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What Qualifies as Demagoguery?

Surprisingly few attempts have been made at defining the term “demagoguery” with much precision, despite its frequent use as a negative epithet by politicians, their critics, historians, political sociologists and the like. Those attempts that do exist in the literature suffer from either excessive comprehensiveness or inaccuracy in particulars. These problems led historian Raymond Arsenault in 1984 to resign himself to the term’s “inherent ambiguities.”

Relatively early in the twentieth century, with “the spread of demagogical rule” in Europe uppermost in mind, sociologist Sigmund Neumann offered an exercise in defining the demagogue. His analysis asserted six fundamental qualities: he is “a man of the people,” “rises as an orator,” emphasizes “ simplification and repetition,” promotes above all else himself as leader, professes no “abstract program,” stresses “the spoken word,” and practices the “ exclusion of counter-propaganda,” that is, official censorship. On the third point, that of simplification, Neumann was right on. But others are flawed. For instance, what politician engaged in any form of mass politics, be it democratic or fascistic, does not advertise himself as “a man of the people”? Joseph McCarthy remains probably the most quintessential demagogue in American history, yet his skills as an orator were minimal at best. And obviously the “exclusion of counter-propaganda” works as a criterion only for more fascistically oriented societies. In this, Neumann was mainly reflecting the urgent concerns of his time. In reaching too far definitionally, however, he lost all hope of precision.

Some twenty years later historian Reinhard Luthin in American Demagogues joined Neumann in classifying this variety of politician as “a man of the people”; to repeat, a rather unhelpful description. But Luthin accentuated more so than Neumann the demagogue as a man who “lust[ed] for power without recourse to principle.” In this qualifier Luthin was, quite simply, wrong. Many a demagogue has earnestly considered himself to be a man of principles, however much those principles may be open to question.

Roughly a generation after Luthin, David H. Bennett, in Demagogues in the Depression--a study of the short-lived 1930s Union Party--did not even attempt a definition of “demagoguery” or the demagogic politician, despite the work’s title that would seem to call for one. The omission exemplifies past scholarly assumptions on the terms. He instead confined himself to noting that “some scholars, uncomfortable with its pejorative tone, dislike the word ‘demagogue.’” Bennett referred specifically to Southern history scholar and Huey Long biographer T. Harry Williams, who wrote in 1960 that we should “dispense with the word demagogue in dealing with men like Long and employ instead a term suggested by [philosopher] Eric Hoffer, mass leader.” Williams rightly objected to the term “demagogue” in the sense he had observed scholars using it: They “have been influenced by the notion that violent language is the peculiar mark of the demagogue. They seem to think that popular leaders have risen to power because they could excite and entertain the voters.” In preferring “mass leader” to demagogue, Williams had in mind the qualities of “audacity, an iron will, faith in his cause or in himself, unbounded brazenness, and a capacity for hatred, without which he may be deflected from his goal.” The chief faults with this definition lie in the first and last qualifiers--at least, that is, as Williams further defined them. “Audacity” he expressed as “a boundless self-confidence which ... enables him to disregard conventionality and consistency.” Yet not only do virtually all good politicos dwell in boundless self-confidence, consistency, no matter which rung of political notoriety one holds, has never been a qualifying trait of the non-demagogue. As for hatred, some demagogues, such as Barry Goldwater, have been extraordinarily affable in pronouncing their personal affection for opponents. Furthermore, their professed “hatred” is at times merely a public persona contrived to mobilize likeminded or would-be followers.

Beyond question, some above-mentioned qualifiers are accurate in describing more than a few individual demagogues. South Carolina’s Benjamin Tillman, for example, was a superb orator, as was true of most Southern demagogues. But that quality as generically applied by Neumann has not extended to notables such as Joseph McCarthy. As another example, Boston’s James Michael Curley was likely among the least principled of politicians, yet Barry Goldwater’s states’ rights mantra reflected a genuine advocacy, quite unlike his insincere promotion of social morality. Other above-mentioned particularities pertain to some demagogues, but not all. Nor is the standard dictionary entry of much help in defining the demagogue with precision. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) states he is “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” The congenital flaw here is “false claims,” for the term is misleadingly vague. A demagogic posture need not be false, a term which frequently is open to interpretation in any event.

The inconsistency and lack of precision inherent in these various definitional schemes pose a problem for the historian who wishes to be--or rightly insists on being--taxonomically correct in identifying and describing “the demagogue.” Such a historian must ask and answer: What is it, without fail, that incontrovertibly has marked the American demagogue? The answer provides needed clarity in terminology and an indispensable key for contemporary public policy-oriented historians concerned with recognizing and flagging demagogic stances--those which strive to eviscerate an uncorrupted understanding of sociopolitical issues. For both academics and the greater community the importance of understanding demagogic devices lies as much in the future as in the past. Only by seeing these devices for what they are can the body politic fairly appraise political leaders’ worthiness and, it is to be hoped, hold them accountable.

A more useful definition of demagoguery arises from the interdisciplinary application of rhetorical studies, which here takes on the form of logical-fallacy analysis, which itself reduces to two inseparably linked constituents: simplicity of message content and its wholly unilateral point-of-view presentation. For greater ease of expression we shall hereafter refer to these constituents as “one-sided simplicity,” or alternatively, simply as unidimensionality. And it is this rhetorical quality (in addition to scapegoatism, addressed shortly) that is consistently identifiable in the history of American demagoguery and permits an unconditional point of reference for any given demagogic practitioner. Simplicity of message content and a one-sided presentation of that message--that is, one that systematically excludes competing arguments and differing points of view--are, to borrow from sociologist Sigmund Neumann, “The Steadfast Rules of the Demagogue.” His quality of oration has varied historically, his degree of “populist” commitment has waxed and waned, his level of dedication to principle has differed--but without fail the demagogue has exercised unidimensionality.

