Demagoguery is polarizing propaganda that motivates members of an ingroup to hate and scapegoat some outgroup(s), largely by promising certainty, stability, and what Erich Fromm famously called “an escape from freedom.” It significantly undermines the quality of public argument… In the most abstract, the reason it is so harmful is that it creates and fosters a situation in which it is actively dangerous to criticise dominant views, cultures, and political groups. It makes discourse a kind of coercion, largely through rousing and appealing to hate. Thus, the very people who make the decisions cannot hear all the information they need.*
Demagoguery is no stranger to democracy. It is a challenge inherent to the functioning of any healthy democracy and one that poses a significant threat to the system’s stability and cohesive ordering. It seems to amount to a vicious cycle with no resolution or constructive effect, other than the apparent trend towards increasing influence for hacks, celebrities and demagogues. The result: Greater disaffection among the public for the complex political-legal structures their learned influencers claim to understand so thoroughly. Those who know a lot about pandering to prejudices and emotions are accepted more readily than those who seek an informed reality, while providing answers that appear correct is more important than asking the right questions. How can this possibly be the case as we enter the Information Society?
The internet is essentially a network of the many, with major nodes controlled by the few with the finances to operate them. They rely on one another to be an effective medium in the same way that you cannot have a business without consumers. Ultimately, though, what we seem to be getting out of this market is either top-down simplified mass media information on a constant basis or reactive bottom-up simplified opinion type information. They both influence and follow the other, trapping their readers along with them. With a trained eye it’s not necessarily difficult to find credible information out there. But for most it would unknowingly seem to be obscured by the shadow of the bulk available. It is important to ask, therefore, whether this system can allow for independent critical thinking or whether it merely facilitates the cult of consensus, driven largely by the moralization of complex issues – see my previous post on aspects of this.
Naturally the internet provides immense opportunities for the dissemination of all sorts of information – from all manner of porn, to pictures of what you had for dinner, inane status updates and pouty self-admiration. Lost amid this list is the bracket of political opinion. Though with the internet as a new rapid-fire outlet for 24/7 news reporting as well as for the traditional media, political opinion may yet feel more at home. The only twist is that those expressing their views can, to an extent, detach themselves from others invested in the same conversation since a keyboard and a screen are not quite the same as a tête-à-tête discussion. One can interpret a written text in a variety of ways and thus in an age of instant communication the propensity for miscommunication seems to have escalated. This is the result of underdeveloped communication en masse via the medium of the computer and creates problems for individuals communicating among themselves, but not necessarily for the professional cranking out one-way propaganda. For them, being able to constantly bombard audiences with well-spun reports on current affairs must be next to ideal.
And from this one might surmise that the modern demagogue appears to be thriving in the networked economy. So let’s examine some of the features of demagoguery as outlined by Patricia Roberts-Miller, a member of the faculty over at the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas.
According to Roberts-Miller, the term ‘demagogue’ should not be afforded its popular meaning, simply “effective rhetoric on behalf of political agenda I dislike,” for it this view that is likely to increase the likelihood of persuasion by demagoguery. Undeniably this must be correct. Those blinded worshiping the opinions of others engaged in demagogic rhetoric will only become further enthralled with them when it appears to strike a chord with the opposition as well. After all, this type of incitement is in many ways the objective. The word is effectively seen as a loaded pejorative, particularly to those most susceptible to its effects, namely the uninformed partisan with a cause. In this essay I’ll be using it descriptively, and similarly to the way Roberts-Miller characterizes it.
Demagoguery in the plain sense is always polarizing, and as such destructive and undermining of any form of constructive deliberation over the problems of a community. It should not be distinguished solely on the grounds of its appeal to emotionalism or populism (as most dictionaries tend to, although given the loaded pejorative form this is understandable, and to an extent even accurate) despite these being common elements. There are helpful means of deliberation that similarly employ emotionalism or populism, and even rational elite discourse can be demagogic. Nor should too much emphasis be placed on violent calls to arms per se, although aggression one way or another does tend to result, even if not necessarily physical in nature. Though I wholeheartedly endorse Roberts-Millers’ description, as well as the rest of her analysis here (required reading; more detail here*), I would like to advance a sort of middle-ground view in order to connect her description to its practical manifestation in the networked economy as I see it. A more malleable definition which incorporates her leading characterizations, but does not adhere strictly to definitions relying predominantly on emotionalism, populism and/or violence either. My focus is not on elite discourse demagoguery and instead on the nonsense that captivates enough of us today for Russell Brand to sell 50,000 copies of his latest book, Alex Salmond to headline at an SNP folk concert as he weeps for Bella Caledonia, and for Nigel Farage to command his army of Kippers. There is what I’d like to call an irony of progressivism today, in that with more information out there, less is being heard. Perhaps it isn’t the political system as an entity that is so easily polluted as are the minds of those so desperate to change it with the power of their own naivety. “Let’s change the electoral system, that will fix things because one system of voting for MPs clearly only has advantages – it’s just so proportional and representative, no one will feel left out, it has to be a good thing.” Or, “Let’s aim to elect members of the most partisan fringe party we can think of, surely this is what is needed. We believe the three most experienced parties are all essentially the same establishment, and we can’t see the differences between them, therefore there are none.” This adds another layer to the progressive irony: “The System” apparently needs to change, but individuals don’t because clearly they have all the answers, correct opinions and a reasonable balance of information/perspective within their chosen team. Instead let’s just blame the currently trending target online – e.g. it’s the system, the establishment, the amorphous status quo, which I have nothing to do with, that’s the problem. Let’s fix democracy!
