of genocide—I can’t imagine a non-demagogic argument for genocide).

[1] Scholars continue to debate just how poor everyone else was; see especially Chapter Five as well as 127-131 in Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. J.K. Davies explains, the material conditions (especially poor soil) meant that a “middle” class was nowhere a power force (24; see also Aristotle Politics 1295b 23); instead, there was a leisured class (plousioi or ploutos) and everyone else, and there was considerable pressure to abolish or to render more widely accessible formal political or cultic privileges and to extend downwards, to the rest of the descent-group, the applicability and appropriateness of aristocratic life-styles and values. The form of government which such pressure created when successful was  being called ‘democracy’ by the 440s if not earlier, while its converse, the preservation or re-establishment of control of the state by an aristocratic or wealthy minority, came to be called ‘rule by the few’, ‘oligarchy’.” (Democracy and Classical Greece 25)

[2] Demosthenes uses it simply to mean a leader of the people (see, for instance, Against Aristogeiton II 4).

[3] Lane’s claim that “None of the historians, playwrights, and orators of classical Athens relied upon a perjorative term for demagogue in developing their analyses of bad political leadership” (180) seems to me slightly overstated—they seem aware that there is a perjorative connotation possible. It seems to me similar to how writers might currently use words like feminist, liberal, or progressive. But, certainly, I agree with Lane that they do not use the term in an exclusively perjorative way. Lane credits Plutarch with the demagogue/statesman distinction as we have inherited it—that is, thinking it was present in earlier writers (192).

[4] Although several scholars share this reading (Dover 69, note 1; Lane 185) it’s possible, of course, that Aristophanes is making fun of the tendency that demagogues have to accuse one another of demagoguery, and we’re not to take this comment seriously at all. Still, his criticism of demagogues is their tendency to rely on flattery—that is, not who they are, but their rhetorical strategies.

[5] Aristotle mentions a specific instance of this kind of situation in Rhodes: “the demagogues used to provide pay for public services, and also to hinder the payment of money owed to the naval captains” (Politics 1304b 30).

[6] That Aristotle could refer to “oligarchic demagogues” suggests that the term had shifted meanings between the time of Isocrates and Aristotle, and it no longer signified a leader of the demes.

[7] Lane argues that Plato invented the statesman/demagogue dichotomy, and, in Thaetetus, coined the term demagogue as an entirely perjorative one (190). “The Origins of the Statesman/Demagogue Distinction in and after Ancient Athens.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 73(2), April 2012: 179-200.

[8] Luthin comes up with his set of characteristics through a series of case studies of famous demagogues (James M. Curley, Theodore Bilbo, William Hale Thompson, William Murray, Frank Hague, Mr. and Mrs. James Ferguson, Vito Marcantonio, Huey Long), inferring their shared characteristics or, as he says, “marks.” Luthin, like Gustainis, emphasizes the motives of the demagogue, but also the political agenda (the demagogue often tries to control media, interferes with education), and rhetorical strategies (anti-intellectualism, emotional appeals, race- or religion-baiting). So, while more toward the rhetor (demagogue) axis, there is also considerable discussion of policy, and rhetorical strategy.

Cal Logue and Howard Dorgan’s 1981 collection of essays on southern demagogues doesn’t rely on a single definition of “demagogue,” although the editors infer a set of characteristics emphasized in the various chapters: personal arrogance, reliance on vague promises, use of a “domineering discourse” that “tended to stifle any constructive exchange of ideas, often clogging communicative channels with emotional platitudes and dictatorial directives, and frequently intimidating persons who possessed alternative views” (10-11).

There are, of course, other ways of using the term “demagogue,” to mean simply, “a political figure whose popularity upsets me.” This is perhaps the most common way that the term demagogue is used in contemporary political debate. When Charles Krauthammer or Thomas Sowell called Barack Obama a demagogue, or Ronald Reagan used the term for Tip O’Neill, or Joan Dowlin used it for Reagan, they seem to mean nothing any more precise than a distaste for the rhetor’s political agenda coupled with irritation at their rhetorical effectiveness. While scholars of rhetoric rarely use the term this way, scholars in other fields sometimes do.

[9] In fact, his biographer Chester Morgan argues that Bilbo did not engage in deliberate race-baiting until the very end of his life and career, and was therefore not a demagogue, because his racism was perfectly sincere (234-6).

[10] Ultimately, I’m not sure what any of the people traditionally identified as demagogues did or did not believe–they tend to be fairly adept at speaking to a particular audience, and have a highly malleable sense of reality. There is reasonably good evidence to suggest that some of the most famous ones had personality disorders and/or health conditions closely connected to delusional thinking; it’s distinctly possible, if they had narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, that they were perfectly capable of sincerely believing contradictory propositions.

“Charisma Isn’t Leadership, and Other Lessons We Can Learn from Trump the Businessman”

“One can only hold the masses by habit or force” (Hitler, Hitler’s Table Talks, 335, 24th-25th February 1942).

What I want to suggest in this talk is that charismatic leadership is a tempting way to solve the problem of institutional compliance in a culture of outcomes-based ethics—that is, if the dominant mantra is survival of the fittest, might makes right, or some other system that says a process/action was ethical if it led to success (such as any version of what is generally inaccurately called “Darwinism”).  I argue that charismatic leadership, especially as imagined in current popular management discourse, is an attempt to ground compliance to institutional norms in normative agreement rather than legitimacy, tradition, or coercion (none of which are possible in an outcomes-based ethical system, such as is assumed in social Darwinism, the magic of the market, or the just world model). Because institutions grounded in such a system don’t have access to compliance arguments grounded in fairness, and coercion is expensive, charismatic leadership (which its emphasis on agency by proxy) appears a sensible rhetoric. Further, as imagined in current popular management discourse, charismatic leadership when coupled with the current dominant lay political theory, can easily create the conditions under which fascism seems the most sensible governmental system. Basically, my argument is: the combination of management rhetoric’s promotion of charismatic leadership as the ideal model, lay political theory about disagreement and deliberation being unnecessary, and the fantasy that all we need in government is a good businessman means that fascism will appeal to a lot of Americans.

I’ll begin with something not particularly controversial among political scientists/theorists: for an institution to be stable, people within that institution need to obey the laws. Why shouldn’t all of us in this room take all these chairs home and sell them on e-bay?

It’s conventional to characterize the various mobilizing ideas (that is, the ideas that mobilize you not to steal chairs) as:

What matters for these purposes is that the top three are often characterized as systems grounded in legitimacy, and the bottom three are grounded in authoritarianism (of various degrees).[1]

My first claim is that a culture of outcome-based ethics makes grounding any institution in legitimacy virtually impossible, leaving such institutions or cultures reliant on some version of authoritarianism, perhaps even fascism. I’ll argue that charismatic leadership is an attempt to square the circle, and get the kind of compliance that comes from ideal normative agreement by reframing blind obedience.

By outcome-based ethics, I mean any ethical system that says that triumph is the measure—that is, success is sufficient proof that success was merited (what social psychologists call the just world model). A culture or institution in which triumph is the measure of merit (the ends justify the means, might makes right, the proof is in the pudding, survival of the fittest) will not value setting ethical standards that apply across groups.  Fairness across groups is explicitly rejected in those moral systems as giving aid to people who don’t deserve it, as makers carrying the takers, or, at best, as unnecessary. Outcome-based ethics are generally profoundly individualistic—at most, they advise fairness within one’s in-group, but even that is shaky.

