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.