He employs a gamut of logical fallacies to accomplish the common goal of all politicians: power and influence, whether merely for power’s sake or as a means to realize some given idealistic goal. Naturally he appeals to “the crowd” (ad populum exhortations)--nothing unique in itself, especially in a democratic forum--but commonly adds the logical fallacies of appeals to pity (argumentum ad misericordiam); appeals to reverence (argumentum ad verecundium); appeals to personality (argumentum ad hominem); and an assortment of other rhetorical devices. Suffice it to say that the term of “unidimensionality” is one that derives from the scholarly observations of diverse logicians of rhetoric. Professor S. Morris Engel of York University, for example, had a similar concept of unidimensionality in mind when he discussed the rhetorical problem of argumentation “omissions”: “Not all such omissions are innocent, or done for the sake of literary elegance or brevity.... More turns on them--the opportunity for gain, influence, deception--and hence a greater effort is made to hide the assumptions on which the argument rests.” (Again, the argument need not be an expressly “false” one. As stated above, it is more a matter of presentation.)

University of Winnipeg philosophy professor and argumentation-analyst Douglas Walton had much the same in mind when he reflected on rhetorical “fairmindedness.” Its demagogic opposite--unidimensionality--is characterized by the abdication of “critical doubt,” “‘due consideration’ to criticisms or arguments from an opposed viewpoint” and “desist[ance] from judging another viewpoint before fully understanding it.” In One-Sided Arguments: A Dialectical Analysis of Bias, Walton succinctly stated his thesis in writing “there is supposed to be a genuine exchange of views,” which was another way of saying what Aristotle posited more than two-thousand years ago: that “rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.” Put simply, unidimensionality denies the synthetic benefit of the dialectic and therefore the necessary deliberative nature of an engaged, democratic society.

Indigenous to the demagogue’s extensive use of unidimensionality has been the common practice of scapegoating: the hostile targeting of select groups for condemnation and blame. Important to note is that these groups may be identified by ethnicity, race, or religion, of course, but just as easily by political ideology. Akin to the notional convenience of scapegoats is the historiographical concept of the “Other”: those Americans, as Southern historian Sheldon Hackney described them, standing “in opposition to a presumed American norm.” As such, they are easy targets. It is they who are responsible for the problems of crime or unemployment, for instance; or they may be responsible for cultural upheavals that seemingly threaten traditional values, or even for America’s sagging international standing, if that is the case. The “Other” must be to blame for these conditions, for “we”—the true Americans--continue to uphold all that is good and socially manageable.

Within his rhetorical portfolio, the demagogue historically has portrayed scapegoats as insidiously powerful in reach. For Jim Crow-paladin Ben Tillman, African Americans (arm in arm with their Republican Party benefactors) visited most of the evils upon white-American society. James Michael Curley, often with comedic ridicule, extended the long-standing ethno-political thesis that stuffy, blue-blooded Anglo-Saxons--in effect, the “power elite”--were wholly responsible for the downtrodden socioeconomic state of Irish Americans. Joseph McCarthy saw domestic liberals as the ideological equivalent of unChristian foreign communists. For a brief period in the early 1960s Barry Goldwater demagogically portrayed America’s problems as little more than a national lapse of moral order, responsibility for which he laid at the feet of African Americans and their white liberal allies. To differing degrees and through careful, mindful repackaging, the New Right of the 1970s collectively furthered these diverse interpretations of social perfidy and its perpetrators. For these “new” conservatives the Liberal Establishment became the political whipping boy for all that ailed America. In crushing every manifestation of liberalism one would crush America’s internal enemies and in the process restore moral order, social tranquility and an idealized sense of what America once was.

Tillman’s unidimensional and scapegoating politics reigned for half a century, as did Curley’s. McCarthy’s flourished for but a few years, and Goldwater’s spanned only the length of a presidential campaign. In 2004, the New Right’s unidimensionality and scapegoatism are still a work in progress—tax cuts are always good, criticism of the nation’s leadership is unAmerican, liberals are thus ungood and unAmerican--although the initial movement that was the New Right has by now metamorphosed into generic conservatism.

The long demagogic careers of Tillman and Curley and comparatively short ones of McCarthy and Goldwater were classic displays of unredeeming rhetoric versus sound policy. They were instances of a virulent political-leadership culture to which mass politics too often gives birth. Present was the midwife of mass communications: the growing newspaper circulation of Tillman’s days, the radio of Curley’s and television for McCarthy and Goldwater. Printed means and then electronic forms of spreading the enticing word of the day meant demagoguing not to a 1000 people from the stump, but 10,000,000.

It was, then, perhaps only inevitable that some political movement, whether from the Left or Right, would in time come to collectively represent the peculiar culture of demagoguery through mass communication.

The rhetorical machinery of unidimensionality--simplistic solutions offered in answer to complex sociopolitical questions, one-sided expositions intended to exclude rather than expand democratic public debate, and the scapegoating of particular groups in the quest to identify the sinister perpetrators of society’s troubles--was once operated by individual politicos with ample consistency and effectiveness. Much later, and with remarkable similarity in technique, the New Conservative movement would rapidly mature as a party-wide agent of demagogic opportunism. In the process it would heavily tilt the left-right scales of twentieth-century American politics and beyond.