Bryan Caplan  

Demonology in America: Reflections on the Primary Debate Transcripts

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One insight I've gleaned from reading a lot of presidential debate transcripts (see here, here, and here): Democrats and Republicans have radically different demonologies. Both sides see evil forces behind the world's troubles, but their lists have only one overlap.

In Republican demonology, the evil forces are almost invariably foreigners. Muslim extremists of all kinds (al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, Iran, etc.) top the list; illegal immigrants come in second.

In Democratic demonology, the evil forces are largely domestic. Republicans top the list, with Bush playing the lead role of Satan. Next come what Democrats call "special interests" - oil companies, health insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies above all. Muslim extremists - the only demon Democrats share with Republicans - come in third.

To repeat, these judgments come purely from reading debate transcripts. I readily admit that there could be something special about primaries, or this particular election. Nevertheless, these patterns stand out quite strongly.

What's remarkable to me is that despite their conflicting demonologies, Republicans and Democrats spend almost no time arguing that the other party's demons are actually angels. Republicans spend little time defending their party from Democratic attacks, and almost no time arguing that the Democrats' "special interests" are scapegoats for scarcity. Democrats, for their part, spend little time defending illegal immigrants as unfairly maligned contributors to our economy and society.

I suspect that these observations will aggravate supporters of both parties. All I can say is that I'm not playing favorites. Reading the transcripts painfully reminded me that both parties are pits of demagoguery. What strikes me is that while these two teams of demagogues are often seen as "polarized," the real story is that they largely talk past each other.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Matthew c writes:

Astute observations.

This actually had the feel of an Arnold Kling post.

Dan Weber writes:

If you embrace the other party's demons, it's harder to win over converts from their group, and also easier for them to show you as having sympathy for the devil.

Maniakes writes:

Watch to see if this changes in the general election. Right now they're talking to their own respective bases, who already disagree with the other side, because they're trying to win primaries. The benefit to attempting to rebut the other side's arguments doesn't show up until the general election when they're competing for swing voters.

Kimmitt writes:

That seems very astute to me. The Dems' demonology seems to be summed up as, "The love of money is the root of all evil," which does seem fairly wise compared to "It is They who are the problem."

Alex J. writes:

This reminds me of a post that Eugene Volokh wrote at the Volokh Conspiracy about the term "witch hunts" (particularly when used about McCarthy.) The most important fact about them is that witches don't actually exist. So when people call something a witch hunt they are implying, in a bit of a roundabout fashion, that whatever is being investigated isn't really happening.

Your use of demonology strikes me as the same thing, that the problems that most people are concerned with don't really exist. It strikes me as a wee bit arrogant for you to argue that anyone who disagrees with you as to whether something is a real threat is acting irrationally, while you stand as a bastion of reason. Isn't it more likely that they differ on values (you noted just yesterday that you have a very different value set than most), analysis, or basic assumptions about human nature?

While we're on the subject of demonology, I'd have to say that libertarians often seem to suffer from a more personal demon. Their unwillingness to take opposing ideas seriously enough. And I say this is as someone who agrees with libertarians on a decent range of issues.

John Thacker writes:

In Democratic demonology, the evil forces are largely domestic.

Although Democrats seem to be overall more upset with foreigners who try to sell us stuff or get jobs, while Republicans are more concerned with foreigners trying to come over here.

Robin Hanson writes:

I agree that this is an interesting observation, and that we should check to see if the demons are different in other times and places. Bryan's demon is voter idiocy. We should all ask: who is our demon?

Tom writes:

"while Republicans are more concerned with foreigners trying to come over here."

And kill us.

TGGP writes:

And kill us.
I know there are some Republicans who want to keep Mexicans from coming here (I'm not scared of them killing us, but I am wary the impact of their kids), while I haven't heard any propose denying visas to terrorist-producing countries, something like what Lawrence Auster has termed "separationism".

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