Tag Archives: demagoguery

Demagoguery

The Washington Spectator arrives via my snail-mail (many thanks to Gerald Stinson!), so I can’t link to the article, but the most recent version contained a fascinating essay by one Patricia Roberts-Miller, who is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin.

She begins by acknowledging a recurring question posed by most sane Americans: why in the world hasn’t Trump’s obvious incompetence, constant lying and childish language and behavior undercut his standing with his base?

One answer to that question–an answer that research continues to confirm–is that the base shares his racism/White nationalism, and for his base, that animus outweighs everything else. But Roberts-Miller provides a different–albeit not inconsistent–analysis, involving the language of demagoguery.

She cites to a rhetoric scholar who analyzed Hitler’s use of language and characterized it as a “relentless repetition” of the “bastardization of religious thought.” The “religious ways of thinking” that lent themselves to bastardization included identification of a common enemy, allied with scapegoating and projection.

Demagoguery, she points out, “displaces policy argumentation with praise of “us” and condemnation of “them.”

Roberts-Miller also says we should not be surprised by Evangelical Christian support for Trump, since conservative Christian Germans overwhelmingly supported Hitler and conservative Christian Americans previously supported slavery, segregation and lynching.

Although she takes care to say that Trump isn’t Hitler, she admits the parallels are troubling. Hitler railed against a socialist Parliament, internationalism (what we would call globalism), the presence of aliens, rampant immigration, liberalism and the liberal media (which he claimed was “stabbing him in the back”).

And of course, he promised to “make Germany great again.”

Roberts-Miller says that Trump’s use of demagogic rhetoric is less important than the fact that his “rise to power was fueled by a demagoguery that reflected the racist, xenophobic, misogynist and authoritarian values” of today’s iteration of the GOP. As she notes, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles; he just came right out and said shocking things–“and the GOP media machine didn’t condemn him for it. They justified it, promoted it, and repeated it.”

So here’s where we are in today’s America. In a country and an era where the structures of democracy no longer work, we are governed–thanks to vote suppression, gerrymandering, and the current operation of the Electoral College–by a minority of our fellow citizens who subscribe to a set of pernicious beliefs and act out of a set of visceral resentments that are inimical both to America’s founding values and to human rights. Rather than finding Trump’s inarticulate use of language bizarre and repulsive, his language actually speaks to them. It reinforces their sense of grievance and their belief in their own victimization.

We’re getting a master class in demagoguery.

Just the Facts…

I guess we no longer need the “big lie.” We Americans–for that matter, people everywhere– are perfectly comfortable simply rejecting facts that make us uncomfortable, or otherwise conflict with our preferred realities.

I’ve previously blogged about the emerging academic literature on confirmation bias.  A reader sent me an article from the Boston Globe summarizing much of that literature.

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

 

Needless to say, this is a real problem for democratic theory, which places a high value on an informed populace.

 

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

As the author notes, we humans tend to base our opinions on our beliefs–and those beliefs can have what he delicately calls “an uneasy relationship” with facts. Although we like to believe that we base our beliefs on evidence and fact, research suggests that our beliefs all too often dictate the facts we’re willing to accept.

 

Sometimes we just twist facts to make them fit with our preferred beliefs; at other times our preconceptions lead us to uncritically accept rumor, misinformation and outright propaganda if those reinforce our worldviews or confirm our resentments and/or suspicions.

 

The phenomenon is certainly not limited to the political right, but the most recent glaring examples do come from the GOP “clown car.”  Donald Trump insists that he saw “thousands of Muslims” cheering when the World Trade Center came down, even though everyone in a positions to know says that never happened. Ben Carson “quotes” America’s founders for statements they never made (and in some cases, expressing sentiments diametrically opposed to what they actually did say.) Carly Fiorina insists that she viewed a video that doesn’t exist. And people who want to believe them, do.

 

As the Globe article put it, thanks to the internet, “it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.”

 

Identifying the problem and solving it are two different issues. To date, there has been progress on identifying the phenomenon, less on what we need to do to counter it. That said, researchers are working on it.

 

One avenue may involve self-esteem. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

 

No wonder those of us advocating for evidence-based public policies are having such a bad time…..