Taking Demagoguery Seriously!


Democracy in the West is besieged! A horror cabinet of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Norbert Hofer, H.C. Strache, Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry, Kristian Thulesen Dahl seeks to alter the democratic equation and eliminate its humanistic and minority protection components. Nigel Farage succeeded in England, and in retirement is now seeking to export his success to the US by way of Donald Trump, a kindred spirit.

Well-meaning people are disgusted, but mainstream politicians seem at a loss how to counter the endless stream of invective. This is partly because we understand demagoguery as a rhetorical phenomenon only. For fact-free Donald Trump this is also correct, but seeking to counter populism with populism is doomed to failure as demonstrated by Marco Rubio. Don’t play your opponent’s favourite playing field!

The horror cabinet shares Donald Trump’s disdain for the veracity of facts, but the others all use ’facts’ to great effect. Most Volksverführer are armed to the teeth with ’facts’ purportedly supporting their cause – always ready to substantiate their claims. In contrast, mainstream politicians normally appear unprepared or unwilling to engage in a substantive debate on the claims of the demagogue. The rhetorical tool of the mainstream is normally to just paint the demagogue into the extremist corner; a strategy that for centuries has proven unsuccesful. The population might be responsive to abuse from extremists towards the mainstream, because the supporters of the extremes normally are the disenfranchised, but you do not get the votes of the disenfranchised by fat cats heaping abuse in the opposite direction.

It seems to me that the most effective tool to counteract the demagogue is to take his or her arguments seriously, and to put him or her in the normal democratic position of having to defend his or her claims in a substantive fashion. The trick of the demagogue is to use facts destructively: we cannot welcome refugees because the economic burden is too big, and anyway they are disproportionally criminal. Deflating these arguments are sometimes not too hard, there is substantial and convincing economic data showing that immigrants do not withdraw more from state coffers than they pay in, for instance. The crime argument is more difficult, but also this argument should be faced head-on rather than ignored. Sadly, you do not often hear substantive arguments explaining how crime rates relativise if you normalise for gender, age and economic circumstances. And how often do you hear explanations of crime rates of refugees relative to their overall numbers, how often do you hear discusssions of perception of crime and types of crime versus the reality of crime?

Yet, even more important than this, how often are the nay-sayers asked to put forward and defend alternative policies? How often are they moved out of the comfort zone of the destructive ? No is not a policy, as the UK found to its apparent surprise after voting for Brexit. But how was it possible, after years of debate, to find out only after the results were in that there was no plan for life after no – that there was only a plan for getting to no? Why is Frauke Petry not asked more about her plans for dealing with the refugee crisis if an attempt was made to close hermetically all external borders of Europe? Frauke Petry has suggested that authorities should be ready to shoot refugees trying to enter. Do the 21 percent voting for her party in recent elections in Mecklenburg Vorpommern really support shooting refugees, or the sinking or letting sink the boats bringing refugees across the Mediterranian? In the absence of replenishment by refugees, what is Frauke Petry’s plan for solving the demographic collapse threatening Germany because of the German lack of population replacement rates? Will she force Germans to reproductive sex at gunpoint? Where is the substantive debate of values, given that, now as then, the extreme right is presenting itself as the saviour of the vulnerable existing citizens of their countries. Why is nobody explaining that there is no trade-off to be made between the welfare state and welcoming refugees: quite to the contrary, particularly in the long run! In the final analysis Frauke Petry’s no’s would lead to the collapse of the European Union, and we thus end in the cul-de-sac of the Brexit referendum. What is Frauke Petry’s plan for a Europe without solidarity? A welcome to a new edition of the Thirty Years’ War?

Fact is the true playing field of democrats, and it is astounding that this playing field has been ceded to the demagogues. Bill Clinton was superb in marrying charisma and mastery of fact, as can be seen best in his splendid speech at the Democratic Party Convention in 2012. We need more like him, or like Hillary, who masters the facts without, sadly, the charisma. Yet, better this than the other way round. George Washington was by all accounts not a barrel of laughs either!

There are so many emperors without clothes around, and it is high time that we start to dislodge them and their false rhetoric. However, this will only be a success if we start to take their arguments seriously and counter them with facts!

4 thoughts on “Taking Demagoguery Seriously!

  1. I agree in principle. But this seems more difficult in practice, as we discovered in Britain with the Brexit referendum. The Remain campaign put forward quite a lot of facts (as well as, sadly, scaremongering) and had the support of nearly all the experts, but the problem seemed to be that a majority of people has actually stopped believing in facts and experts. This was explicitly articulated by Michael Gove who said something like “we’ve had enough of experts.” What is the answer to this, Yeats’ old prophecy that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”?


    1. I take your point. But what was missing, clearly, was to ask the Brexiters what their actual plan for the exit was, and test how fact based that was. Now, Remain just heaped on facts on the consequences of leaving, without putting the Brexiters in the hot chair of explaining what they wanted to do, apart from leaving. Also the Brexiters used ‘facts” mostly destructively, and often wrongly by the way. So, the “alternative” policy was not demanded and not really taken seriously neither by Remain nor by Brexit!

      A debate on how to restore the Commonwealth to former glory after Brexit (as apparently desired) would have been salutary!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What, then, of arguments like those of Scott Adams, which -paraphrased & abbreviated- say that facts and logic have no effect; the ‘sale’ is made by persuasion alone. We only make up the factual path to our conclusion, internally and after the fact, once the decision is already made. In his blog (blog.dilbert.com) Scott makes many a good case -and some not so good- for Trump being the master persuader, and a supreme salesman. His talents as such have carried him to where he is today, purely by persuading the voters, who will suspend logic and reason. We can counter with logic and facts all we want, it simply won’t make one hoot of a difference. The logic will only work on those who are already of the same opinion. —oder?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Tryggvi,
      What you raise is an essential point. However, the analysis of Scott Adams ignores that we have a dialectic relationship with facts. We may often make up our mind based on sentiment, yet, our sentiment is influenced by the facts we have already absorbed.
      The fundamental assumption that we decide independent
      of facts is disputable, however. What we tend to do is to let sentiment superimpose on facts, but that is not the same as ignoring facts – in a positive interpretation that is ‘using ‘facts’. David Hume was largely right, I think: ‘reason is a slave to the passions’, but that is a far cry from suggesting that reason, and facts, have no place or no influence.
      One of the legacies of Enlightenment was to make the search for facts, for truth, the fuel of democracy. If we abandon that legacy we are truly lost (my friend Harry Eyres has written interestingly about the role of facts in democracy in his recent book, Seeing Our Planet Whole). But facts are not the whole story, of course. In one of the dumbest pieces I have read recently Robert. S. Young in an OPED in NYT on 31 January argues that scientists must not be drawn into the ‘culture wars’, despite the fact that a central issue of the culture wars is the role of science and the scientist. If prime actors on facts are not ready to engage in a public controversy on the role of science and facts then perhaps we start to understand why Michael Gove was saying that people ‘have had enough of experts’. He who is not ready to stand up for his values will perish.

      What we need to do is to passionately defend the dispassionate! We must defend with heart what our head is telling us. In this Winston Churchill was a master, Bill Clinton is a master, Barack Obama, too. The only good thing about our current desperate situation is that it just may stoke a passion for truth!


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