My unnatural preference for insincere demagoguery

While driving in the car recently, I have found myself thoroughly enjoying hearing "hate speech" denounced on conservative talk shows. Earlier this morning, Jeremiah Wright was being compared to Fred Phelps, which is a very fair comparison, because both are spewers of hate speech who belong to the Democratic Party. (I won't hold my breath expecting to hear Wright compared to Michael Savage on conservative talk radio, though....) Not that I would restrict "hate speech," because I tend towards First Amendment absolutism. But just because I wouldn't legally restrict something does not mean I like to hear it.

I'd be very, very uncomfortable having to sit and listen to one of Jeremiah Wright's sermons, because I know it would irritate me. That's why I try to avoid ever turning on Michael Savage. If there's one thing worse than hearing obnoxious ideas, it is hearing obnoxious ideas uttered by grating or unpleasant voices -- whether those of Jeremiah Wright, Michael Savage, or Hillary Clinton.

There. I finally managed to criticize that awful shrill voice in a non-sexist manner! I hate the way feminists get "that look" on their face if you happen to be a male by accident of birth and you complain that you don't like the sound of Hillary's voice. It isn't because it's a female voice that I don't like it; it's because it's unpleasant and shrill, and has this creepy sense of angry urgency to it. Like Jeremiah Wright and Michael Savage. Interestingly, Savage is the only voice of the three that I can freely criticize without risking the accusation of bigotry. It would be easy to write them all off as "demagogues."

But are they? I think they are, but is that all there is to it?

The word "demagogue" is tossed around a great deal. Maybe not as much as "hypocrisy," but enough that I think it's worth a close look. According to my dictionary, it has little if anything to do with the tone of someone's voice, nor does it involve the rightness of wrongness of whatever is being said. Rather, it involves the type of persuasive tactics employed by a speaker:


The number one definition has fallen into disfavor, but it comes closer to the original Greek one, which the Greeks themselves evolved. More on that later.

Right now, most people focus on the second definition, and we're all familiar with politicians and self-appointed leaders who stoke prejudices and passions, and incite the populace with sensationalism, specious arguments, catchwords, and the rest of it. Usually, it's so they can get power or money.

Most of us tend to think of demagoguery as involving dishonesty, which it does, because such tactics inherently constitute manipulation, and it is dishonest to mislead people. I consider television (except perhaps straight, unedited footage on CSPAN or something) and the use of imagery to be inherently manipulative, because editing often injects bias. What you see is fragmentary, and devoid of overall context. The same applies to a run of the mill speech by a politician trying to persuade people to his side, or trying to whip up the troops.

But whether someone is a demagogue is a very different consideration from whether he is insincere in or dishonest about his beliefs. Not all demagogues doubt the underlying message they are trying to promote; in fact, many are driven by deeply, passionately held beliefs, and are convinced that the most important thing is to get the message out there, and if manipulative tactics have to be employed, then the end justifies the means.

So, many demagogues are in that sense sincere. The word is not synonymous with insincerity in one's beliefs. Or principles. "Unprincipled demagogue" is a phrase I hear often and use myself, but it should not be seen as a redundancy, but as a qualifier, for there can be such a thing as a principled demagogue. Winston Churchill knew the method well; a classic was his "If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." (This was of course intended to assuage the very real concern that the allies were entering into a pact with the evil Joseph Stalin, but Churchill's utter sincerity is not open to serious question.)

Considering my penchant for complaining about the misuse of ordinary words as what is called "code language," I was a bit shocked to see evidence that the word "demagogue" might be exactly that.

From a book I lovingly call "my CT Onions":


Long, long ago, in the distant Greek past, "demagogue" simply meant "leader of people."

But leaders (especially those we might call "populists" today) sucked, so the word evolved to the point where calling someone a "leader" became a term of derision. (I must confess that in my darker moments I can get myself so worked up that I find myself condemning all leaders and all followers, and then I find myself wondering which group is more worthy of scorn and ridicule. But I am trying to be good here, so please Satan, don't tempt my dark side!)

Anyway, disturbing as it may sound to those who think labeling someone a "demagogue" ends all inquiry into that person's character, the fact is that there can be both sincere demagogues and insincere demagogues.

