Beware of Demagogues

Robert Reich discusses the growing government cynicism the result of a number of things including political rhetoric, politician’s misuse of authority, capitalism overtaking democracy and the increasing control of special interest over the affairs of the public.


When material self-interest is the only interest that is served, then government becomes an instrument in service to those with the means to purchase it.  We can call it capitalist democracy or plutocracy but we surely can’t call it a society governed for the people and by the people.


The political debates we have are nothing but a stage for those seeking to privatize social services through demagoguing.  Playing on the fears and emotions of an unsuspecting public is the strategy to replacing government in service to those paying the demagogue’s way to the stage.  As James Fenimore Cooper noted, “the demagogue appeals to passions and prejudices rather than reason” and according to Karl Kraus demagogues “appear as dumb as his audience so that these people can believe themselves as smart as he is.”  Is this not what we have before us?


It’s a Medicine Show

The political campaign season seems never to end yet it is always beginning.  No sooner than in the hour that the polls close (it seems) there are politicians seeking to win in the next election, especially those who won previously—they do want to stay in the industry. Is it because, as is often claimed, Washington is broken?


Though technology has made it easy for one to disseminate his/her sales pitch—underscore sales—to a large audience.  However the schtick is the same as that of the medicine show snake oil salesperson who stands on the backend of a wagon selling a cure-all.


What is most amazing is that there are people gathering at the wagon believing that this snake oil salesperson is not a quack but rather the real thing.  It is not until sometime later, after having bought the elixir that many find they’ve been sold a concocted (yes fabricated) story—what they thought they voted for is not what they are getting!   In spite of this experience the next time the wagons roll into town, those previously hoodwinked will gather behind a different wagon—always hoping that the next barker’s elixir will be the cure.


Such cooperation on the part of the town’s people keeps the medicine show industry sustainable and prosperous.  It is in deed an industry within which politicians of both parties make their livelihood. Each is selling his/her brand of snake oil while at the same time denouncing the many others pitching a similar cure-all from the backend of their respective wagons.


It is not that the citizenry does not want to hear the truth it is that the backers of the wagons would cease their support of anyone who spoke truthfully.  People who speak the truth—telling it like it is—are not provided the stage or the support of the backers. Hence you would be hard pressed to find a truthful and trustworthy elected official (irrespective of party affiliation), and yet it is they who are suppose to serve the needs of all people in society.


It is not that no one is served by all of this it is that those who are served are the barkers and backers of the show.


Government Has a Problem

Contrary to the popular problem naming—Washington is broken and government is the problem—heard from the mouths of barkers and demagogues is part of the confidence game, a flimflam.  It is not that government is the problem it is that democracy has a problem; it’s been corrupted by capitalism.  The pursuit of material self-interest has overrun the common interest of the people: In pervading the workings of government capitalism has changed the practice of democracy, which inevitably will destroy democracy.


However, just like all other industries, the industry of politics—yes there are people who make a very nice living in this industry—is dependent upon people consuming what it produces.  Both the backers and the barkers need the people to participate (i.e. to vote), otherwise their livelihood collapses.


So what would happen if when the wagons rolled into town no one showed up to listen to and buy their stories?  Likely if people decided that they no longer wished to cooperate with the demagogues (the snake oil peddlers) then these barkers would either have to speak truthfully or find a different livelihood.  The confidence game would cease!

7 thoughts on “Beware of Demagogues

  1. My thoughts are very provoked by this post 🙂

    I particularly like your assertion that democracy has been perverted by capitalism. It seems to be heresy to question capitalism, but I think it’s necessary. I was listening to a very interesting podcast debate between Keynesians and Hayekians recently. In the midst of this, a quiet suggestion that both have past their sell-by date and that a new paradigm is required in order to take us to a more humane way of organising ourselves….quietly overlooked.

    Thanks for this great post….look forward to more.

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