A couple of folks have asked me questions about demagoguery. Guess what, I’m pretty informed about this!
The basic point about demagoguery is that it insists that we don’t have to engage in policy argumentation—we can settle all issues through deciding who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup. Demagoguery says we are in an ultimate war of extermination of us versus them.
Policy argumentation has two parts: need and plan. The need part of the argument should put forward plausible, well-supported, and well-defended claims regarding the need (problem or ill) being significant, inherent (it won’t go away on its own), and attributable to some cause (a narrative about causality).
The plan part of the argument should describe a specific plan (not just a set of slogans) that can be plausibly argued is feasible, will actually solve the specific problem identified in the need portion (this is where the narrative about causality is crucial), and deal with the problem of unintended consequences.
Demagoguery rejects all arguments about plan as weak-kneed unmanly dithering. It identified the need/problem as the presence of some bad group, and the obvious solution is to expel them from the community, prevent them from joining it, imprisoning them, and/or killing them.This narrative of our being in a supernaturally determined battle between good and evil has no place for thoughtful policy argumentation.
Thus, that the plan might not be feasible, or might have costs higher than the benefits, or might not be logically related to the need we’ve identified—all of those issues are irrelevant. The feasibility of a proposed plan, for instance, doesn’t really matter; any plan will work, as long as we stay right with God/Nature/History. It may even be that committing to an unlikely plan, with very little chance of success, after little or no deliberation, is the best approach to take: our refusal to worry about feasibility shows that we have extraordinary faith in the ingroup’s relation to God/History/Nature, and it is faith, not feasibility, that is most likely to invite divine assistance. In this narrative, heroes are irrational and impractical. Thus, this apocalyptic metanarrative prevents pragmatic and inclusive deliberation.
This posture of standing strong in the midst of the end of the world can be fairly complicated: demagoguery has to square the circle of inspiring fear while not looking fearful (since fearfulness is being paired with thinking and deliberating)—there are often claims of extraordinary courage in the face of a terrible situation, or a representation of one’s self as calm and reasonable while making apocalyptic predictions, and the odd insistence of the sheer rationality of hyperbolic claims (I will admit, this is one aspect of demagoguery that often makes me laugh).
Desperate times require desperate measures, and those desperate measures are usually some kind of punitive policies. Demagoguery seems to correlate closely with what George Lakoff has called “Strict Father Morality.” The government’s role is to act as a Strict Father to the country; if the country, or some part of it, has gotten out of order, it is because of lax policies, and we need to enact more punitive ones (for more on Strict Father Morality, see Lakoff, Moral Politics, especially Chapters Five and Six). Lakoff’s point is that this view of the government and public policy is reflected in metaphors associated with ingroup and outgroup.
In addition to the ones Lakoff argues are associated with Strict Father Morality, demagoguery associates metaphors of vermin, disease, taint, queerness (that is, transgressive behavior), monstrosity (that is, hybridity), disorder, lack of control (licentiousness), impurity (again, hybridity), thinking, and demonic possession with the outgroup. It associates metaphors of purity, tumescence (specifically, and masculinity, generally), order, action, decisiveness, and control with the ingroup. It associates dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness with people considering protecting or defending the outgroup in any way, or any criticism of the ingroup.
Thus, the solution to demagoguery isn’t less democracy, but more. But it has to be more argumentation about policy, not identity.