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  • Stevie Seibert Desjarlais

Demagoguery Among Us

Art by Eva Strauss

A hook that might have nothing to do with the rest of the post:

It is football season (a fact that my father routinely reminds me of when I tell him that I prefer to watch Bachelor in Paradise instead of the Monday night game). This post is not about football, but the fandom surrounding one of America’s favorite forms of entertainment does work as a useful, low-stakes example of an us vs. them culture. When one team plays another it is pretty typical for the fans of each team to clash. In Nebraska, my students tell me that Husker fans are The Nicest, and only welcome opponents with the utmost respect. Yet I have seen vendors at the local farmer’s market selling t-shirts that say, “Iowa has bad corn” or “Build a wall and make Iowa pay for it.” Though these types of divisions may be just jest, there is something there, something potentially disturbing in the arbitrary decision between who is us and who is them.

“What is demagoguery?” my mother asks as I explain what I’m writing for Watershed.

In Demagoguery and Democracy, Patricia Roberts-Miller calls attention to the ways in which political rhetoric in the U.S. has come to be largely characteristic of demagoguery, with “passion, emotionalism, populism, and pandering to crowds” driving our democratic deliberation and policy-making processes (Roberts-Miller 7). The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions for “demagogue”:

1. In ancient times, a leader of the people; a popular leader or orator who espoused the cause of the people against any other party in the state.

2. In bad sense: A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.

For the sake of clarity, I’m talking about the “bad sense” of the concept.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, more than a few political analysts and news outlets noted the ways in which Trump exemplified a textbook definition of demagogue. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Demagogues,’” Megan Garber lists articles published by The Washington Post, Salon, Politico, Buzzfeed, Entertainment Weekly and more to show how frequently Trump is associated with dictators and other historical figures with notable demagogic behaviors. But Trump is not the only homegrown leader to be called such; Garber offers at least one op-ed example that calls out Obama for us-them rhetoric in his political speeches.

Rather than point fingers (and feed into the dichotomy we find ourselves in), let’s focus on the implications of rampant demagoguery. Garber explains, “the key thing about demagogues, historically, is that they have been people who, by way of their very popularity, threaten the populace. They undermine the stability of a ‘by the people’ form of government particularly by turning ‘the people’ against each other. They represent a danger not just to electoral outcomes or political parties, but to democracy itself.” Don’t Americans care that the fabric of our national identity is at stake—the very thing that we claim to do better than a lot of others? Surely we should address this demagogue business right quick.

Don’t put the cart before the horse, though. Roberts-Miller explains that demagoguery is “rarely the consequence of an individual who magically transports a culture into a different world” (Roberts-Miller 8). Further, “We don’t have demagoguery in our culture because a demagogue came to power; when demagoguery becomes the normal way of participating in public discourse, then it’s just a question of time until a demagogue arises” (Roberts-Miller 2). In this regard, the accusations charged against Obama and Trump point in the same direction: demagoguery is alive and well among us, the American public.

For all the think pieces that have been written to apply criteria, draw out comparisons, and point fingers at this political figure or that political figure to paint them as a demagogue, these efforts are largely seen as merely petty partisanship. That news source is biased towards their beliefs; they are the ones who voted for [insert political figure here]; they are the problem; we would never support someone like [insert political figure here]. The problem that Roberts-Miller sees in this reductive reasoning is that “We call for purifying our public sphere of their demagogues, often in very demagogic ways” (2).

In a surprising (or not so surprising for those all-knowing folks out there) twist, we are the ones responsible for perpetuating the same stuff that they are! Demagoguery “gives us criteria that enables us to see only their demagoguery” (Roberts-Miller 7)—while we can smugly point fingers and feel comforted by our enlightened thoughts. If only they would get out of our way, we would have a fully functional congress and get ALL THE BILLS passed without a hitch. Problem solved, right? WRONG. When demagoguery has seeped into public discourse, “it undermines the ability of a community to come to reasonable policy decisions and tends to promote or justify violence” (Roberts-Miller 8). In other words, if we don’t take notice of the unhelpful aspects of our political discourse, things are fixing to get a whole lot worse before we can even dream of improvement.

Why it won’t get better anytime soon:

Roberts-Miller explains, “Demagoguery is about identity. It says that complicated policy issues can be reduced to a binary of us (good) versus them (bad). It says that good people recognize there is a bad situation, and bad people don’t; therefore, to determine what policy agenda is the best, it says we should think entirely in terms of who is like us and who isn’t” (8). There isn’t any coming back from such simplistic categorizations. In such black and white terms, little room remains for negotiation or meaningful deliberation over nuances that could inform, shape, determine important policy outcomes. There is no grey area. We like to stick with our people because they tend to agree with us, and in demagoguery, agreement is good.