Corporations have yet another rhetorical/motivational problem. Increasingly, employees are expected to behave with more than mere compliance—to work more than 40 hours a week, to sacrifice health and homelife, more than they will be compensated. The ideal employee gives more to the corporation than she gets back in monetary compensation—the ideal employee values loyalty more than is fiscally rational. But this is not a symmetric relationship—the corporation is not expected to value loyalty to employees more than its fiscal bottom line. Business pundits generally justify businesses cracking open pension funds, closing down, firing people, minimizing benefits, and other practices on the grounds that a business should make decisions on purely economic grounds; but businesses don’t want employees reasoning the same way.

Look at it this way. Imagine a corporation that says that the best employee is the one who bills the most hours or sells the most units, regardless of whether the job really required that many hours or the customer needed that many units. If the incentives are such that anything short of breaking the law and getting caught is allowed, then on what grounds can the corporation say “When it comes to clients, all you should worry about is maximizing your profit, but don’t treat the organization that way”?

Were the “it’s okay to see everyone else as an opportunity to maximize your profit” a consistently applied ethic, the question wouldn’t be whether it’s right or wrong for us to steal the chairs and sell them on e-bay (whether we would want our possessions to be treated that way—an issue of fairness), but the possible profits, the likelihood of getting caught, the relative costs and benefits. If it’s okay to falsify your timesheet in order to get more money out of customers, on what grounds is it not okay to falsify your expenses in order to get more money out of your corporation?

It’s the same problem with a culture—if maximizing your share of goods is the major ethical dictum, then on what grounds should you obey the law? Only if you’re likely to get caught, if obeying the law directly benefits you, or if the costs of disobeying are higher than the benefits of law-breaking. Needless to say, that ends up being a chaotic culture.

There are two closely-related ways that cultures of outcome-based ethics can try to restrain the damage inherent to that ethical system: first, appeal to in-group/out-group ethics, mobilizing in-group identification to create loyalty to the in-group (so we won’t steal the chairs because A&M is our in-group, and we feel that stealing would be disloyal to that group—in other words, and this is the important part, replace the cultural strength provided by fairness with the power of in-group loyalty); second, get that in-group loyalty attached to a particular person (in other words, charismatic leadership).

For in-group loyalty to trump the message to maximize self-interest it has to be really powerful. The ideology has to promote

  • “the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;”

That is, the ideology has to say that looking out for yourself is really looking out for your group and vice versa. So, instead of it being an individualistic social Darwinism (if you succeed it’s proof that you deserved the success) but group-based. Instead of it being your right as an individual to dominate others, it has to be:

  • “the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”

It’s possible sometimes to get that level of commitment to a group—that’s what both political parties try to do at their conventions, with mixed success—but it’s unlikely for a corporation to be able to get people to identify with the corporation (especially in a world in which a dominant message is that employers don’t have to be loyal to employees past the point of profitability). Thus, the strategy more likely to work is to get identification with the leader of the corporation or with individual managers.

And so we’re extremely likely to have that strategy promoted through two other mobilizing passions:

  • “the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;”

This structure isn’t an invitation for everyone in the corporation to contribute to decision-making; it isn’t one in which all employees are asked to do whatever they think is the right thing to do—it’s hoping for a system in which people believe so much in the leader that they do whatever s/he says, and that they try to please the leader at all times by doing more than is required.

As such, it’s a kind of distortion of Kant’s ideal normative agreement—since all deliberation is handed over to the natural chiefs, then all the “perfect information” an individual needs for making their decisions is what the chieftain has decided is the correct course of action.

There are many disturbing moments in Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation and trial, and one that rattled one of the judges which is especially relevant to this argument is when, having boasted (and bemoaned) that he had the obedience of a corpse, he also claimed that he had also always lived by the Kantian notion that, as Eichmann said, “the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws” (Arendt 136). Carsten Lausten and Rasmus Ugilt explain Eichmann’s argument. For Eichmann,

“there existed no difference between the Fuhrer’s will and the moral law or, in more general terms, between legality and morality. He could thus recognize his subjection to Hitler’s will as an unproblematic act. He had personally sworn him the oath of allegiance, and this included an obligation toward his word of command (Arendt 1992, 149). The Fuhrer’s word was given immediately and imperatively. It had the power of the law (Gesetzkraft) and hence was not to be doubted (Arendt 1992, 148).” 

This is often discussed as Eichmann’s distortion of the Kantian principle but Arendt notes that it wasn’t his alone. Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal attorney, had defined “the categorical imperative in the Third Reich” as “Act in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew your action, would approve it” (qtd. in Arendt 136). And, in fact, during the Nuremberg trials, other Nazis invoked Kant to defend the ethics of their action (or, more accurately, the ethics of their refusal to accept responsibility); but it was the “Kant” of Hans Frank, one in which the will of the chieftain is entirely integrated into the deliberations of individuals. It’s the “leadership principle” (or “Fuhrer principle”). It’s fascism.

And here I want to point out how charismatic leadership is described in much management discourse. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management (Ed. Nigel Nicholson, Pino G. Audia, and Madan M. Pillutla. Vol. 11: Organizational Behavior. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. p40-41) says there are three stages in charismatic leadership.

“The first stage concerns the leader’s sensitivity to the environment. Charismatic leaders can be distinguished from non-charismatic leaders in this stage by their heightened sensitivity to deficiencies and poorly exploited opportunities in the status quo.”

“Stage two of the leadership process concerns the act of formulating future goals or directions. Charismatic leaders are distinguished by a sense of strategic vision versus rational or purely tactical goals. Here the word vision refers to an idealized, highly aspirational goal that the leader wants the organization to achieve in the future. In articulating the vision, the charismatic leader’s verbal messages construct reality such that only the positive features of the future vision and the negative features of the status quo are emphasized. The status quo is usually presented as intolerable, and the vision is presented in clear specific terms as the most attractive and attainable alternative. Charismatic leaders’ use of rhetoric, high energy, persistence, unconventional and risky behavior, heroic deeds, and personal sacrifices all serve to articulate their own high motivation and enthusiasm, which then become contagious among their followers.”

“In the third and final stage of the leadership process – aligning followers’ actions to realize goals – leaders in general build in followers a sense of trust in their abilities and clearly demonstrate the tactics and behaviors required to achieve the organization’s goals. Charismatic leaders accomplish this by building TRUST through personal example and RISK TAKING and through unconventional expertise. They also engage in exemplary acts that are perceived by followers as involving great personal risk, cost, and energy.”

I want to emphasize that a leader who is charismatic is not necessarily someone engaged in charismatic leadership—charismatic leadership is a very specific kind of relationship between leader and follower. It is a method of policy determination that allows agency by proxy for the followers (they are agents only insofar as they identify with the leader).

Whether it’s good for businesses is much more up for argument than one might think from airport bookstores, but that isn’t really my point. My argument is that the shift to charismatic leadership is necessitated by the problem of how to motivate people when fairness across groups is precluded by the dominance of outcomes-based ethics, especially in a context of deliberately asymmetric ethical responsibilities (that is, the corporation wants loyalty from employees, but is neither promising nor delivering loyalty to them). And the result is a kind of leadership that crosses over into several of the characteristics of fascism.

Again, whether that’s good, bad, or even necessary for business isn’t my point. The problem for democracy arises when the dominance of this semi-authoritarian soft fascism gets entangled with the dominant lay political theory.

