Friday, December 16, 2011

Contemporary Demagoguery: the Right-Wing Media Blob

A demagogue is someone who manipulates and misleads the common people in order to use them to accumulate power and advance his or her own personal or factional interests rather than the common good. In classical political thought demagoguery was believed to be one of the major flaws of democracy: common people tended to be relatively uneducated and uninformed, and were subject to the whims of their emotions, all traits which opened the doors for a demagogue to swoop in and manipulate the people into giving him or her dictatorial power.* Usually this went hand-in-hand with a critique of rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, which was thought by many political philosophers, ancient and modern, to enable and magnify demagoguery by enhancing persuasive power in a way that promoted misinformation and lying. 
In the modern/postmodern world, the contemporary equivalent of rhetoric is propaganda and advertising (which both use the same techniques; the term “advertising” is just a euphemism for commerce-promoting propaganda that makes it sound banal). Our media-saturated culture,with screens and images literally everywhere, is awash with forms of communication that do not appeal to or exercise our rational, deliberative faculties but trigger our subconscious, impulsive drives and often turn them against us. Already a century ago commercial advertisers had figured out what psychological buttons to push to induce desired behaviors in populations of people, and while they use their techniques to sell people things, political advertisers use them to win political power for their candidates. History shows that advertising/propaganda can be used to persuade people to go to war, to accept dictatorship, to commit genocide. It should go without saying that Americans are not immune from such manipulative techniques.
The biggest and most effective propaganda machine in the world today is the Right-wing media behemoth consisting of Fox “News,” conservative talk radio, the conservative think tank network (Heritage, Cato), and conservative publishing both on the internet and in print (Drudge, Breitbart, National Review). The mainstream media in America is today center-right, despite conservative complaints to the contrary, and should constantly be called out as such by the Left; only on issues of diversity do they trend liberal, not on issues of class. Constant conservative complaining that the “lamestream” media is liberal is merely part of their propaganda package. This Right-wing media monstrosity is like the alien monster from the movie “The Blob”: it is a massive, globular, all-enveloping corrosive force that penetrates into the cracks and crannies of society and eats away at all intelligent life that it encounters. (Would it be wrong to point out that many of the finest practitioners of this propaganda, such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, are themselves massive globular corrosive blobs?) That the Right-Wing Media Blob misinforms and misleads is supported by the recent study showing that people who regularly watch Fox “News” are less informed than if they were to watch no news at all.

I, for one, do not buy the classical argument that demagoguery is a weakness of democracy and makes it suspect as a form of government. It is, rather, a flaw of the elite manipulators, and to blame the people for being manipulated is to follow the logic of blaming the victim.  Everyone, rich or poor, should be held to the classical standard of high civic virtue: in public matters look to the public good. Since demagoguery is a tactic of the elite to advance their interests at the expense of the public good, critics should be criticizing oligarchy, government of the few, not democracy, government of the many. Demagoguery is a tool of class warfare of the rich against the poor and the middle. You can’t have demagoguery without the demagogue.
Manipulation is higher in a society when there is greater economic inequality, because those with wealth become set apart from the rest, and have a stronger tendency to think of the hoi polloi as the Other, to dehumanize them, and to think of themselves as superior - all psychological acts that help rationalize manipulating, lying to, using, and abusing regular people. 
Solutions to America’s media problems are many, and proposals I have seen include including creating a stronger publicly-funded media on the model of the BBC, guaranteeing net neutrality so that more alternative outlets can voice their perspectives, and restoring the Fairness Doctrine. But right now we have to take the first step: we must understand that the Right-wing Media Blob is not fair and balanced, it is our society’s systemic form of demagoguery, riddled through with misinformation and manipulation, and designed to advance the agenda and protect the privileges and powers of the moneyed elite.
* Machiavelli pointed out that nobles and monarchs were subject to these same flaws of character, and were often worse than the common people in the fickle swings of their passions, and in their susceptibility to being manipulated by flatterers and courtiers. Who has less self-control than someone who has become accustomed to wielding authoritarian power over other human beings?


  1. Two thoughts:

    1) There's a shift that takes place awfully quickly in the paragraph on the classical argument about demagoguery. I rather like the claim that "to blame the people for being manipulated is to follow the logic of blaming the victim" and can imagine that this comparison could be expanded to speak meaningfully of empowerment strategies (in a way that's rendered unthinkable when the masses are the *source* of the problem). Moreover, I'm willing to accept the Janus face of the argument, and place the primary responsibility for demagoguery at the feet of the rabble-rousers -- the Cleons, and not the Athenians.

    But this notion that demagoguery is a flaw of elite manipulations from outside the masses -- is that a necessary claim, or is it merely a description of this historical moment? Because if its the first, I'd like to see a word or two more by way of explanation. It doesn't seem altogether that impossible for misinformed ideas, hysterical notions, or bad politics to be endogenous to the demos.

    I bring this up because, even if these things do arise organically, it's possible that the self-same empowerment strategies might be the appropriate cure. But I have my doubts as to whether it's as easy an argument at this point. Hence the request for clarification/expansion.

    2) If FOX News is equivalent to the Blob, does that mean that we can fight it with cold weather? Or do we need Steve McQueen too?

  2. 1) Good point, Tim, on the possibility of internal hysteria, paranoia, and
    misinformation anong the demos, and I think you're right. That's a
    necessary part of the story to tell, and one I sometimes admittedly
    neglect, partly because I don't think that's our biggest problem right now. In this brief essay was I wanted to focus on demagoguery itself as a practice, not to comprehensively address all the problems of political communication in democracy. Your point is well taken - history is full of regular people with lousy and hateful ideas, and they play an active part when democracy is challenged. Yet in many (maybe all?) of those cases, some elite leader or vanguard inflames and manipulates people's worse impulses, when not originating them. Recent examples that spring to mind are the Tea party, or Milosevic in the Balkans.

    As for strategy, one option I think worthy of consideration is explicit counter-advertising/ counter-propaganda education. Maybe begin by teaching people to recognize all the techniques used in, say, political advertising to appeal to their lizard brains - scary music, dark lighting, etc. to denigrate an opponent, the opposite to promote a favorite. You and I are both political scientists and can see right through this stuff, but from what I can tell most people - in both the 99% and the 1% - have limited ability to see it with a critical eye. It might be worthwhile to arm people with the tools for watching advertising more critically. Labor and green groups, Occupy and other civil society organizations could teach classes on it, but online resources like YouTube could be used too, of course. It's just one idea, there are surely many.

    2) I definitely think we'll need a badass like Steve McQueen's to take on Fox!