Monday, September 28, 2020


 The most basic definition of demagoguery is "a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power." It refers especially to a politician who tries to get support by making false claims and promises or using arguments based on emotion rather than reason. They focus their campaigns on specific groups (blacks, women) with messages designed to appeal directly to those groups' fear, hatred etc. While it's not always easy for an outsider such as myself to tell what is genuine versus rhetoric from afar (since I cannot sample people at random), it does appear that both parties have been guilty of appealing openly and nakedly for votes based upon stirring up hatred against other groups. This was particularly evident during Trump’s campaign where he made derogatory statements about Hispanics; Mexico shipping criminals over the border; his opponent being too incompetent/corrupt/crooked/etc.; Hillary Clinton ‘being an enabler’ for her husband’s affairs; there being no way she could be trusted with national security secrets - all while never trying very hard (or even attempting) any policy proposals or plans about how he would deal with ISIS, illegal immigration etc.? My analysis indicates that this type of behavior / approach has long been common practice among candidates running for public office.

If you define democracy as "government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives," then demagoguery is in direct opposition to it. However, if you define democracy instead as ‘a form of government where leaders are selected based on popular vote’ (which I believe to be closer to a common usage), then there is no fundamental tension between the two.

Demagogues in the strict sense are not merely 'candidates for public office who appeal to emotions, especially of fear and prejudice.' That is a common, if rather cynical definition that seems to be used by many. Not only does it have a vagueness problem (what counts as an appeal to emotion?), but it also has a large scope problem: anyone can be accused of appealing to emotions. If I were running for president and someone told me they don't want me because my opponent will make them feel better about their lives than I would, then according to this definition that person could accuse me of demagoguery.

Instead, it appears that what most people mean when they use the term is "politicians who appeal to uneducated and/or disempowered citizens by telling them what they want to hear." This definition has a lot of advantages over the previous one: it requires less ambiguity in determining whether demagoguery is present; its scope is narrow enough so as not be applicable to everyone (it requires some level of powerlessness or ignorance); while still being meaningful. The problem with this definition though, seems to be how do we know if someone is ‘telling people what they want to hear’? Wouldn't many candidates for public office say different things depending on their audience?

It appears that demagoguery is a phenomenon of human nature, rather than political or social systems. It's always going to be present in any situation where there are people who don't understand the workings of a society and how policies might impact them; yet who have enough power that they can sway the rest of society through their opinions. The solution may not lie entirely with laws meant to protect against demagogy specifically (such as campaign finance laws), but more generally with avoiding those situations.

How do we prevent leaders from spending too much time talking to people who aren't in the know? The answer, I think, lies in social media. Nowadays politicians can easily reach out to their constituents and ask them what they want; and then the politician can tell them whatever is most likely to get them elected - regardless if it's true or not. This may be expected of someone running for office (in fact, Trump went even further than many others). Yet how often have you seen a president make an erroneous statement about some topic that he wasn't really well-versed in?

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