Unhappily, at least for theorists of democratic deliberation, a large number of Americans (perhaps most):

“want to distance themselves from government not because of a system defect but because many people are simply averse to political conflict and many others believe political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with government procedures. People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals, and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than with cacophonous special interests.” (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 7)

At the base of this belief is that there is no such thing as legitimate political disagreement—the true course of action is obvious, and there is a kind of “normal American” whose interests politicians should be protecting. They don’t because they are influenced by “special interests”—“special interests” being “any interests other than mine.”

So, for instance, descendants of immigrants, who believe that America benefitted by immigration policies that allowed their ancestors in don’t want those same policies now—immigration policies that helped them were the right choice then; the same immigration policies, helping people exactly like their ancestors, are special interest.

This view delegitimates the interests of any group proposing alternate policies; it thereby delegitimates democracy itself. This view—that the interests of one group (my group) are the only legitimate ones—is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) advocating a one-party state. It is also implicitly eliminationist—the people who are claiming to have different interests don’t count, shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and should probably be expelled. Any system of government (or political thought) that relies on the sense that there is one kind of citizen whose desires are the only legitimate basis of public policy has at least one foot on the ladder of extermination.

In short, a large number of people believe that they are living in Kant’s ideal normative agreement, in which the only view that matters is theirs and the people like them, and they imagine that “people like them” all agree on the best government policies. It isn’t that they are motivated by hate for others, but simply that their common sense suggests to them that they are normal, they know what they want, and that the government should be organized to give normal people what they want most—if not all—of the time.”

And, of course, it doesn’t because that isn’t really how big institutions of any kind work (for one thing, “normal” people actually want very different things). The problem is that when it doesn’t, when policies are compromises, constrained, or have benefits that aren’t immediately obvious, instead of concluding that it’s actually complicated to come up with a good policy, people feel betrayed by their government because their narrative is that the obvious course has been ignored in favor of special interests—Real Americans aren’t getting what we deserve because not-Real Americans have corrupted the government. Real Americans are getting screwed over by non-American influences. Or, in other words, such people’s reaction to politics is based in

  • “the belief that one’s group is a victim,”
  • “dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of class conflict, and alien influences;”

Whether the implicit authoritarianism and proto-fascism of charismatic leadership is good, bad, necessary, or just a fad in business management isn’t my point. My point is that that model of leadership is, as Weber famously said, fraught and dangerous, and it is profoundly anti-democratic. Businesses don’t have to be democratic, so this model isn’t necessarily a problem in business.

But, it’s when the model is moved over to government that we have serious problems. And the fantasy that we should hand our government over to someone who has good decision-making capabilities, and that such a capability is demonstrated by being rich (as long as he’s in-group)[1]

There are four sets of ideologies at play here: 1) outcome-based ethics, but a group-based version (if the in-group succeeds, that’s proof that the in-group was entitled to success, and anything that enables that success is ethical); 2) management rhetoric about charismatic leadership; and 3) lay political theory that says we should empower someone who gets what “normal Americans” want; 4) the assumption that government needs a successful (in-group) businessman to lead it.

At that point, we can add up what political passions we have ready to be mobilized, and it’s (in bold)

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success; the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

So, the combination of management rhetoric’s promotion of charismatic leadership as the ideal model, lay political theory about disagreement and deliberation being unnecessary, and the fantasy that all we need in government is a good businessman means that fascism will appeal to a lot of Americans.

As  you can see, though, there are a lot of things missing. While there is a lot of media promoting these bolded notions, and major politicians running on the basis of those passions, we’re okay as long as there isn’t media claiming that the in-group is in danger of extermination, that exclusionary violence on the in-group is legitimate, that we are facing an overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions. In February of 1942, Hitler boasted to his tablemates:

“It’s enough for me to send for Lorenz and inform him of my point of view, and I know that next day all the German newspapers will broadcast my ideas. [….] With such collaborators at my side, I can make a sheer about-turn, as I did on 22nd June last, without anyone’s moving a muscle. And that’s a thing that’s possible in no country but ours.”(Hitler’s Table Talk, 22nd-23rd February 1942 (p 332).

Ruh roh.

[1] I have to point out that, if you look at that list, you see Aristotle’s three kinds of persuasion—deliberative, epideictic, and judicial—but let’s set that aside. Ideal normative agreement is unlikely under most conditions, since it assumes that disagreement is an illusion, and that everyone always already actually agrees, but it does get the deepest and most powerful levels of commitment. I’ll come back to this point, though.


Stasis shifts (distracting people from how bad your argument is)

You can’t get a good answer if you ask a bad question. And one of the best ways to shut out any substantial criticism of your position is to ensure that the questions asked about it are softball questions. If your policy isn’t very good, make sure the debate isn’t on the stasis of “is this a pragmatic and feasible policy that will solve the problem we’ve identified.” Shift the stasis.

In a perfect world, we make arguments for or against policies on the basis of good reasons that can be defended in a rational-critical way (not unemotional—it’s a fallacy to think emotions are inappropriate in argumentation). But, sometimes our argument is so bad it can’t stand the exposure of argumentation, in that we can’t put forward an internally consistent argument. Saying that Louis would be a great President because squirrels are evil is a stasis shift—trying to get people to stop thinking about Louis and just focus on their hatred for squirrels.

Arguments have a stasis, a hinge point. Sometimes they have several. But it’s pretty much common knowledge in various fields that the first step in getting a conflict to be productive (marital, political, business, legal) is to make sure that the stasis (or stases) is correctly identified and people are on it. If we’re housemates, and I haven’t cleaned the litterboxes, and we have an agreement I will, then you might want the stasis to be: my violating our agreement about the litterboxes.

Let’s imagine I don’t want to clean out the litterboxes, but, really, it’s just because I don’t want to. I have made an agreement that I would, and when I made the agreement I knew it was fair and reasonable. So, even I know that I can’t put forward an argument about how tasks are divided, or who wanted a third cat and promised to clean litterboxes in order to get that cat. Were this a deliberative situation, I would be open to your arguments about the litterboxes, but let’s say I’m determined to get out of doing what I said I would do. I don’t want deliberative rhetoric. I want compliance-gaining—I just want you to comply with my end point (I don’t have to clean the litterboxes).

I will never get you to comply as long as we are on the stasis of my violating an agreement I made about the litterboxes, since that’s pretty much slam dunk for you, so I have to change the stasis.

The easiest one (and this is way too much of current political discourse) is to shift it to the stasis of which of us is a better human. If you say, “Hey, you said if we got a third cat, you’d clean the litterboxes, and we got a third cat, and you aren’t cleaning them,” I might say, “Well, you voted for Clinton in the primaries and that’s why Trump got elected,” and now we aren’t arguing about my failure to clean the litterboxes—we’re engaged in a complicated argument about the Dem primaries. I can’t win the litterbox argument, but I might win that one, and, even if I don’t, I might confuse you enough that will stop nagging me about the litterboxes.

[I might also train you to believe that talking about the litterboxes will get me on an unproductive rant about something else, and so you just don’t even raise the issue. That’s a different post, about how Hitler deliberated with his generals.]

Or, I might acknowledge that I don’t clean the litterboxes, but put the blame for my failure on you because your support of Clinton is so bad that I just can’t think about the litterboxes—that’s another way of shifting the stasis off of my weak point and onto an argument I might win.

Easy fascism and romance novels

One thing that is hard for my students to understand is that fascism was (and is) much more normal and widespread than you might think. It appeals to certain surprisingly widespread notions, especially that some people are simply born to be leaders (because of their blood) and we should put all political power in the hands of one of those people.

