Americans love demagogues. The word has been trotted out in 2016 like never before, largely in reference to Donald Trump’s campaign, but this isn’t about Mr. Trump – it’s about demagoguery in general.Why do I make such a broad, blanket statement? Well, let’s start with what it means to be a demagogue. The technical definition is:
Demagogue – n., a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.
Demagoguery is about appealing to emotion rather than reason. Stop and think about that for a minute, and honestly try to identify the last president (or even presidential candidate) who doesn’t fall into the category.
To be clear, Donald Trump definitely falls into the category of a demagogue. He’s almost the classical model of a demagogue, Demosthenes in the age of Twitter and reality television.
Hilary Clinton is a demagogue as well, promising everyone their hearts’ desires. Trying to court big Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors, while promising to remove big money from politics and cater to the growing Socialist wing of the Democratic Party has created more than a few logical inconsistencies in her campaign.
Barack Obama is a demagogue, although to be fair, President Obama (particularly in his 2008 election) won by appealing more to positive emotions than to negative emotions. But he certainly wasn’t appealing to reason – “Hope and change” and “Yes we can!” are very aspirational statements but a little thin on the details.
George W. Bush was a demagogue as well. His 2004 election was more of an appeal to fears of terrorism and security, but the 2000 election was positive appeals to emotion on both the Democratic and Republican sides. In the last election before 9-11 changed America in a fundamental way, a central issue in the 2000 election was how to spend the budget surplus. That seems like a different world today in the era of record budget deficits that no one even wants to talk about anymore.
Bill Clinton was a demagogue although somewhat more in the President Obama mold of appealing to aspirational, positive emotions. I could keep going but I think the point is clear.
What candidates actually have tried to appeal to reason? The only one that leaps out is Ross Perot’s attempts at a third party run in 1992 and 1996. For those of us old enough to remember, he bought extended television time and rather than running music videos (as the current crop of political television ads fall into), he presented flip charts about the budget deficit and federal spending. He was definitely making an appeal to reason. But since we don’t really talk about budget deficits any more, I guess they aren’t a problem… or has the American electorate just been distracted by the 20th century version of panem at circenses – Facebook and infotainment?
At the end of the day, they say that democracy gives you the government you deserve. If we aren’t impressed by our choices in this election year, maybe we need to look in the mirror and think about how much work we’re willing to do. Understanding the numbers behind proposals, thinking through the repercussions of an agenda and putting together a political philosophy that is grounded in reality and logically consistent is a big job. If we aren’t willing to do the work, and aren’t willing to get behind the kind of candidates that have done that work, then we will get exactly the kind of government we deserve.