A Demagogue’s Armory

Sabre duel of German students, around 1900, pa...

Image via Wikipedia

With gratitude and partial credit to Gene Lyons, and thanks to Wikipedia, now let us bloggers gird our loins for the political season which is upon us.  A full demagogic press is in order by both sides as they attempt to amaze, mystify and stampede the electorate in their desired disparate directions.  Choose your weapons:

  • False Dilemma.  A type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options (or shades of gray).  For example, “The federal grant money came through, so there must have been extra available in the treasury.”
  • Morton’s Fork.  A choice between two equally unpleasant options ( a form of false dilemma).  For example, “People who live in big houses must be wealthy and should be taxed accordingly; or, people who live frugally must have large savings and should be taxed accordingly.”
  • False choice.  An attempt to eliminate the middle ground of an issue.  For example, “Anyone who votes to raise anyone’s taxes during a recession is an enemy of capitalism.”  Or, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”
  • Ad hominem argument.  Linking the truth of a claim to something negative about the person making it.  For example, “Nancy Pelosi demanded a huge government jet to ferry her back and forth to California.  She obviously hates America.”  Or, “Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, so his books about courage are fatally flawed.”
  • Argument to motive.  Challenging an idea by questioning the motives of its proposer.  For example, “President Obama refuses to meet with GOP leaders because he actually wants to blame them for the likely collapse of the financial system.”
  • Bulverism.  A logical fallacy in which, rather than proving that an argument is wrong, one assumes it is wrong and then goes on to explain why the other person held that argument.  For example, “He wants to eliminate unemployment benefits  because he is a Tea Party conservative.”
  • Argumentum ad populum.  Concluding a proposition is true because many or most people believe it.  Also known as “appeal to the people” or “bandwagon fallacy”.  For example, “I paid more money into Social Security than I can ever get back and that is why my benefits should never be cut.”
  • Black and white thinking.  A type of false dilemma.  Feeling boundless optimism when things are going well and then switching to complete despair at the first setback, or painting other people as extreme examples.  For example, “All conservatives are selfish.”  Or, “All liberals are lazy.”  Or, “The federal budget must be balanced this year, no matter what services are cancelled.”
  • Collage of images taken by U.S. military in Ir...

    Image via Wikipedia

    Half truth.  A deceptive statement that includes an element of truth.  It might be partly true, or totally true but only part of the whole truth, or, it may have some double meaning.  For example, “The United States won the second Iraq War”, thus dismissing the consequences of the war and its aftermath.  Or, a drunken driver tells the cop, “I only had a couple of beers”, but the beers were triple-sized.  Half truths are, according to a Wikipedia page, ” . . . an inescapable part of politics in representative democracies.”

  • Hobson’s choice.  A free choice is presented as a single option, thereby also giving someone the option of not taking it.  For example, “The ACA medical plan is necessary to provide healthcare to all Americans.”
  • Straw man argument.  Misrepresenting an opponent’s position and then attacking it.  There are several subtleties to this, including oversimplifying the opponent’s argument before attacking it.  For example, “Conservatives only care about money and themselves.  Therefore they are unpatriotic.”

The pitfalls of discourse are legion and I have only begun to cover them here.  Is it not amazing that our republic is as successful as it is?

For further reading I recommend the Wikipedia entry for “fundamental attribution error”, which is the tendency to over-value personalities relative to situations when making value judgements.  This example is given:

If Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

“It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.”  —  Ronald Reagan

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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6 Responses to A Demagogue’s Armory

  1. johncerickson says:

    I need to find the technical term for “Me-too-ism”, to attempt to explain the ever expanding field of GOP candidate. And perhaps a term for the ever-more slender differences between them.
    As defences, I would recommend a healthy dose of skepticism. Regular doses of “the view from outside” can be obtained via the BBC (online or on BBC America), the CBC (online at CBC.ca), and in smaller, more succinct, doses at Deutsche Welle News (Link TV on satellite or DW-World.de). I also recommend stiff doses of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” to keep the insanity from driving you crazy (or in my case, to keep the insanity from interfering with MY insanity. 😀 )
    What’s the old Hollywood quote? “Buckle up, kids, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    You emphasized “watching” a lot of “stuff”. I note that you include nothing for reading and reflection. THAT, only “watching”, is a concern to me in today’s world.

    It takes several days to really read and consider a good book. One can get the “essence” of things rather quickly by only “watching” or “listening”, Limbaugh, MSNBC, Fox OPINION, etc. It is easier and faster to do so, only “watch” but not “read”.