Elsewhere I’ve written about antisemitism and inter-war thrillers, and here I’ll just give some examples from a fairly banal inter-war romance, D.E. Stevenson’s The Baker’s Daughter (1938).

I liked Stevenson’s Miss Buncle series, so I have nothing against the author (in fact, I know nothing about the author), and my point isn’t that Stevenson is bad–it’s about how normal various notions were that were useful to fascism.

The novel concerns a charming young woman who impulsively decides to keep house for a woman and her artist husband. Sue Pringle is a thoroughly attractive protagonist, with whom the reader is supposed to identify, and she’s a Franco supporter (mentioned twice), her drifting brother is transformed by joining the Army, and the novel completely endorses the notion of the purity of race/entitlement.

(Spoiler alert–but if you haven’t figured this out by about page 29, you don’t know the romance genre)

Sue and the artist fall in love, but there appears to be a problem that in that he runs among the elite, and she is descended from shopkeepers. No, it isn’t a problem! She is the illegitimate daughter of an upper class Admiral!

That’s a common plot point in early 20th century and late 19th century novels, so common that the importance of it can go un-noticed–she was raised by a shopkeeper, as was her mother. The rightness of her marrying into the upper class is settled by blood. A racist notion.

A lot of novels look as though they are critiquing racist notions about the heritability of aristocratic values by showing that an apparently “common” person can have better values than (or just as good as) the elite, but, by the moment of reveal when the hero/ine turns out to have the right blood, they are reinforcing the notions that “blood will tell.”

And then there’s this–when the hero is painting her:

“For instance, thought Darnay [the hero], we may not admire the golden skin and slant eyes of the pure Mongol, but who can dare to say that the Mongol has no beauty of his own? If we do not believe that purity of race is beauty then we deny God and God’s hand in our making–in the making of the races of the world.” (71)

That wasn’t 1938 mainstream anthropology, by the way. Mainstream anthropology was so critical of the notion of race (and especially purity of race) by the teens that racists had to form a new discipline (eugenics). Even biology had a lot of critiques of the notion of race. This was eugenics, not anthropology, and candy to Nazis, American segregationists, and fascists of various stripes.

I’m not saying that Stevenson was a fascist, or that people who like the book are fascists and racist and evil. I’m saying that the basic premises of fascism were (and are) so widespread that they were/are un-noticed.

A racist fascist reading this book would find it confirming–someone neither racist nor fascist would probably not even notice those aspects of the book. Ideology is always about the narratives we tell about causation–what causes some people to be better than others? If we say that blood causes some people to be better than others, then we will be comfortable with racist policies. If someone is in a world in which the dominant narratives all say it’s about blood, that person is likely to find racist policies normal and unremarkable.

Persuasion, as Kenneth Burke said, is about repetition. As Paul Ricoeur said, is about narrative–the stories we tell.

No one will be suddenly converted to racist/fascist ideologies by reading this charming romance. That isn’t my point. What’s important about this book is that it isn’t important. It’s just a romance.

[Image from here: https://paperbackrevolution.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/collins-white-circle-in-australia/fn-stevenson-miss-bun-the-bakers-daughter/]

It isn’t about a person being racist; it’s about doing something racist

When I was wandering around pro-Trump pages and groups prior to the election, I found a large number of people who said, “I don’t like being called racist, and so I’m voting for Trump.”

While I do believe that all racists voted for Trump, I don’t think all Trump voters were racist. And, really, whether they are racist or not doesn’t matter as much as whether we can talk about racism rather than racists. What’s interesting about that argument is that it isn’t just a pro-Trump argument–not all the people who object to being called racist voted for Trump after all–but why people would vote for someone with an obvious record of very racist statements and actions because they themselves feel unjustly accused of racism.

And, so, really, this is about how to talk about racist statements and actions.

Sure, some of the people who come out regularly to support Trump’s racists statements, are avowedly racist—the neo-Nazis who support Trump wholeheartedly [1].  But I want to talk about supporters who aren’t Nazis, don’t like Nazis, and don’t like being called Nazi (or racist).

Being a racist person in our culture (especially media) is associated with all sorts of horrible things—with being vicious, immoral, evil. If you think in terms of good and evil being absolute binaries—something is either good, or it is entirely evil–and you think of racism as evil, then saying that someone is racist is telling them they are entirely evil. And their response is, quite reasonably, they aren’t entirely evil. In fact, they’re good people because they think racism is evil.

This whole situation is complicated because of how racism is a natural out-growth of three conventional ways of thinking—what sociologists call in-group favoritism, what social psychologists call “faith in group entativity,” and what cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias.”

In-group favoritism

We tend to think in terms of “people like us” and “people not like us.” And, completely unconsciously, we tend to think that “people like us” (the in-group) is better. So, if an in-group member does the same thing as an out-group member, we’ll explain them differently. The in-group member did it because of being a good person (if it’s a good thing), and an out-group member did it for bad reasons.

If I steal a parking place from you, and I appear to be in-group, you’ll either explain my behavior (she was in a rush, she didn’t see me) or make me not in-group (she looks like an LSU fan). There are all sorts of things that factor into your decision as to whether I’m in- or out-group—what bumper stickers do I have on my car, what kind of car am I driving, how am I dressed, what race/ethnicity am I. Racism is simply the tendency to make race, completely unconsciously, one of those factors. Being racist doesn’t make you evil; it makes you human. [2]

If you’re twitchy about people who appear to you to be transgender, and I am otherwise entirely in-group, you might be slightly more hostile in your interpretation of why I took the place than if I were in-group in terms of your ideas about gender, but still less hostile than if I were out-group in every way (a liberal transgender LSU fan). But you would never think, “Oh, I liked that person till I thought gender was not an issue, and now I don’t.” Biases happen in moments of perception—it’s not easy to see when we’re being biased.

People think of racism as a self-aware pure hostility to every member of every other “race.” If that’s what racism is, then you couldn’t do it without knowing, and you couldn’t be friends with anyone of other races, and you would never do anything kind to any member of any other race. The kind of people who support Trump think that’s what it means to be racist—to hate every member of every other race, and so they think they’re being accused of being like that. And so they’re mad. And, if someone in their in-group (especially a person they see as representing their in-group publicly) says something that might be racist, they’ll find ways of excusing it, largely on the grounds that “He isn’t racist, so he can’t have said something racist.”

But that has never been what racism is—it’s never been pure hostility to every other race. Let’s start with the premise that genocide is racist—all advocates of genocide, or race-based slavery, could think of members of other races for whom they had affection. Adolf Eichmann, who relentlessly pursued the eradication of European Jews, emphasized that he had Jewish friends (and he did). Slaveholders talked about their affection for some slaves, advocates of segregation claimed that their stance came from concern for non-whites (see Bilbo’s introduction to his racist book arguing for getting all African Americans out of America, or David Duke, an actual Nazi, talking about his affection for his African-American maid).

So, simply having kind feelings toward people of other races doesn’t make us not-racist. Racism isn’t about feelings that individuals have for others.

In our culture racism is bad, and we have a hard time thinking of acts as bad without immediately jumping to the actor being equally bad. That was a complicated sentence. Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time in the courses where racism comes up (courses on racism, free speech, demagoguery, going to war, Hitler) and I say that “being racist doesn’t mean a person is evil.” And some students hear me saying that racism is okay, and they’re shocked. And that isn’t what I’m saying. Not-evil people say and do racist things. We all do racist things, and we aren’t all evil.

