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drw.ut e xas.e du berts-miller/hando uts/demago guery
Characteristics of Demagoguery
Characteristics of Demagoguery
By Trish Roberts-Miller
In popular usage, “demagoguery” simply means “ef f ective rhetoric on behalf of a political agenda I dislike.” Not
only is that a useless def inition, but, if anything, it increases the likelihood of people being persuaded by
demagoguery. T he term once meant “leader of the non-elite” so, essentially, “populist,” and it wasn’t
necessarily a criticism. By the 4th century BCE, it seems to have been used of ten to mean a destructive
approach to popular discourse, one that undermines the chances of a community coming to an ef f ective
solution to their problems.
If one works backwards f rom times that communities have been persuaded to solve their problems in ways that
ultimately destroy them (such as engaging in genocide, denying rights to some group, or starting an expensive
and unnecessary war) one ends up with a def inition that does NOT emphasize populism or emotionalism,
something like this:
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
Demagoguery is always polarizing, and always relies on binaries. It is not distinguished by emotionalism or
populism, not only because lots of very good and helpf ul methods of deliberation are emotional and populist,
but because it is of ten not emotional at all, and quite of ten elite discourse. Demagoguery can look “rational” in
that it can provide a lot of data, numbers, assertions, and even analyses (as in Grant’s Passing of the Great
Race, or Laughlin’s report f or the 1924 Immigration Act).
It has certain characteristics:
Binary paired terms. A concept described by Chaim Perelman, paired terms are sets of binaries that are
assumed to describe a logical relationship. So, f or instance, a common set of paired terms in demagoguery is:
T hus, one either punishes or rewards others. To punish others is strong and manly; to reward them is weak
and girly.
Naïve realism. Many people believe that it is both possible and desirable to perceive the world exactly as it is,
with no mediation; the most “objective” interpretation is the one with the least interpretation, a mental state to
which one can will oneself largely by rejecting complicated thinking about the situation. T his model of
perception (and cognition assumes that one’s perception of the world is based on “realistic, unbiased
interpretations” (“Naive Realism”Encyclopedia of Social Psychology Ed. Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D.
Vohs. Vol. 2. T housand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007. p602-603.).
Naïve realism privileges simple explanations (since they are most likely to correspond to direct perception), and
increases the tendency toward conf irmation bias (since people tend to perceive more easily and quickly any
inf ormation that conf irms their current belief s). T hus, paradoxically, the belief that one is the sort of person
who always sees the world exactly as it is increases the likelihood not just of being wrong, but of being wrong
in the same ways and about the same things over and over.
In addition, because naïve realists deny that they are looking at the world in a way that is f rom a particular
perspective (let alone mediated) they see no need to learn to perspective-shif t (in f act, they of ten believe they
can see all perspectives f rom their position). T hey not only universalize f rom their perspective (theirs is
universal, and all others are particular) but universalize their needs and desires (when coupled with a strong
f aith in group entitivaty, this universalizes contributes both toward projection and the f allacy of f alse
Finally, naïve realism enhances f aith in group entitativity (the belief that groups are discrete categories with
essential dif f erences) and negates any need to consider one’s belief s in terms of f alsif iability. In short, while
adherents of naïve realism believe that they have direct perception of the world, they are singularly prone to
bigotry and authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism. Authoritarianism as a worldview (rather than political system) has three main aspects:
First, authoritarian submission is one's willingness to comply with established authorities placing
very narrow limits on people's rights to criticize authorities. Second, authoritarians advocate
sanction against those whom they deem detrimental to established authorities. Authoritarian
aggression is enhanced by the belief that established authority at least tacitly approves it or that it
will help preserve established authority. Thus, the theory of authoritarianism is closely related to the
theory of social dominance. Finally, authoritarians tend to commit to the traditional social norms that
are endorsed by society and its established authorities. Targets of authoritarian aggressiveness are
often directed toward unconventional people or those defined as social deviants, such as
homosexuals. (“Authoritarianism.” Encyclopedia of Political Communication Ed. Lynda Lee Kaid and
Christina Holtz-Bacha. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008. p45-47. Joon Soo Lim)
Demagoguery correlates strongly to authoritarianism; in f act, I haven’t f ound any demagoguery that doesn’t
appeal to authoritarianism, or is not in service of authoritarian policies. In theory, there could be a nonauthoritarian demagoguery, but I haven’t f ound it.
