Handout for Denver talk

“Democracy and the Rhetoric of Demagoguery”

Here’s my argument: I think we can distinguish demagoguery from other forms of persuasive discourse on the basis of the presence of certain rhetorical moves, not the identity of the rhetors. I think, also, we should talk about the effectiveness of demagoguery in terms of how it plays into the informational worlds that people inhabit. Demagoguery isn’t an identity; it’s a relationship.

There are six methodological problems to consider with the “infer from rhetors I hate” project:

1. Looking for the commonalities among successful and hated rhetors assumes what is at stake—that it was something about their rhetoric or identity that enabled them to succeed, rather than there being a tremendous amount of luck, or their being in the right place at the right time. If we want to know what does enable that success, we need to look at unsuccessful demagoguery.
2. That method doesn’t enable us to see demagoguery we like—by beginning with rhetors we hate, we exclude consideration of our attraction to potentially damaging rhetoric.
3. It also prohibits empirical research on demagoguery. And here I’m advocating a kind of research I don’t do, but that I think is valuable. If we could come up with a fairly rigorous definition of demagoguery, then we could use strategies like corpus analysis in order to be more precise in our claims of causality and consequences.
4. Oddly enough, the standard criteria—motive, emotionality, populism—don’t even capture the most famous demagogues, or they end up capturing all political figures, so those criteria are both over- and under-determining.
5. These criteria are demophobic and elitist, as though rich and intellectual people never fall for demagoguery, and that just isn’t true.
6. Finally, by focusing on identities as the problem—bad things happen because we have powerful individuals who are demagogues—we necessarily imply a policy solution of purification. If the presence of these bad people is the problem, then we should purify our community of them. Since I’ll argue that policies of purification are, in fact, one of the consistent characteristics of demagoguery, that would mean, in the scholarly project of criticizing demagogues, we’re engaged in demagoguery.

Odd characteristics of demagoguery:
1. It’s obvious to us that their rhetor is a demagogue, but not to them. If the identity of demagogue is so obvious, why does it ever work?
2. If demagogues are magicians with word wands, why is it so hard to describe their impact/effect accurately?

“Time after time, Hitler set the barbaric tone, whether in hate-filled public speeches giving him a green light to discriminatory action against Jews and other ‘enemies of the state’, or in closed addresses to Nazi functionaries or military leaders where he laid down, for example, the brutal guidelines for the occupation of Poland and for ‘Operation Barbarossa’. But there was never any shortage of willing helpers, far from being confined to party activists, ready to ‘work towards the Fuhrer’ to put the mandate into operation” (Ian Kershaw, Hitler, the Germans 43)

“Nazi propaganda was not, and could not, be crudely forced on the German people. On the contrary, it was meant to appeal to them, and to match up with everyday German understandings [….] Thus, far from forcing unwanted or repellant messages down the throats of the population, Hitler and the Nazis carefully tailored what they said, wrote, and especially what they did, in order to win and hold the support of the people.” (Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler 259)

Characteristics of public discourse in train wreck moments:

• Policy questions are reduced to questions of identity, with need reframed as threat to the ingroup, and with identify bifurcated into “us” and “them”;
• The community or nation-state is reduced to the ingroup who are seen as the “real” Americans/Christians/Republicans/Progressives (so that, even if “they” are legally or historically part of the community, they are never considered “real” members);
• An outgroup is scapegoated for all the ingroup’s problems;
• Public discourse is predominantly performance of ingroup loyalty;
• Ingroup loyalty is demonstrated by insisting that policy discussions are unnecessary because the correct course of action is obvious to all people of goodwill (disagreement is fake—either the person disagreeing doesn’t really disagree, or is fooled by the outgroup);
• The community is described as threatened by the mere presence, let alone political power, of that outgroup, and so the solution is some version of purifying us of them;
• Because we are threatened with extinction, concerns like due process, human rights, and fairness are luxuries we can’t afford;
• The discourse is heavily fallacious, but not necessarily emotional, and can involve appeals to authority and expertise, and can look as though there is a lot of “evidence;”
• Nuance, uncertainty, deliberation, and skepticism are rejected as unmanly and disloyal (except for skepticism about claims made against ingroup members);
Finally, while there are overlaps with fascism (especially as Robert Paxton describes it), it isn’t necessarily fascist, or even political—it is an attack on Enlightenment notions of reason, universal rights, and inclusive deliberation.

Damaging assumptions that people commonly make about political decisions:

• When it comes down to it, the solutions to our political problems are straightforward. Our political issues are the consequence of not having enough good people in office—instead, we have professional politicians who aren’t really trying to solve things. (Stealth Democracy)
• Good people do good things, and it’s easy to recognize when someone is a good person, or when a plan of action is good. So, we don’t need to argue about policy—we just need to vote for the good people who are above (our outside of) professional politics.
• Good people speak the truth, and they don’t try to alter it through rhetoric—they are transparent. You’re better off with someone who doesn’t filter—even if what they say is offensive or not politically correct—because you can know that person. S/he won’t mislead you.
• A “rational” argument is a claim that is true (and that you can recognize easily to be true) supported by evidence, and presented in an unemotional way.

The definition I’m proposing:

Demagoguery is a discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric through framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and means by which (not whether) the outgroup should be punished for the current problems of the ingroup. Public debate largely concerns three stases: group identity (who is in the ingroup, what signifies outgroup membership, and how loyal rhetors are to the ingroup); need (usually framed in terms of how evil the outgroup is); what level of punishment to enact against the outgroup (restriction of rights to extermination).

(Some) Citations:
Berlet, Chip, and Mathew N. Lyons. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford, 2000.

Burke, Kenneth. “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.'” The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Gellately, Roberts. Backing Hitler. Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Hibbing, John R. and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. New York: Cambridge U P, 2002.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.
—. Hitler, The Germans, and The Final Solution. NewHaven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think, 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Mann, Michael. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Miller, Thomas P. The Formation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British
Cultural Provinces. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 1997.

Taleb, Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness, Random House & Penguin (2001-2005 2nd Ed.)

Ward, Jason Morgan. Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965. Chapel Hill: U of NC P, 2014.

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