Racism is very bad, but not every act of racism is equally bad, and the worst kinds of racism are the consequence of institutional practices, that don’t necessarily involve anyone being deliberately hostile to someone else.

Think about this in terms of disability. My campus is really bad for anyone with even mild mobility issues—lots of the larger classroom have stairs such that you can’t get to the stage if you are on a scooter or in a wheelchair (and it would be really difficult on crutches), there aren’t enough ramps or curb cuts around campus, elevators are wonky and small (and there aren’t enough), there are buildings with stairs in the middle of hallways and at most entrances, and some ramps are too steep. The people who designed those buildings didn’t do so because they were trying to make it hard for anyone with disabilities to navigate campus—they didn’t say to themselves, “Wow, I sure hate people with disabilities—I’m going to put a stairway here.” Instead, they were designing at a time when the style was to have entrances have a few steps—the idea is that they look more elegant that way. The architects didn’t think of what it would be like to navigate the building or campus with a mobility disability (or any other kinds, really) because that concern was invisible to them. They didn’t think. So, what they did was bad and discriminatory, but it didn’t come from evil intentions; it came from a lack of thought.

So, culturally, we need to talk about the harms caused by actions, policies, and institutions, and not whether the individuals involved are good or evil. The next time Trump says something racist, we need to stop shifting the stasis to whether he’s racist—what matters is that thing was a racist thing to say. As long as we allow the stasis to shift to whether he is racist, then his PR people can point out a single non-racist thing he did, or some relationship he has with a non-white, or condemn the people who quote him, or some non-white says he’s okay, or point out that he didn’t do something even more racist.  What he says matters more than who he is. If someone comes back with a “Well, it was an unfortunate comment,” then we can point out he’s got a lot of comments like that. He says a lot of racist things, and that matters, not because of what it means about his soul, but because what he says matters.

People want to believe that our group is basically good, and we are drawn to someone who tells us that. When people are told that someone they believe represents the in-group (when they identify with that person) then they feel that they have been accused of being racist, and that means they feel accused of being evil.

I think it would help if we imagined people as more like those architects—not evil, but thoughtless.

And yet there is a moment when you can stop calling the architect unintentionally thoughtless. If an architect has a history of designing buildings that are inaccessible, and it’s pointed out, and they keep doing it, then we can condemn their architecture as being discriminatory—it doesn’t matter if they have a friend in a wheelchair, or don’t make jokes about disabled people. We can say they shouldn’t design any more buildings.

We can say that a person with a long history of racist statements shouldn’t be in a position of decision-making in which race might matter. That isn’t attacking a group, and it isn’t attacking the person who likes Trump; it’s criticizing Trump. (Of course, charismatic leadership makes this complicated.)

Group entitativity

Social psychologists talk about “group entativity”—that is, the degree to which someone thinks about groups as Real Things. For some people, groups are just ways of grouping things that could be grouped in other ways—you might take a group of college students and group them by year, astrological sign, writing skills, major, paper topic. The value of that way of grouping would depend on what you were trying to do. If you were trying to put students together for group writing projects and wanted to make sure that each group was balanced in terms of skill, then grouping them by astrological sign wouldn’t make any sense. It would make more sense to group for diversity of writing skill. If you were going to have student groups work with a research librarian, then grouping by paper topic would probably make the most sense. That way of seeing groups is as functional and pragmatic.

That pragmatic way of thinking about groups makes some people nervous, since they want to see social groups as Real—they want to believe that people in this group are Really Different from people in that group. They believe that all you need to know about someone you can know by inferring their group memberships, and they reason deductively from that—if you’re a woman, you must be bad at sports. (If you’re a woman, and good at sports, they’ll often invoke the No True Scotsman rule.)

Some people, in other words, strongly believe in group entativity. Sometimes they’ll work to make the groups absolutely perfectly distinct—such as prohibiting African Americans from learning to read, so that they could maintain their belief that African Americans aren’t intellectual, or prohibiting Japanese or Jews from owning land, and then condemn them for not being grounded.

People who believe in Real groups often believe that the fundamental Real distinction is between Good and Bad people. So, when you say that someone in their group is racist, they hear you saying that their group is made up of Bad People. And they know that isn’t true, because they know they do good things.

It’s the same problem with hearing someone say that white people have an advantage—some (white) people hear that as saying that they didn’t work at all, or work for anything. They hear that as a claim that white people are lazy. And that means their group is bad.

They hear it that way because, if groups are Really totally different from one another, then either a group earned what it has achieved through good things or it didn’t.

The notion of white privilege also threatens the Just World Hypothesis, which is central to the Prosperity Gospel. So, saying that the playing field isn’t even, and not everyone who succeeds worked harder than anyone who didn’t, threatens some people’s sense of their group, themselves, and their sense of the very world. That’s why they get so mad.

Confirmation Bias

I’ve written about this a lot, but it’s central. People who believe that groups are Real, and that only Bad People are racist are also likely to believe that you can just look and see if someone is good or not. In other words, they don’t recognize that we are all subject to confirmation bias.

But, if they think in black or white terms, then the notion of confirmation bias is really threatening. If things are either completely good or entirely bad, and research suggests that our perception is flawed, that must be saying that we can never tell whether someone or something is good or bad. It must mean we have no judgment at all, and they can point to lots of times they had good judgment, so their judgment is good, so confirmation bias is wrong.

A sweet case of confirmation bias.

Demagoguery and the “That thing you said was racist” problem

When you have people who reason from identity (people in this group are good, and people in that group are bad), it’s really hard to get them to see that their in-group information sources are giving them bad information. They will believe things that come to them from the in-group because the in-group is good.

If you’re in an echo chamber, as it’s called, it doesn’t look that way because you’re very aware of all sorts of in-group disagreements. You can see disagreement, so you think you’re in a world of dissent. And, if you equate in-group membership and reliability, then you also believe what your in-group information sources tell you that the out-group is saying about you.

Right now, our media world reminds me of the world described by Queen Bees and Wannabes, in which manipulative people create solidarity by repeating nasty things other people (are supposed to have) said about you.

The most damaging aspect of demagogic media, and this is just as true of Fox as it is of OccupyDemocrats, is that it normalizes demagoguery—that is, making every issue an us vs. them issue.

Whether someone said something racist isn’t an us vs. them issue. It’s a what did they say issue.

So, telling someone that they said something racist, or that someone they like said something racist, involves keeping a clear eye on the stasis—it isn’t about which group is better. It’s about what they said. Keep the stasis there.


[1] It doesn’t bother Trump supporters that neo-Nazis like Trump; they think revolutionary Marxists liked Obama, and they think that evens things out. Of course, revolutionary Marxists hated Obama, as they hate all third-way neoliberals.

[2] I’m not saying that all forms of in-group favoritism or out-group aversion are the same, equally bad, or anything along those lines. They are wildly different in impact depending on things like social structures, history, power.

[3] It’s important to be careful about how class is factoring in to this—so, if it’s a poor Lithuanian family, don’t ask whether you would judge a rich Moravian (because you’re Moravian) family the same way. Ask whether you would tell the same story about a poor Moravian family.

Texts for analysis in principles of rhetoric class

I know that folks like to know what other people are assigning as objects of analysis, and so I thought I’d post mine. This is a sophomore/junior level course. Ones I’ve used before have an explanation as to why they’re weird–I may not have time to write that explanation for the rest (and may not need it).