Perhaps sincerity isn't the right word here. I'm thinking "true believer" might be better.

Because politicians so frequently use demagoguery to get elected, we tend to think of demagogues as being something less than true believers. In fact, I began this essay with the question "Are demagogues better than true believers?" But I realized it was an unanswerable question, because while many demagogues are not true believers, some are.

This is a topic that plagues me, because so much depends on context. And it also depends not only on what "side" the demagogue is on, but on what side the opponent of the demagogue is on. The latter is much more critical, because if you're seriously opposed to someone's politics or positions, the important question should not be whether that person is using demagoguery, but whether he or she means what he says.

If they are my enemies, I worry more about the true believer variety of demagogue than the cheap insincere hustler who will do or say anything to get elected.

Hitler was of course the ultimate true believer demagogue, and his original supporters in the German aristocracy made the fatal mistake of seeing his obvious demagoguery as denoting an absence of inner sincerity. So did Stalin. And so, unfortunately, did many Jews, who had learned over the centuries to regard anti-Semitism as the type of routine demagoguery used by many a power seeker. This was not irrational. The fact is, many if not most demagogues -- the kind who "will say anything to get elected" -- only want the perks and privileges of power. Once they get it, that familiar and reassuring sense of realism sets in. ("Now, let's be realistic.")

I realize that everyone is hung up on this election right now, but I wanted to illustrate by way of an easy to understand, if extreme, example.

I'm not making a Hitler comparison here, OK? (None of that Hitlery Clinton stuff for me. In fact, I am so against such demagoguery that I'll go back and strike those very words! I disavow them, I reject them, I denounce them, and I repudiate them!)

These thoughts were prompted because in an earlier post, I worried about whether Republican crossover voting is inherently corrupting. My worry is we are conditioned to defend the choices we make, and voting is the epitome of choice. Voting for something tends to put your ego on the line, and because it is against human nature to admit to being wrong, it is natural to defend our choices.

Even our unnatural choices.

Vote for someone once, and you become someone who voted for that person, and more likely to defend that person. This can be corrupting.

It would all be easier for me to handle were I not extremely concerned that, far from being a garden-variety insincere demagogue, Hillary Clinton is a true believer. Her inner passion sounds utterly sincere at times, and that terrifies me. The fact that she tries to tone it down worries me even more. If I have to vote for an enemy, I have more of a problem voting for a true believer demagogue who is my sworn enemy than an insincere demagogue who only claims to be my enemy.

As I say, this has the power to corrupt the mind.

When dealing with enemies, corruption can be comforting, though.

In a post last night, M. Simon concluded that Barack Obama is insincere, and said he found that insincerity to be "comforting":

...this is comforting news. The Great Democrat Hope for unity and an end to the racial divides in America is just another lying politician. Whew. Things are getting back to normal. Had me worried for a while.
I found myself comforted a few weeks ago by the news that Obama had taken Republican-style positions on a number of issues, and I also liked the way he secretly backed away from his public positions on Nafta. I also like his willingness to dilute mandatory health care. Contrasting this with Hillary's adamant, vehement, shrill calls for socialism, I can't help but prefer Obama's insincere approach.

If two people are threatening to take away my freedom and my property, and only one of them really means it, and if I am supposed to "prefer" one or them, then my unnatural preference becomes a no-brainer.

posted by Eric on 03.17.08 at 10:18 AM


Ah, but are you as similarly comforted by an insincere specious argument? I am.

dr kill   ·  March 17, 2008 5:08 PM

"Comforted" is a relative term here. I'm certainly not comforted enough to vote for either Hillary or Obama in the general election.

Eric Scheie   ·  March 17, 2008 5:59 PM

I agree with your general argument. I should, since I have been saying things like "I hope that politician is lying to me" for years.

But I am not sure that your Hitler example fits exactly. I think that he was sincere -- and insincere, and often mixed the two in the same speech. For instance, he was certainly insincere when he pretended, as he sometimes did, to respect Christianity. And he was almost always insincere when he promised peace to his neighbors.

Jim MIller   ·  March 17, 2008 9:27 PM

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