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.

Let’s reinvigorate the charge of religious bigotry

In the US, the term “bigot” is used interchangeably with “racist,” but its use for a long time involved religious, not racial, bigotry. At a certain point, it became more broadly used for someone who could not be persuaded out of a belief, religious or political. The OED gives the first three definitions as:

A religious hypocrite; (also) a superstitious adherent of religion; A person considered to adhere unreasonably or obstinately to a particular religious belief, practice, etc.; In extended use: a fanatical adherent or believer; a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs. (OED, Third Edition, December 2008)

The OED notes that Smollet in 1751 condemned the political discourse of his era by referring to “The crazed tory, the bigot whig.”

And that’s what’s wrong with our political discourse. It isn’t whether people are “civil” or “hostile” or even “racist.” Our problem is that our political discourse is dominated by bigoted discourse. And a lot of those bigots pretend that their views are reasonable ones related to Scripture.

Democracy works when most people are open to persuasion, and it doesn’t work when too many of us are bigots. Being open to persuasion doesn’t mean that you’ll change your mind every time someone gives you new information (the test apparently used by some studies about persuasion), but it does mean that you can imagine changing your mind, and, ideally, you can identify the conditions under which you would change your mind.

A.J. Ayer famously argued that some beliefs are falsifiable (which he described as scientific) and some aren’t (which he defined as religious). I think he was wrong in the notion that science is always falsifiable and religious never is, and there are other quibbles with his claim, but, having spent a lot time arguing with people in academic, nonacademic, fringe, and just fucking loony realms, I have come to think, while there are lots of good criticisms of the specifics of his argument, his general point–that we have beliefs we open to change and we have beliefs we will not change—is a useful and accurate description. (In fact, a lot of descriptions about whether an argument is useful or not begin with exactly that determination—are you open to changing your mind about the argument? Are you arguing with someone who is?)

A bigot is someone who cannot imagine circumstances under which she might change her mind. Or, more aptly, a bigot is someone who imagines himself as never wrong, and always able to summon evidence to support his position. What he can’t imagine (and this is what makes him irrational) is the evidence that would prove him wrong, and she condemns everyone who disagrees as so completely and obviously wrong that they should be silenced without ever having carefully listened to their argument.

I do believe that Jesus is my savior, and in a God who is omniscient and omnipotent. That belief is not open to disproof. And I am comfortable with calling that a religious belief. And, so, in that regard, I am a bigot. On the other hand, I’ve read the arguments for atheism, and various other religions, and I don’t think advocates of those beliefs should be silenced.

In addition I don’t believe that those two claims necessarily attach me to beliefs about slavery or segregation—and it’s important to remember that, for much of American history, there were entire regions in which it was insisted that being Christian necessarily meant supporting slavery and segregation. When Christian scholars of Scripture pointed out that the Scriptural based defenses of slavery and segregation were problematic, they were condemned as having a prejudiced and politicized reading of Scripture by people who insisted the Scripture endorsed US slavery practices. The notion that Scripture justified slavery as practice in the US South, especially after 1830 or so, was a bigoted reading of Scripture—not because I think it was wrong, but because its proponents refused to think carefully or critically about their own reasons and positions. They could “defend” slavery in that they could come up with (cherry-picked) proof texts, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) argue fairly with their critics, and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) articulate the conditions under which they would change their minds. There were none. It isn’t what they argued, but how they argued, that earns them the title of bigot.

Furthermore, they banned criticisms of slavery, enforcing that ban with violence. So, they had both parts of the bigot definition—their views weren’t open to disproof, and they advocated refusing to listen to criticism of their views. They were bigots on steroids, in that they advocated violence against their critics.

Right now, we’re in a situation in which a lot of very powerful people are insisting you shouldn’t listen to criticisms of the current GOP political agenda, and they’re claiming that their views are grounded in Scripture, and they are implicitly and explicitly advocating violence against their critics. You should read them. (You can start with American Family Association, or Family Research Institute, or any expert cited on Fox News. Really—go read them.)

They call themselves conservative Christians. But being theologically conservative in Christianity does not necessarily involve the current GOP political agenda. For instance, there are conservative Christian arguments for gay marriage, for women working outside the home, against patriarchy, against the argument that charity should be entirely voluntary, and even the connection between conservative Christianity and abortion is fairly new. I’m not saying that true conservative Christians have this or that view–I’m saying that being conservative theologically doesn’t necessarily lead you to the GOP political agenda. After all, it was, for a long time, argued that being a conservative Christian necessarily led to endorsing slavery and segregation, and conservative Christians don’t make those connections anymore–why assume that current “necessary” connections (made with the same exegetical method as the “necessary” connections to slavery and segregation) are any better than those? And even many conservative Christians who argue for positions more or less in line with the current GOP political agenda don’t do so in a bigoted way. So, there’s nothing about being a conservative Christian that requires religious bigotry.

So, let’s stop using the term “conservative Christian” for people who insist that being a true Christian so necessarily means believing that the GOP agenda is right that everyone who disagrees should be threatened with violence till they shut up. “Conservative Christian” for what is actually authoritarian bigotry is strategic misnaming. Whether the Founders imagined a Christian nation is open to argument; whether they imagined a nation without disagreement is not. They valued disagreement; they valued reconsideration, deliberation, and pluralist argument.

People who pant for a one-party state, who tell their audience not to listen to anyone who disagrees, and who threaten (or justify threatening) their critics with violence are not only violating what the Founders said our country means may or may not be Christian (since they’re explicitly violating the “do unto others rule” I think that’s open to argument) but they are showing themselves to be anti-democratic authoritarian bigots.

And here is one last odd point about people like this (since I spend a lot of time arguing with them). They have a tendency to equate calling them authoritarian bigots with calling for silencing them, and that’s an interesting and important instance of projection. They believe that people who disagree with them should be silenced, so they really seem to hear all criticism of their views as an argument for silencing them. But that’s just projection.

We shouldn’t silence them. We should ask them to argue, not just engage in sloppy Jeremiads. I think our country is better if there are people who are participating in public discourse from the perspective of conservative Christianity. I think that’s a view that should be heard, and it can be heard without insisting all other views should be threatened into silence.

[The image at the top of the post is from a series of stained glass celebrating the massacre of Jews.]