  • Theodore Bilbo’s Take Your Choice (this is available on-line, but off of a really nasty white supremacist site—if you’d rather not use a site like that, then you can photocopy sections from my copy). I teach this book in another class, and it’s always mentioned as the most offensive reading of the semester (and that’s a class in which we read Mein Kampf). It’s awful. Although written in 1948, Bilbo shamelessly uses the same texts that were so influential on the Nazis in order to defend segregation and argue for sending African Americans “back” to Africa. You’ll hate the book (as you should). It’s impossible to tell how much impact (if any) the book had in its time, but Bilbo’s message was generally well-received in his home state of Mississippi. It’s a contradictory and incoherent text (drawing on strict creationism and evolution), but many parts of his argument were very common (you’ll see bits of the same argument in the lower court decisions on anti-miscegenation statutes). I don’t know what to make of this book.
  • James Arthur Ray’s Harmonic Wealth (this one is harder than it might look at first, as you are fairly close to the audience). Ray bills himself as a “motivational speaker” (he’s featured in The Secret), and was charging a lot of money for day- and weekend-long workshops on success (which is more than a little ironic, as being a motivational speaker is the only thing at which he’s succeeded—he actually has a history of failing badly at making money any other way). He’s now famous for having been held responsible for the deaths of people during his sweat lodge ceremony.

    During the trial, it came out that Ray’s syncretic workshops consisted of things he’d lifted from other motivational speakers, all of whom themselves were borrowing randomly from various traditions. And, of course, except for being a motivational speaker, he wasn’t a particular successful person. How does he persuade people to overlook the very serious and obvious problems with his message? Students have found it helpful to look at his use of “science”—those of you with some knowledge of physics will find this a bizarre but kind of fun book (it’s very bad science). Why invoke science at all?

  • A similar puzzle is presented by the success of David Lereah’s book Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust—And How You Can Profit from It, which was rereleased in 2008 (immediately prior to the housing market crash). Lereah had already published a book with a similar argument—that this booming economy is not a bubble, although every reasonable assessment says it is—in regard to the dotcom bubble (The Rules for Growing Rich: Making Money in the New Information Economy) immediately prior to that bubble popping. Despite that track record, Lereah’s book was tremendously popular. Is Lereah’s success explained rhetorically? (This is a particularly good choice for students who are strong in economics.)
  • Also in the realm of self-help: a terrible (and misogynist) website about how to date younger women. This page is especially interesting (and offensive) http://steelballs.com/understand_her_chapter-2/
  • The 1931 ACLU Report on the Scottsboro Trial. http://famous-trials.com/scottsboroboys/2344-firsttrial-2
  • Opening statements from one of the two trials of the West Memphis Three. http://famous-trials.com/westmemphis/2243-transcripts
  • Frederick Douglass’ 1847 “The Right to Criticize American Institutions” http://www.frederick-douglass-heritage.org/the-right-to-criticize-american-institutions/
  • NSC-68 (https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-68.htm) , “The report was a group effort, created with input from the Defense Department, the State Department, the CIA, and other interested agencies; NSC-68 formed the basis for America’s Cold War policy for the next two decades.” http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-truman-receives-nsc-68
  • An anti-fascist movie from 1947 warning against us v. them rhetoric. https://archive.org/details/DontBeaS1947
  • Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony regarding Clarence Thomas http://www.emersonkent.com/speeches/testimony_hill.htm
  • An exchange with McCarthy during the hearings about communists in the military. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/welch-mccarthy.html
  • Jeff Hoover’s resignation speech after payoff rumors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bUKLsS2R0s
  • Roy Moore’s speech about the accusations against him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuEqyQC7ne4
  • William Tam’s testimony in the Proposition 8 trial. (I’d suggest starting around 1914, and going at least as far as 1968)  http://kenjiyoshino.com/KY/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Perry_Volume_8_1742_2008.pdf
  • Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 Ted Talk “The Danger of the Single Story” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story or her 2012 TedexEuston talk “We Should All Be Feminists” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists
  • Weather Underground’s 1974 Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (sds-1960s.org/PrairieFire-reprint.pdf) Here’s a fairly sympathetic explanation of the pamphlet: https://www.counterpunch.org/2004/07/24/the-weather-underground-s-prairie-fire-statement-thirty-years-on/. Most students aren’t very sympathetic (and I’m not convinced it was well-received by “the Left” as Jacbos says)—it’s pretty boring. This pamphlet is easier to write about if you don’t like it.
  • Do a rhetorical analysis of David Duke’s My Awakening. (Yes, you’ll have to read—or at least skim–the book, and it’s long and tedious and really, really offensive.) If you’d like, you can focus on the reviews of it on amazon. The book is awful, yet is ranked an average of 4.5 stars. (If you want to experiment, try writing a negative review of the book and then see what happens.) How do the reviews violate what one might expect them to be? What can one infer about their own understanding of their audience? To what extent are the reviews rhetorically savvy?
  • The debate over either the 1935 (Costigan-Wagner) or 1938 (Wagner-Van Nuys) antilynching bills. Pick at least one rhetor in favor of the legislation and at least two that are opposed to it. You should pick at least two figures who have long speeches, or several figures with short speeches but similar rhetorical strategies.
  • The “Haymarket Trial” http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/haymarket/haymarket.html. In Chicago in 1886, police charged a pro-labor rally, and started a riot in which several police officers were shot (probably by other police officers). Yet, labor leaders were charged with the killing of a police officer, and were convicted. Do rhetorical concepts explain the success of the prosecution case? You’ll need to keep in mind that you have to assess the case on the basis of what was known at the time, not what we know now. What defense claims does the prosecution refute? What claims does the prosecution ignore?
  • Rod Blagojevich and Richard Nixon (“Checker’s speech”) both found themselves in strikingly similar positions—having used their political power to get money out of people. Both engaged in apologia; but Nixon’s worked and Blagojevich’s didn’t. Does rhetorical analysis enable you to explain those different outcomes? Was it a question of Nixon having used savvier rhetorical strategies? Or was the audience different?
  • The opening statements from the trial of Dan White. http://www.famous-trials.com/danwhite


Excerpts from William Shirer’s This is Berlin (1999)

William Shirer was a correspondent in Germany in 1939 and 1940. Below are some excerpts from his broadcasts.

9/19/38. “Isn’t it wonderful,” I’ve been told a hundred times today by scores of people who did not hide their sense of relief. “Isn’t it wonderful. There’s to be no war. We’re going to have peace.”

[….] Not only National Socialist Party members, but others. They all felt that Chancellor Hitler had brought them undoubtedly the greatest victory of his career. “And mind you,” a German newspaperman said to me tonight. “It’s a bloodless victory.”

[….] “Like the occupation of the Rhine. Like the Anschluss with Austria. Done peacefully, without war.” I’ve heard these phrases a dozen times today. (15)

4/23/39.  [His perception of what the majority of Germans believe]

First, that Great Britain, backed by Daladier, Stalin and Roosevelt, is forging an encirclement of German designed to crush the Reich.

Secondly, that Hitler is right if, profiting by the lessons of 1914, he desires to break that encirclement before it is successfully completed.

Thirdly, that eastern and south-eastern Europe is a natural part of Germany’s Lebensraum—or space necessary for its existence—and that neither Britain nor anyone else, including America, has any right to interfere with Germany’s action there.

Fourthly, that Hitler, whether they like him or not, will get what he wants in eastern Europe, and get it—as he got Czechoslovakia at Munich—without a war.

Fifthly, that there will therefore be no war, and that they—the German people at any rate—do not want war. And that war can only come if the “encirclement powers”, jealous of Germany’s success, attack the Reich, in which case they will gladly fight, and this time, they say, Germany will win.