Authoritarians f ear change, and yet, paradoxically, are not averse to enacting radical and very new policies as
long as they are f ramed as a return to or strengthening of “conventional” or “traditional” values. While
authoritarians say they are strongly in f avor of “traditional” values, those values are of ten of very recent
origin. In other words, “traditional” is not a historical claim (that is, a claim that historical research will show
these values, actions, or belief s to have a long and broad history) but a personal claim (that these values and
so on are all that this person has known—it is surprising to me how of ten “traditional” simply means “how I was
Assumption/assertion of ontologically-grounded taxonomies. Perhaps because demagoguery relies on
binaries, it assumes that either things (ideas, perceptions, values, illnesses, identities, personalities) are either
entirely subjective (that is, def ined by idiosyncratic belief , transient, and essentially unreal) or entirely objective
(that is, eternal, Real, and existing entirely outside individual perception). T hus, demagoguery has tremendous
dif f iculty with social constructed “f acts” (such as race, money, gender norms, cultural practices). Such
concepts are assumed to be either subjective (so that they claim not to see race) or grounded in the very
f abric of the cosmos (and theref ore belief s to which we must submit).
Coupled with naïve realism, this means that demagoguery imagines public deliberation as a place in which
people with accurate perception point out the Real Truth to others who, if they are also capable of unmediated
perception, will instantly see it. Public discourse is, in other words, primarily a realm in which one demonstrates
the clarity of one’s vision, one’s ingroup membership, one’s loyalty to that group, and one’s willingness to
engage in punitive action on behalf of the ingroup/against the outgroup(s).
Deductive reasoning. Hence, demagoguery is all about certainty, accuracy, and “f acts,” all of which can be
deduced f rom 1) “traditional” practices, values, belief s (as def ined above—they are the most f amiliar and
comf ortable to the audience); 2) “traditional” interpretations of authoritative texts; 3) reasoning backwards
f rom what must necessarily be true to maintain current hierarchies (racial, gender, national, or economic).
T hus, demagoguery of ten reasons f rom what “must” be true, even in cases when there is adequate empirical
evidence. To argue f or a particular policy that has of ten been enacted, one does not reason f rom what has
happened in the past when these policies were enacted, but f rom what must or should happen if one’s
premises are correct. Premises are thereby protected f rom f alsif ication—the very things that might throw them
into question (conditions in which they are shown to be f alsif ied) is rejected precisely on the grounds that it
would f alsif y the premises.
Because of this reliance on deductive reasoning that works f rom premises guarded f rom f alsif ication, there is
a strong tendency in demagoguery to ref use to redeem claims—that is, demagoguery will not provide evidence
that demonstrates the major premises, only arguments deducible f rom them, or examples (or citations) that
support them.
Hence, while demagoguery can look rational (in the sense of having a lot of data and not necessarily having
any emotional appeals) what makes it prof oundly illogical is that the logic of the arguments of ten wraps in on
itself .
Identity as logic. Probably the most complicated aspect of demagoguery to describe is how identity f unctions.
T he central presumption behind demagoguery—and the most attractive promise it makes—is a stable
taxonomy of identity, woven into the f abric of the universe. T he taxonomy is also a hierarchy; some people are
entitled to more goods than others by virtue of being better—they are better by virtue of having a certain
identity, regardless of their behavior. Hence, paradoxically, members of the ingroup (by virtue of being
essentially “better” people) are held to lower standards, and can behave worse.
Bad behavior on the part of ingroup members is explained externally (they made a mistake, they were f orced
into it) and is dismissed as meaningless; bad behavior on the part of outgroup members, however, signif ies
their true identity. Good behavior on the part of ingroup members signif ies their true identity, and good
behavior on the part of outgroup members is explained by external characteristics or bad motives.
One consequence is that precisely the same behavior in both groups is explained in dyslogistic terms f or the
outgroup (they are greedy) and eulogistic terms f or the ingroup (they are hard-working). T his dichotomy
enables projection (explained below).