    Jefferson wrote the DOI after a lifetime of deep study, careful reflection, and observation.

    But when he “wrote” after all of that, what he wrote was short, sweet and hard to beat. Same with all of our Founders, Lincoln being a great example as well (I KNOW, he was not a Founder but laid many of the underpinnings of our thoughts about politics today).

    Being “well read” today does not hold the same esteem of earlier years. Giving great speeches, sometimes written by others, is much more important today that earlier years. Technology has caused such a change. If one “wrote” in early days (after the printing press) the words went far beyond the reach of sound and vision. Not so today.

    A Presidential candidate MAY have a book published, usually writtened by “ghosts”, but what he or she says and does before the cameras and microphones is far, far more important. We the people thus become more susceptible to sounds bites than more lenghty and hard to absorb reflection and deep thoughts developed over a lifetime.

    And the internet contributes as well to such ‘shallow” thinking. Ever read a book on the interent? Nope, we all go for the “shorter version”, usually a version with which we agree before reading “it”.



    • johncerickson says:

      Sorry, Anson, I wasn’t quite clear in my post. I was making suggestions for others to find accurate information quickly. I have found, for the daily “what’s happening now” input, I have found the outlets I listed to be relatively free of bias, or to have an identifiable (and thus easily overcome) bias. I use those outlets just for that – updates on stuff I know about, to find out current happenings.
      I listed the websites for “further readings”. I realise not everybody has the time or the interest to dig up detailed information, so the websites are a good source for FAR more detail than any televised source can provide. I also understand that more research is required for good, in-depth analysis, especially on important issues like health care and tax reform. I was just trying to provide some good, fairly quick sources for other readers. And the Daily Show and Colbert report are both educating AND quite entertaining, bringing some much=needed levity to the growing negativity of the campaign season.
      Believe me, Anson, I know the amount of work required for any in-depth understanding. It took me years of research just to have productive conversations with my various doctors concerning my headaches. I’m not recommending the above sources as the ONLY sources you need, but just as daily update sources and starting points for further research. Hope that clears things up! 🙂


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    I agree with your clarifiaction and accept your original intent. But I still believe we engage in our poltical process today with far too much emphasis on “the moment” rather than who or what the real man behind the words and actions might be.

    Many liberals disdain anyone that watches Fox News and conservatives think the careful attention to MSNBC is wrong. IF folks develop their pollitical views based on such “TV” posturing from either side, then I believe such views are deeply suspect, either way.

    Take two decidedly conservative writers today, George Will and Thomas Sowell. Hardly do either of them based their political commentary on what they have seen on TV. Both draw very deeply from the well, a very deep well, of conservative thoughts and principles over the ages and bolster their views with many references to such history.

    Take Sowell’s column in Tuesday’s (today’s) Globe as just an example providing comments on historical effects of raising taxes on the “rich”. Had the column been several pages in length, I am sure he would not have simply relied on President Coolridge’s actions in the early 20’s to lower tax rates, thus leaving himself open to liberal views that such actions caused the Great Depression.

    Instead he could have spent more time referencing both Kennedy’s and Johnson’s lowering of tax rates from the Eisenhower era (after the WWII debt was essentially repaid). He also could have shown, historically, that the Reagan Years did much to cause the economic boom in the 90’s allowing Clinton’s administration, pushed hard by a Republican House, to achieve a surplus for 4 short years.

    I hear a lot about fundamental Keysenian economics as a solution to our economic turmoil today. What I never read about are clear and convincing historical examples of how any country successfully spent its way out of massive debt however. I hear lots of “we should spend more….” but rarely do I hear a really GOOD historical reference showing WHY we should do so today.

    That is only example of what I am trying to say herein.

    Whether war, economics, “helping the poor” or other politcal issues are involved, showing earlier success of such actions in history makes a difference to me as I evaluate my personal views on such subjects. And you cannot get such insight from “reading a sound bite” or watching TV, in my view.



  4. Jim Wheeler says:

    My blogging friend, Keith Spillett just posted on this same subject, in the context of his toddler children no less, and did a much superior job on it. For a funny and insightful treat, go to the link below. It includes a further link to a large list of demagoguery tactics. (I never knew so many existed!)

    Link: http://tyrannyoftradition.com/2011/07/08/solutions-are-not-the-answer-political-communication-for-toddlers/


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