And sixthly, the mass of the German people, whatever they thought of Hitler before, or even though they still do not like many aspects of the regime, do feel that he has outsmarted the “foreign tyrants”, as they call them, who were trying to keep Germany down, and that he has restored it to its proper place in the world. And that without a single shot being fired, nor the life of one German soldier sacrificed. (42)

10/6/39. At a press conference in the Wilhelmstrasse tonight, one skeptical newspaperman asked how the Western Powers would be assured that Herr Hitler had no further demands, since that had been said before. The answer was that only now are the real foundations for a lasting peace in the interests of all there. (107)

10/8/39. Germany waits—and I must say waits hopefully—for the answer of Paris and London to what the Nazis consider was a very generous peace offer from Herr Hitler. (108)

11/19/39. [T]he papers keep repeating what Great Britain would do to Germany and Germans in case of victory. In a front-page editorial this morning the Volkischer Beobachter, official Nazi organ, tells its readers that England’s aim is not only the destruction of Germany, but the enslavement of the German people. (139)

12/30/39. Herr Hitler tells people in this New Year’s proclamation that what he terms “the Jewish international capitalism in league with the reactionaries” is really responsible for this war. Says he, and I quote, “The German people did not want this war. I tried up to the last minute to keep peace with England…But the Jewish and reactionary warmongers waited for this minute to carry out their plans to destroy Germany. These war-gentlemen wanted the war, and now they’ll get it.” (173)

1/9/40. Dr. Robert Ley, one of the most important members of the Nazi regime, states it clearly in the Angriff tonight. Says he: “We know that this war is an ideological struggle against world Jewry. England is allied with the Jews against Germany. How low must the English people have fallen to have had as war ministers a parasitical and profiteering Jew of the worst kind… England is spiritually, politically and economically at one with the Jews…For us, England and the Jews remain the common foe…Germany has won the first battle. Hore-Belisha has fallen.” (181-2)

2/25-26/40. The Montag, for instance, headlines the speech GERMANY WILL BREAK THE TERROR OF THE WORLD PLUTOCRACY. A struggle of Germany to free itself from the terror of Britain and France. A struggle against world-plutocracy and the world-Jews for freedom. That’s the way this war is being presented to the people of Germany. (204)

4/9/40. The German government, to use the term of an official proclamation issued in Berlin, has “taken over the protection and Denmark and Norway for the duration of the war.” (237) [The official propaganda was that England was about to invade them.]

The German occupation of Norway and Denmark, which the German newspapers tell us was done to safeguard their freedom and security…(239)

4/10/40. To give you an idea of the state of mind in Berlin today, let me cite the German press. Its front-pages glorify today’s achievements of the German army and tell the readers that Germany today, as the Nachtausgabe says, has merely taken steps “to safeguard the freedom and security of Norway and Denmark”. The same paper blames England and France for what happened. The Borsen Zeitung says, “England goes cold-bloodedly over the dead bodies of the small peoples. Germany protects the weak states from the English highway robbers.” And the same paper concludes, “Norway ought to see the righteousness of Germany’s action which was taken to ensure the freedom of the Norwegian people.” (241)

5/6/40. The German press continues to devote most of its headlines to warning that the British are about to spread war by aggressive action in the Mediterranean, in the Balkans, even in Spain. Observers here still wonder what is back of this press campaign, remembering that we had a very similar one in regard to Scandinavia six weeks ago. (263)

5/10/40. At a hastily convoked press conference at the Foreign Office at 8 a.m., Herr von Ribbentrop read to us the memorandum in which Germany explains why she marched into the two Low Countries. The argument, summed up, is that Britain and France were about to attack Germany through the two little countries, and that Germany therefore deems it necessary to send in its own troops to safeguard the neutrality of Belgium and Holland. The memorandum also blames the two countries for not having maintained a really neutral attitude. Belgium, for instance, is blamed for having built its fortifications against Germany, not against France, though it would seem that the Belgians this morning should be glad they did. (268)

5/15/40. Dr. Ley, one of Herr Hitler’s chief lieutenants, writes in the Angriff tonight: “Hitler brought Germany to reason and made us happy. We’re convinced we will now bring Europe to reason and make it happy. That’s his God-given mission.” (277)

6/1/40. Press attacks on France continue. Said a German radio commentator: “There can be no peace in Europe until the Negro-ized and Jew-ized people of the plutocrat Reynaud are taught with a sharp sword that no crime goes unpunished.” (306)

6/2/40. As to the invasion of Holland and Belgium, most Germans you meet believe the justification given by the government and the army—namely, that the Allies would have attacked if the Germans hadn’t beaten them to it. Thus the German move is always referred to in the press as the “counter-thrust”. Exactly the same explanation was given for the Norwegian campaign and, I think, accepted by the great majority of people. One must remember that when Germany went into Poland last September, the official communiques described it as a “counter-attack”. (309)

7/19/40. In other words, Hitler offers peace to Britain. On what terms, he does not say. But one thing is evident. The German people will now follow him as never before, for they will say: He offered England peace and no strings attached to it. He said he saw no reason for going on with the war. If the war goes on, it’s England’s fault. That’s what the German people will say. (355)

8/1/40. Nearly every day now one or the other of the German newspapers gives us a glimpse into the New Europe which the Third Reich is now planning for this continent as soon as the war is over. Today Dr. Ernst Timm, writing in the Borsen Zeitung, gives us a further glimpse.

The last result of nationalism in Europe, he says, was the union of all Germans in one nation. The next phase in Europe will be known by what he terms “European Responsibility”, a responsibility, he adds, which has been taken over by Germany. He finds three points in his new conception of Europe.

  1. Only a nation in Europe which is conscious of its European responsibility has a right to take part in the new reconstruction. A people like the French, which he says has become mixed with Negroes and Jews, has no right to European leadership.
  2. Only peoples who through their greatness and their life-force are capable of European contributions have the right to self-responsible action.
  3. The European leader-peoples, as he puts it, carry the responsibility not only for their own national fate, but also for that of the smaller peoples who are placed in their Lebensraum—or living space. (367)




Demagoguery and scapegoating

I want to start with an interesting puzzle:

Republicans control Congress, the Supreme Court, now the Presidency; Republicans have a trifecta in 26 states, and the most popular cable news show is a tried-and-true propaganda outfit for Republican candidates and agenda.  Fifty-six percent of America’s richest families are GOP donors. By any reasonable measure, the GOP is the establishment.

The puzzle is that the rhetoric surrounding voting Republican is one of resistance to the establishment—the GOP has successfully framed itself as the anti-establishment party.  And they have managed to blame all problems on Democrats (even in absurd cases and in the face of all reasonable evidence). —the out-of-power party.[1] Now that they have complete control of the Federal government, and still can’t come through on their promises, they have a new narrative, the Deep State conspiracy  —so that it’s still liberals who are the source of all of our problems. That’s interesting. How are they managing that rhetorical sleight of hand?

There are various reasons, with three I want to mention here. The first is the one I won’t talk about at any length now, and it’s lay political theory. The dominant lay political theory is that the solutions to all political problems are obvious to any reasonable person—no political disagreement involves two or more people of intelligence and good faith.  The government doesn’t pursue those obvious solutions for various nefarious reasons—they know what they should do, but they don’t follow that course of action because of “special interests” (special interests being “anyone other than my in-group”).

