Demagogues at the Gates


I read a piece by Ann Coulter that expressed something that I have been thinking about recently in light not only of the present political campaign, but of how I’ve seen the same thing manifest itself within the professing Christian community. I’d like to avoid getting into the whole ball of political wax in Ann’s article, so here’s the portion that interests me and from which I’d like to launch into a larger discussion:

This strange new version of right-wing populism comes down to reveling in the feeling that you are being dissed, hoodwinked or manipulated by the Establishment (most of which happens to oppose Romney) the same way liberals want to believe that “the rich,” the “right-wing media” and Wall Street Republicans (there are three) are victimizing them.

It’s as if scoring points in intra-Republican squabbles is more important than beating Obama. Instead of talking about the candidates’ positions — which would be confusing inasmuch as Romney is the most conservative of the four remaining candidates — the only issue seems to be whether “They” are showing respect for “Us.”

While I agree with her basic point here, I’d like to extend the argument somewhat by suggesting that the Establishment versus Us angle is really a cheap piece of demagoguery being used by candidates (and activists and some bloggers) to achieve their own agendas. A demagogue is “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.”

A radio ad I heard is a perfect example of this. It is put out by the Winning our Future SuperPac and focused on painting one candidate as the Establishment guy in order to discredit him. Its entire message was built on an assertion (candidate X is the Establishment candidate) and an appeal (don’t let the Establishment tell you what to do). No argument to the ad at all—not one piece of evidence was introduced to prove the assertion. In case you don’t know who Winning the Future supports for the Republican nomination, it is Newt Gingrich. The irony is rich. Here’s a guy whose whole career has been inside and alongside of the political Establishment and his SuperPac is engaged in demagoguery like this. The ad was nothing more than an attempt to use popular prejudices to gain power.

I’ll admit that it disappoints me, but doesn’t surprise me that this kind of stuff happens in political campaigns. The simple reason is that it works and politics is often about not much more than that. I am disturbed by the fact that this kind of demagoguery seems to be steeply on the rise and often the dominant note of political discourse in our day. The fact that it is becoming the mantra of supposed conservatives is a very bad sign of things to come. That is especially true when folks with commercial interests lead the charge—the temptation to use this tactic to build an audience has to be as great as to win a campaign.

My larger concern, however, is how this kind of “them vs. us” cliché seems to be showing up so much in the online world among those who name the name of Christ. Granted, there has always been a segment which builds it popularity and cohesiveness purely by demonizing others in contrast to focusing on the articulation of one’s own beliefs clearly. As a short-term strategy, it works more quickly to build a coalition against something than it does to build it for something. Enemies frighten people and fear motivates. As a long-term strategy, though, it inevitably implodes because fear can turn to paranoia and is also easily exploited by self-serving people.

Just watch any group whose prime reason for existence is to be against something or someone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that hasn’t eventually become self-cannibalizing. The demagoguery of the leaders breeds distrust. The kinds of people who are attracted to it never seem satisfied and tend to start turning on one another. It’s ugly, ineffective, and ultimately dishonors God.

But it works in the short term and is an effective way for people to make a name for themselves. Pick a target and pound away while claiming to be the last defender of the truth. Position yourself as the voice for the little guy, the crusader against the Establishment. Tap into whatever prejudice will gain listening ears or reading eyes. Paint yourself as the person who some mythical Establishment hates or has hurt. Frame yours as the voice of the people. It works…for a while.

In reality, this demagoguery is not much more than what Absalom did when he stood in the gate and wooed the heart of the people away from his father, King David. He told them what they wanted to hear, painting a picture of the Establishment that fomented a desire to overthrow it. The analogy is not perfect, but I think the heart of the matter fits—Absalom was perfectly happy to gain power by promoting the dissatisfaction of people, then capitalizing on it.

Our cultures, the one outside and the one inside the church, seem to be in danger of dumbing down to the point that demagogues will rule the day. You can see it throughout the political campaigns. You can see it all over Facebook protest groups. You can find it too often in tweets and blog posts. It may work (short-term), but it is not right.

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