Another consequence is that ef f ective perf ormance of ingroup membership serves as adequate evidence f or
one’s claims (people believe the argument because the person seems reliable) and dismissal of counter-claims
(she can’t have done that because she is such a good X).
Projection. Demagoguery relies on condemning the outgroup f or what the ingroup is doing. T his step is
absolutely necessary f or scapegoating (that is, f or holding some group responsible f or the ingroup’s
problems). T his projection has several f orms.
Fallacy of moral equivalence. Because demagoguery relies on and reinforces naïve realism, it
appeals to a sense that everyone is just like the ingroup, and that helps members of the ingroup to
believe that the outgroup(s) is doing exactly what they are; coupled with a sense that all outgroup
members are interchangeable with one another, this sense means that one can accuse everyone in
the outgroup of doing “just as much” as what the ingroup is doing. Or, in other words, if the ingroup
is engaged in any activity that creates cognitive dissonance (we are an honorable group and we are
engaged in this dishonorable activity) this dissonance is resolved by asserting that the outgroup
does it too. Because that enables the “both sides do it” topos, this belief inhibits any desire
bystanders might have to engage in condemnation of scapegoating. It’s the fallacy of false
equivalence in that the behavior of fringe members of the outgroup is equated to central members
of the ingroup, or single instances of violence are framed as “just as bad” as mass violence, or
minor ingroup inconveniences are equated to denial of rights, or criticism is framed as “just as bad”
as hate speech (i.e., calling someone racist is “just as bad” as saying something racist).
Cunning projection. Condemning the outgroup for the same thing the ingroup does effectively
distracts on-lookers, making it complicated for them to figure out the cause-effect. For instance,
demagoguery that condemns outgroup self-defense as “just as bad” as ingroup offensive violence
necessitates that on-lookers investigate the chain of events carefully enough to figure out who was
the attacker. Since on-lookers generally don’t want to go to that trouble, they are likely to make the
determination on the basis of which party seems more likeable. Hence, cunning projection coupled
with an attractive persona is likely to enable the continued violence.
If condemnation of outgroup behavior is performed with a very likeable persona, then on-lookers
are likely to conclude that the rhetor would never engage in the behavior s/he is condemning. This
maneuver is especially effective with people who believe that you can know what someone believes
by listening to what values they claim to espouse, and with people who think you can predict
behavior by listening to values talk (who believe that “good” believe—that is, people who say the
right things—don’t do “bad” things).
Thus, when cunning projection is most effective, rhetors manage the condemnation of a group who
has done nothing, or done very little compared to what they have done (what Allport called the
“mote-beam” projection).
Even if it doesn’t achieve that end, cunning projection generally muddies the waters enough that the
ingroup can continue its policies, as on-lookers are prone to declare a pox on both houses.
Victimization. One thing that surprises people about demagoguery, or that they don’t expect to see, is that it
relies heavily on a rhetoric of victimization. T he ingroup is being victimized by the situation (of ten by being
treated the same as the outgroup, so there is a kind of political narcissism operating), and the claim is that the
ingroup has responded to this victimization with extraordinary patience and kindness. (If the actual history is
disenf ranchisement and violence, then that behavior is ref ramed and patience and kindness because it could
have been worse.)
Now, however, to react with anything other than punitive violence (to try to think about the situation, or
deliberate on it, or include the outgroup in any deliberations) is weak, vacillating, cowardly, and f eminine.
As a consequence, demagoguery has to square the circle of inspiring f ear while not looking f earf ul (since
f earf ulness is being paired with thinking and deliberating)—there are of ten claims of extraordinary courage in
the f ace 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 of ten makes me laugh).
Metaphors. In addition to heavy reliance on the metaphors related to Strong Father Morality (see Lakof f ,
Moral Politics, especially Chapters Five and Six), demagoguery associates metaphors of vermin, disease, taint,
queerness (that is, transgressive behavior), monstrosity (that is, hybridity), disorder, lack of control
(licentiousness), thinking, and demonic possession with the outgroup. It associates purity, tumescence
(specif ically, and masculinity, generally), order, action, decisiveness, and control with the ingroup. It associates
dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness with people considering protecting or def ending the
outgroup in any way.