Bryan Caplan  

Demagoguery Explained

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In the dictionary, "demagogues" are bad by definition.

In Merriam-Webster, a demagogue is "a political leader who tries to get support by making false claims and promises and using arguments based on emotion rather than reason."

In the Oxford Dictionary, he's "a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument."

In the Wiktionary, he's a "political orator or leader who gains favor by pandering to or exciting the passions and prejudices of the audience rather than by using rational argument."

In your calmer moments, though, it's tempting to dismiss the concept.  In practice, isn't a "demagogue" just a political opponent with a silver tongue?  Isn't "demagoguery" simply rhetoric that hits political nerves you wish would stay eternally numb?

But before you ditch the whole concept, let me propose the following refinement: Demagoguery is the politics of Social Desirability Bias

The heart of Social Desirability Bias: Some types of claims sound good or bad regardless of the facts.  "Helping people" sounds good.  "Acquiring luxuries" sounds bad.  "Saving American jobs" sounds good.  "Cheap nannies for upper-middle class families" sound bad.  "Supporting our troops" sounds good.  "Sympathizing with the enemy" sounds bad.  "Raising the minimum wage" sounds good.  "Measuring disemployment effects" sounds bad.

Any competent philosopher can construct cases where what sounds good is bad and what sounds bad is good.  For instance: The minimum wage, good as it sounds, would be bad if it sharply increased unemployment of low-skilled workers.  But when our competent philosopher runs for office, he has a clear incentive to keep his doubts to himself.  If X sounds good, saying "Hooray for X" is a much easier way to win over an audience than "Sure X sounds good, but let's calm down and consider the possibility that X is in fact bad."

It's possible, I grant, that X's only sound good when those X's are good.  If so, we can safely ignore Social Desirability Bias.  To test this optimistic view, I propose the following thought experiment:
Imagine we do vastly more X.  Could you then publicly declare, "We're doing too much X" without cringing? 
If government spent ten times as much on terminally ill children, would you feel comfortable announcing, "Government is wasting money on terminally ill children"?  If government spent ten times as much on war heroes, would you feel comfortable shouting, "Government gives too much to war heroes"?  Don't want to say such things ever ever ever?  Then the policy views you and your fellow citizens cherish are probably infected by Social Desirability Bias.

The same goes for the Panglossian view that "X sounds bad" solely because "X is bad."  Imagine we increased our anti-terrorism efforts ten-fold.  Would that remove the stigma from saying, "Let's relax our anti-terrorist efforts"?  Not bloody likely.

What then is demagoguery?  Embracing Social Desirability Bias to gain power.  Making a career out of praising what sounds good and attacking what sounds bad. 

What's the alternative?  Conscientiously searching for and publicizing the many disconnects between what's pleasing to the ear and what's true. 

You could object that no public enemy of Social Desirability Bias could succeed in politics.  While I tend to agree, that realization should terrify you.  Social Desirability Bias is a severe mental shortcoming, but to succeed in politics you have to feed it rather than starve it. 

I know these claims sound bad.  But if you reject them because they sound bad, you are only proving my point.

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Alexander Severns writes:

The only problem I see with this, is that how can someone discern what is pandering to social desirability bias and what is sound policy. For example, libertarians broadly desire greater personal freedom and property rights. If you say "It's time to restrict property rights and personal freedom by about 10 times" then it seems like the same thing right?

wd40 writes:

Basic economics resolves the puzzles. It is all about opportunity cost and balancing one desirable policy against another desirable policy. Spending less on desirable X allows you to spend more on desirable Y. You do not say you should spend less on desirable X unless it is understood that that it means more for desirable Y.

Dan Hill writes:

Or as Bastiat might put it, demagoguery is the politics of the seen. Ignore the possibility of unintended consequences, ignore opportunity costs, ignore changes in incentives and behavior, in short ignore everything that isn't readily apparent.

Yancey Ward writes:

Demagogues largely don't realize they are demagogues. In this regard, they are only slightly more aware than their supporters.

I like Dan Hill's alternate definition a lot.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Some demagoguery can be used to diminish or impede existing "power" without seeking power.

Old southern politics once carried a lot of that format; a "take down" of the other side, particularly incumbents.

Roy Haddad writes:

Alexander Severns, I think if a politician were to say things like "we need to increase personal freedom and protect property rights" without specifying how he'd achieve it, then it would make sense to call him a demagogue.

Pajser writes:

I think appeal on emotions is not essential part of definition because every political talk inevitably evokes emotions. Demagogue would be one who consciously uses intellectually dishonest way for presentation of his political ideas. Majority of people do that, from time to time in informal communication, and only slightly less in formal communication.

Social desirability bias is not essential and I think I have counterexample.

For instance, the fascists frequently try to show that number of holocaust victims is much smaller than it is believed. They experience great resistance when they do that, however, they do not give up. Typically, they are still demagogues because their approach is not intellectually honest. Q.E.D.

Roy Haddad writes:

Pajser, The fascists' society isn't the same as yours or mine.

Your example fits the pattern Bryan gives, because its a statement with a direction, rather than a quantity. Just like the demagogue says "we should spend more on war heroes" rather than "we should spend $X on war heroes, but we currently spend $Y", your example is "the number of holocaust victims is much smaller than is believed", rather than "the number of holocaust victims is X, not 6 million".

What's important is that the statement is as easy to accept as possible, with a minimum of mental effort, given the target social group.

Pajser writes:

Roy Haddad: He may say his favorite number, or even claim that there was no holocaust at all. It doesn't change the essence of the argument.

So, if fascist says on TV "there was no holocaust at all, all evidences are falsifications" and support it with few arguments - and stay silent about strong counter-arguments he also knows - he is demagogue, even if he goes strongly against social desirability bias.


Siva writes:

History will judge politicians... they may play to the desirability index... but then they fade soon... they were also examples where people fought against the desirability bias..Else how we would have had slavery abolished ..

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