This seems like hypocrisy to me, blended with propaganda-fueled assertions, guided by the invisible hand of demagoguery. This attitude cannot be reconciled with a more truthful one since people are much easier to sway when you can get them rallied behind timeless misconceptions: “Change the system! Down with elites! Power to the people!” has a more straightforward appeal than does anything more remotely grounded in an accurate sense of reality.
This irony also has the undesirable effect of putting complaint at the centre of the discourse, although understandably so. Complaints quickly create connections between people who share them, uniting them in a common conception of whatever they are discussing, in this case how ‘the system’ is ordered – in all cases negatively and never in their (individual or even collective) interests. There can be no pleasing those whose default position is complaining unless you affirm them and join in, and there’s no educating those who turn their backs on pros so they can focus on the sensationalized cons — everyone loves a good narrative since they do not require hard thinking or confronting difficult dilemmas involving complex decisions. It’s a way of pretending that one has cut out the middleman and has arrived straight at the bare facts, when in reality that middleman has commandeered your thinking.
Furthermore, those who seek to gripe do so and have their behaviour positively reinforced and validated by everyone else invested in the discussion, thus perpetuating the real underlying issue. Easier to “like” something that appears in your network than to otherwise engage with it in a mature and nuanced way, and by doing so simply give some starry-eyed trooper out there the equivalent of a digital pat on the back. [Insert political Facebook status/sanctimonious rant here]: ‘Wow, people are “Liking” this! Clearly I’m on to something.’ Thus in public one shows an interest in politics merely by complaining about it, which is absurdly reinforced through a series of digital high-fives. The message is this: It is wrong not to care and the only way to care is to whinge and to spread the whinging. Combine this with celebrity demagoguery-types, snake-like politicians and the recipe becomes the longer the reach, the louder the whining and the more credibility one can achieve.
All of this creates a series of false, polarizing dichotomies which work to limit one’s understanding of how things operate on a practical, systemic level. Anyone with an appreciation for how religion works will understand the attitude, though evidently, atheists and those of a particularly scientific disposition are above all form of doctrinal thinking and so must be immune to bias; this attitude thanks to frequent media pieces reinforcing a worshiping science to a ridiculous degree (in this linked article the argument is that the legal system is flawed, whereas the scientific process is not, because it has taken up what is now outdated science, and should instead take up science merely because it is science – despite the fact that what is being criticized is only now considered ‘bad science’ having been taken up). Coming back to the point though, one need only make the slightest attempt towards sidestepping the dogma or the incessant whining and you will essentially be ostracized, taken as one of the enemy. Thinking independently of the in-group is simply not allowed.
A recent example. An opinionated Green party supporter raised the issue of corporate tax avoidance in the UK, high profile cases involving coffee shops and telecoms. By ‘raising the issue’ I mean they spoke to me in headlines and standardized political rhetoric. To this group, corporations and the wealthy are literally parasites, one of Natalie Bennett’s favourite terms for describing the role of business and wealth within an economy. “Conglomerates are dodging tax and the people are suffering,” I was informed. My reply was that this is a challenge of globalization, and, that in the interim, at least they are able to contribute in alternative ways e.g. by providing infrastructure, jobs and products even when they are not operating at a profit domestically. Bennett frequently confuses turnover for profit — nevermind the specifics of how turnover might be managed by a business, most Greens appear to be economically illiterate. Sure, companies are and should be liable to taxes (as well as to the many other costs which remain applicable) but simply piping up about how some structure themselves to be more tax-efficient is not entirely helpful, even damaging to the discourse, especially when using them as a scapegoat for the woes of the impoverished. This all too readily descends into a Monty Python-like witch hunt. Other populist orators such as Salmond, Brand and Farage have their own preferred witches which are hunted using strikingly similar rhetorical tactics: they all amount to clever turns of phrase which serve to create a distracting political spectacle, masking the serious and complex implications of the true substance.
