Politics & Policy

Political Paralysis

Democrats and demagogues.

Ever wonder why one hears so little talk of right-wing demagoguery? Oh, now and then some particularly dyspeptic liberal will lodge such charges against Rush, or get in a snit over some other outspoken conservative stalwart. But the Right has no true counterparts to the likes of Jesse Jackson, Terry McAuliffe, Patricia Ireland, Al Sharpton, et al. There simply is no conservative whose stock in trade is the chronic spewing of grandiose pronouncements or pithy sound bites having no purpose other than to remind constituents of how much they need him in their corner.

And there’s a good reason why. Although people at all points of the political spectrum seek strong voices to articulate their respective interests, demagoguery, in its classic form, actively fans the fires of oppression, creating whole categories of needs, if not “rights,” that people never knew they had (and, in truth, probably don’t have). The demagogue gains his standing by cultivating victimhood. He inflates his power by reminding you of your impotence, your personal and political irrelevance. He tells you that society is responsible for elevating you, not the other way around. Collectively, those are not notions that fly very well among a conservative audience.

The culture of blame, though much-chronicled, seldom is traced back to its roots in pop psychology–specifically, the recovery movement and its twelve steps. Step one in traditional twelve-step lore consists of accepting that you’re powerless over your addiction. Step two is placing your fate in the hands of a higher power. To be fair, as conceived in 1935 by the mother of all twelve-steps, Alcoholics Anonymous, this powerlessness was problem-specific (i.e., booze) and the higher power was explicitly spiritual (i.e., God). Over the years, though, as recovery was bastardized to encompass any number of addictions, dysfunctions, conditions, syndromes, and so-called diseases, it inevitably bled over into the culture at large. Powerlessness, at least in some quarters, became an all-pervading mantra. The higher power, meanwhile, grew more secular and pragmatic: It was anything external to you that could help get you to where you needed to be (inasmuch as you couldn’t, in your weakened state, get there on your own).

This notion of looking outward, not inward, for advancement has always held special appeal for blocs of people who already felt disenfranchised in one way or another. A shrewd liberal political activist can readily see the potential in encouraging these blocs to regard him as their higher power: He plays to the paranoia of those who feel downtrodden and persecuted, and consolidates his franchise by encouraging them to go right on feeling that way.

And, having surrendered themselves to their favorite higher power, today’s self-styled victims follow blindly and unquestioningly. No matter how outré the platform a liberal demagogue promotes, no matter what hypocrisy he may be caught in, his followers–who, remember, no longer really think for themselves–swear continued allegiance, offering the most improbable of justifications for their loyalty. As Wendy Kaminer observed in her fine book I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, this lemming mentality on the part of “people who feel victimized and out of control. . . hardly makes for responsible political leadership.” Ergo, Marion Barry. You will recall that Barry, always wildly popular among his African-American voter base, served as mayor of Washington, D.C., for a dozen years, until his videotaped crack-fest landed him in prison in 1990. Upon his release, Washingtonians made him a councilman and gave him another shot as mayor. This same principle helps explain why legions of women, including feminists, stood by Bill Clinton through his adulterous antics and his camp’s shameless, near-misogynist vilification of his paramours. Clinton was their higher power. That’s all they needed to know.

Of course, when we survey the landscape of victimization and demagoguery, we have more than just fuzzy logic to worry about. One of the sobering risks of a full-blown demagogic outreach is that it may end in maddeningly imprecise, surreally expensive legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As the ADA took shape, it became clear that the law would ignore almost no one: The information sheet accompanying the bill noted that it would effect 43 million Americans, one sixth of the population. Subsequent challenges to the ADA’s “restrictions” have threatened to expand its purview to as many as 160 million people, nearly two thirds of the population. This is what happens when demagogues stumble upon a cause that enables them to make almost everyone feel helpless.

Worst of all, the rise of the modern demagogue has spawned a self-perpetuating class of forever-victims. Americans historically showed profound sympathy for the underdog, in large part because we assumed that underdog status was a temporary condition that people aspired to overcome. If our patience with some of our distressed neighbors has sometimes worn a bit thin, it is because the nature of the bargain changed: The longstanding dynamic between demagogue and constituent created a permanent underdog caste that keeps voting for the party that rewards its victimization. It’s a never-ending cycle, an infantilizing one, too.

There is no doubt that victimization’s founding vision, of a society comprising millions of unfortunates stymied by both nature and nurture, helped solidify the notion of government-as-surrogate-parent. In this dismal conception of American life, it falls to Washington–the ultimate higher power–to ameliorate any gross disparities between the “lucky” and “unlucky” children in the family of man.

Steve Salerno is author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.


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