The second is informational enclaves—that large swaths of Americans inhabit worlds impervious to accurate representations of out-group arguments (not just people on the right, and not just restricted to “political” issues). It isn’t just that these worlds involve the chanting of various assertions; it’s also that these enclaves engage in inoculation (a concept that really should be more prominent in rhetoric and comp). Inoculation works by giving people a weak form of an out-group ideology or political agenda—people sincerely believe they don’t need to listen to people who disagree because they think they already know the argument. Inoculation works because so many people believe that the first goal in listening to someone (or reading) is finding cues of identity group membership—if the rhetor can be identified as out-group, then everything they say can be rejected as “biased.” (I think this is worsened by how we teach “bias” in fyc classes, since we teach it as social group membership.)

Not all instances of inoculation are demagoguery, but demagoguery always involves inoculation. And the dominant form of discourse in those worlds is demagoguery, and that’s the third factor I want to talk about.

My argument about demagoguery is fairly straightforward—demagoguery is most effectively thought of as a way of arguing, not a rhetoric produced by a kind of person. It isn’t necessarily a cancer on the body politic, or a political evil. Thinking about demagogues and not demagoguery and thinking about demagoguery as a growth to be excised unintentionally ends up endorsing the very view of public discourse that is so problematically at the center of demagoguery: that political issues can be reduced to identity, and that they are solved through elimination. And that’s demagoguery.

I’ve suggested we think of demagoguery as:

Demagoguery is a polarizing 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/scapegoated 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 depoliticizes political discourse by making all issues questions of identity (which amounts to in-group loyalty), it insists that all of our problems are caused by this group—the only failing of the in-group is insufficient will in pursuing a policy of purity.

I began with a description of something odd about Republican rhetoric—and I want to be clear, I’m not saying that the disingenuousness of Republican rhetoric (“we’re the victims here”) means Republicans are bad people, or the Republican political agenda should be dismissed on the grounds that they have disingenuous rhetoric. Republican policies should be debated on their merits and demerits as policies. I’m saying that advocates of the Republican political agenda need to defend that agenda with policy rhetoric. So should every other advocate of a political agenda. Political argument should be arguments about policies.

If we say the problem is that Republicans are demagogues, the implied solution is to purify our community of Republicans—and that’s demagoguery. If we say their rhetoric is demagogic, we are asking them to argue differently.

Saying that Republican policies are bad because Republican media engage in demagoguery is still not deliberating about policies; it’s arguing about who is the disease of the body politic. Jeremy Engels, who has identified a similar (but not identical) phenomenon with what he calls a “politics of resentment” points out that “Nixon argued that war protestors, and not the war itself, was the problem” (96) and that this “rhetoric was brilliant because [Nixon] subverted the democratic possibilities of resentment by redefining the conflict at the heart of democracy” (101).

As Kenneth Burke famously said in his prescient analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric, nothing unifies as much as a common enemy, and a common enemy is useful for enhancing nationalism. Anthony Marx’s recent book persuasively argues that nationalism—that is, a centralized allegiance—can’t be dictated top-down, but elites can employ “an indirect method for channeling popular loyalty, bringing religious passions and identities thus consolidated into the service of absolutism” (74). Marx says, “To consolidate their power and make governance possible and effective, elites embraced rising mass passions by encoding discriminatory laws enforcing those passions and cohering their supporters” (74). So, it’s Burke’s unification through division.

Marx’s narrative of the pre-Enlightenment founding of nationalism emphasizes the crucial role of religious passion in this foundation, which he argues fits the characteristics of what is now often inaccurately called “ethnic nationalism” (what the clash of cultures people present as an impaired and non-Western kind of nationalism). Thus, the “ethnic” versus “civic” nationalism operates by occluding Western nationalism’s reliance on religious/ethnic exclusion.

And I’d suggest that’s what we’re seeing now. I think it can be invisible to a lot of people the way that the policy arguments of the United States have been refit into an eschatological narrative. It is simply a given in some informational enclaves (including Fox News) that being Christian means being Republican, a sloppy and entirely false equation that enables the mobilizing of religious passion (and there are few passions stronger) in service of disenfranchising, excluding, or exterminating the scapegoated out-group. (And, as with the muddled way “Muslim” is troped as a race, in this enclave “Christian” is “white” thus non-Christians must not be white.)

Anthony Marx points out that groups that have relied on this process of cohesion through exclusion don’t recognize their reliance on exclusion because they renarrate their own history as one of inclusion (168). That ahistoric narrative of inclusion enables a useful amnesia about the violent and exclusive bases of nationalism. This narrative of inclusion is strengthened in several ways, including the faux diversity of seeing oneself as inclusive because one’s in-group doesn’t exclude as much as it could– having a Jew lawyer, a gay “friend,” a Catholic colleague. Because the initial violence is hidden, the current violence is framed as a new and necessary exception, and not a continuation of practice.

The violence is often legitimated through hyperbole, and there is a paradox in demagogic rhetoric created by its reliance on hyperbole. Demagoguery is about performing in-group loyalty—to persuade voters that I am the most passionate embodiment of our group, it’s useful if I’m impractical, irrational, and hyperbolic. My willingness to make absurd claims and commit myself to policies that probably won’t work shows just how loyal I am. Initially, when a rhetor does this, they want someone else to stand up and stop the community from enacting that impractical policy. But that isn’t generally what happens. If I say that the in-group needs to go to war with squirrels, then the people on whom I’ve dumped the rhetorical responsibility of actually deliberating pragmatically now have to argue that we aren’t capable of going to war with the squirrels (or of winning, or paying for the war, or something else that suggests we are flawed as a group). They look disloyal and less passionate about the in-group than I do. If Chester Burnette is running against me, he needs to match my hyperbole, so he’ll have to advocate either my policy or something even more impractical. In cultures of demagoguery, communities end up pursuing policies that were initially advocated just as performance of in-group loyalty.

There’s another paradox, and it’s a concerning one. The paradox of social control through demagoguery is that if it’s effective there is no longer a scapegoat to blame—proslavery scapegoating of abolitionists ensured that there was no antislavery discourse in slave state political deliberations. So, on whom could they blame slave resistance? They couldn’t acknowledge that it was the consequence of slavery, and then you get a rhetoric of conspiracy. [2] Conspiracy rhetoric, when it’s successful, leads to (or legitimates) policies of extraordinary surveillance—since the ability of the out-group to cause so many problems although they’ve been silenced and excluded shows a degree of nefariousness that requires extraordinary policies.

And that’s why this “deep state” rhetoric worries me. The ineffectiveness of an interventionist bullying foreign policy, neoliberal economic policies, and climate change denial should be up for argument—we should be having policy arguments about those policies. Their failure should be the moment for reconsideration. If their failures are instead blamed on a nonfalsifiable narrative about a deep conspiracy, then the next step will be debating the degree of surveillance and exclusion of the scapegoated group.

When a culture’s normal rhetorical practice is demagoguery, then there are demagogues in power—because there are demagogues everywhere, because demagoguery becomes the most profitable and cunning choice. When demagoguery is normalized, then demagogues arise.

So, instead of talking about who is or is not a demagogue, I think we should worry about when and how demagoguery gets normalized.


[1] I’m not puzzled or outraged that they blame all their problems on Democrats—all political parties do that. I’m intrigued that it’s effective.

[2] Another good example of this maneuver is what Stalin did when his agricultural policies were disastrous. Since the whole argument for the Soviet system was that central planning was more rational, he couldn’t admit that they had screwed up—so he invented (and probably sincerely believed) a conspiracy on the part of counter-revolutionaries.