Perhaps it isn’t so shocking that we feel the need to stay within party lines to get validation and agreement. In 2014, the Pew Research Center published data that illustrates a growing divide between Republicans and Democrats. Between 1994 and 2014, the American public grew apart on the political spectrum and animosity between the two main parties increased substantially (“Political Polarization in the American Public”). Though data from the mid-1990s already indicated large percentages of Republicans viewed Democrats negatively and vice versa, those negative perceptions intensified. The study notes, “intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’” This speaks to the “Ideological Silos” on both the left and right, meaning that Americans on opposite ends of the political spectrum are growing less likely to socialize with those who hold differing beliefs.

Let’s be real for a minute: political talk at the big-holiday family-dinner table has always held the potential to be strained, to evoke reactions that don’t adhere to best practices in communication. But doesn’t it seem as though it’s gotten just a tad bit worse? It is not too much of a stretch to wonder if the growing political divide isn’t the culprit. If we are coming from a place where holding a different political belief is tantamount to sabotaging American democracy, well then, yeah, conversations are going to be charged. But we are Americans and we value our freedom to speak our minds (politically and personally, it seems), consequences be damned.

In a 2015 global study examining support of free speech, Richard Wike and Katie Simmons find that across 38 polled countries the U.S. is “most supportive of free expression.” In the breakout categories of what specific types of speech should be protected, the U.S. data stood out as highest (compared to other nations in the study) in support of statements that “are offensive to minority groups” and statements that are “offensive to your religion or beliefs.” For those of you following free speech rallies taking place on college campuses across the nation, you may be aware that the freedom to say offensive things is well documented. Rather than frame this as a simple question of whether or not offensive speech should be protected (because that gets at the fabric of our democracy, too), we could instead ask ourselves: What are the consequences of being exposed to rhetoric that undermines whole bodies of people—people who are members of our democracy?

A moment to take a breath and step back from the ledge.

Roberts-Miller tells us that we can thwart demagoguery most effectively by “practicing compassion for those whom demagoguery says we should treat as other. It’s by imagining things from their perspective” (77). But this isn’t easy work. When bombarded with rhetoric that aims at undermining valid political concerns (often very much tied to personal beliefs) it feels like an overwhelming weight, and this weight rests on your chest like it’ll never let up because you fear the worst, you fear that you don’t have a place in this democracy—don’t you just want to be among your people? Being among like-minded folks feels like salve to open wound. The safety of a friendly enclave of thought can feel like the only validating place this cruel world has to offer.

Yes, it will be hard work to rethink and relearn how to resist reductive binaries in our political rhetoric since we have come to use them so frequently. Likewise, it will be hard to apply that work to the ways in which demagoguery has bled into our personal interactions. But we must imagine it and create it; what does empathy look like in political discourse?

The solution to demagoguery isn’t easy, but there are two things that we can try (Roberts-Miller proposes more than two but for my purposes here, I want to highlight these):

  • Inclusion: this means that “all the people with relevant information, the people with variant perspectives, and, as much as possible, the people who will be most affected” are contributing members of the discourse and deliberation process (Roberts-Miller 14).

  • Fairness: this means that rules are enforced equally among all participating parties in democratic deliberation, which can then “lead to arguments about the rules” and “arguments about how we should argue most interfere with demagoguery” (Roberts-Miller 15).

And to what extent do we also have to imagine a way to build up our empathetic muscles in our personal rhetoric, too?

“Hi, I’m Stevie, and I have demagogic tendencies,” is what I might start with if I wanted to take ownership of my own role in the less-than-helpful political rhetoric of our current cultural climate in the U.S. I have felt that some of my relationships have fallen victim to demagogic influences, too. I’ve had interactions with folks in-person and online where there seems to be a subtext driving division and miscommunication. As of late, I have wondered how much of what I say is really heard and how much of what I say is colored in by a person’s perceptions of my political or ideological leanings.

What would our political (and personal) conversations look like if we took ownership of the ways we have fallen short of ensuring inclusion and showing fairness to them?

Works cited:

"demagogue, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, Accessed 15 September 2017.

Garber, Megan. “What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Demagogues.’” The Atlantic, 10 Dec. 2015, about-when-we-talk-about-demagogues/419514/. Accessed 15 Sept. 2017.

“Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center, http://www.people- Accessed 15 Sept. 2017.

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. The Experiment, 2017.

Wike, Richard and Katie Simmons. “Global Support for Principle of Free Expression, But Opposition to Some Forms of Speech.” Pew Research Center, opposition-to-some-forms-of-speech/. Accessed 15 Sept. 2017.

Image credit:

Art by Eva Strauss, courtesy of Tufts Observer.

#stevieseibertdesjarlais #democracy #demagoguery

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