I took the risk of going a step further and dealing with the other associated suggestion, big business stifles the little guys, by saying that in my experience the empirical evidence did not categorically support that. “Take a walk through a city centre, preferably a trendy district, and then try telling me that independent artisan coffee shops are struggling.” I was rebuffed by being told (amazingly) that it didn’t matter, Government should only do what is right and has nothing to do with laws. I’m not sure why a question of laws was thrown in there at the end, but it was probably done so as a means to distance my insights from the heart of the matter in a fit of anger/confusion. The neat, whimsical narrative had been disrupted – albeit only temporarily.
Further I was mocked for trying to explain that things were a little bit more complex than were otherwise being asserted. This was taken as though I were dismissing the problems as too complex and therefore not worthy of attention. How absurd! Though to be fair I was trying to show them it might not be worthy of their attention in such a dogmatic way, at least not before trying to comprehend the issues first. It’s one thing to want to improve things, quite another to do so through sheer ignorance and blindingly self-centred notions of morality. Thus I was cast a proponent of the status quo, whatever that might mean – although at the very least popular wisdom tells me it insultingly implies I somehow favour the abuse of power, corruption or any other self-reinforcing jingoism (status quo bad, moralized changes driven by demagoguery/propaganda good). And so any shred of hesitation in engaging in the verbal picketing of parasitic corporations like Starbucks or Vodafone for not having paid taxes on non-extant profits resulted in ridicule and being perceived as a member of the demagogue follower’s out-group.
As a result, from the binary-posed question of wrongdoing emerges the inevitably straightforward solution. According to the Green party’s policy statements, for example, the plan is to use the law to tax corporations and the wealthy in what amounts to a punitive fashion. This ignores the trend towards a globalized network economy which makes traditional tax measures unrealistic — this is the whole reason some multinationals find ways to avoid paying higher tax bills already! What would be needed is a rather more costly solution to go along with increasing tax: An international body dedicated to auditing and gathering financial reports from global corporate entities. The reality is that that sort of system would be less cost effective on the whole (we’re already short of money, hence the overwhelming need to go after the parasites of society, right?), and as it it would require significant international cooperation, may be somewhat inefficient at this time. A good number of their policies are regressive in this fashion, promising more than what is realistic and instead persuading their followers to march forwards by burying their heads in the sand as means to cope with difficult realities. Ironically enough, all this serves to perpetuate the types of oversimplified prejudices and stereotypes they themselves purport to be against. Everyone is equal until you form an organisation that grows to be distastefully large for Green Luddites — see e.g. their policy statement on corporations; no effort even made to determine how large is too large, they simply do not know and it near economically impossible to say, but no bother, evidence does not matter. It is patently unreasonable to adhere so militantly to positions based on pure ideology with little to no regard for the practical realities of the problem.
So: Why are we so dissatisfied with the current political order? Because the talking-heads and demagogues that dominate today’s media and social media have convinced us that we should be and therefore we have to be, unless you want to be ridiculed for having even a marginally more nuanced view. There are always societal issues demanding attention, but we need stop taking the easy road and consuming all of this worthless advice. Every party advocates change and progress, just to different degrees, in differently prioritized areas and with different levels of common sense experience. Change isn’t inherently good anymore than it is inherently bad. What’s more important is the ‘how’ and the ‘who’ that will be driving the change. Demagogic rhetors, however, stifle progress so that they can then claim nothing is developing.
Let’s try to inform ourselves properly the hard way by challenging our own beliefs before categorically dismissing all others through pre-determined semantics. Searching for binary right/wrong answers to complex problems on the internet, in other media or in the captivating lunacy propounded by fringe parties is not the way forward. If you don’t have the time or the energy to fully engage with your powers of rationality, that’s fine too — leave it to the professionals or intellectuals to hash out. Just don’t pretend like you have an accurate idea of what you’re claiming to know simply because you feel strongly about it and some hacks or groups of your equally deluded peers agree with you. We should be asking questions and offering tentative solutions — not propounding the vacuous dogmas we have been spoon fed.
For a good example of demagoguery in practice, a recent broadcast of Question Time featuring Nigel Farage and Russell Brand is quite illustrative.
Note the contrast in styles between Farage/Brand, particularly the volume of applause and type of engagement they stir up, compared to the more nuanced explanations and positions elaborated by the journalist and Labour/Conservative MPs. It’s quite easy to spot the ideological differences between the established parties, in fact it’s just as easy (ok, maybe not as easy) as it is to pretend differences don’t exist. Demagoguery 1, Democracy 0…