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The flatterers: Sweet-talking the American people

By Andrew J. Polsky

If there is one thing on which Mitt Romney and Barack Obama agree, it is this: We, the American people, are wonderful.

“We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones.” We have always been determined to “build a better life” for ourselves and our children. (Romney) “We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system.” (Obama) We have the ultimate can-do spirit, “that unique blend of optimism, humility and the utter confidence that the when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.” (Romney)

Sometimes we go through hard times, but these never daunt us, and our leaders are quick to credit us with overcoming whatever adversity comes our way. “You did it because you’re an American and you don’t quit.” (Romney) “We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.” (Obama) Americans “haven’t ever thought about giving up.” (Romney)

There’s nothing new about this kind of political appeal, of course. And on the face of it, the rhetoric seems pretty innocuous. We should ask, though, about whether the language might have consequences for what happens after the election.

The framers of the Constitution feared the influence of demagogues in political systems that rest upon popular consent. James Madison expressed contempt for politicians (such as Patrick Henry in Madison’s home state of Virginia) who engaged in what he saw as rabble-rousing, appealing to the passions of the common people. As political scientist Jeffrey K. Tulis explains, the Constitution was designed to thwart the influence of demagogues. The system for selecting the president, for example, filtered the preferences of the public to neutralize the appeal of a popular leader.

Our image of demagogues has been shaped by politicians like Huey Long. They tend to be crude, polarizing figures whose rhetoric takes a divisive form; they single out “villains” or unpopular social groups who supposedly prey upon the people. James W. Ceaser, another political scientist, refers to these political figures as “hard” demagogues. They pander to popular fears and anxieties.

But Ceaser identifies a second type of demagogue, the “soft” variety. This one seduces the masses via flattery, extolling their virtues and their wisdom, conducting politics, as it were, by Barry White soundtrack. The soft demagogue plays on a different set of emotions than do the Huey Longs. Where the anger that undergirds hard demagoguery alarms many, the soft variety comforts and lulls the audience.

Even as political leaders court us, they hedge a bit by throwing in what might be termed “ritual disclaimers.” These are the promises of candor. For the Republicans, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie insisted that “we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved,” so that politicians “do what is easy and say ‘yes,’ rather than to say no when ‘no’ is what’s required.” He added, “Our problems are big and the solutions will not be painless. We all must share in the sacrifice. Any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth.” And the president reminded his audience, “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth.” But the disclaimers turn out to be empty. Christie failed to identify a single sacrifice the Republicans would impose; Obama spoke only in vague terms about cutting spending or raising taxes.

It isn’t difficult to understand why the soft demagogues cannot reconcile the messages. Flattery and pain don’t mix well. After all, if we the people have been as dedicated and selfless as our leaders tell us we are, then we cannot possibly be responsible for the mess we’re in. And if we have been so virtuous, surely we should not be asked to pay (through reduced benefits, higher taxes, or both) to clean up the situation.

The rhetoric will come back to haunt the winner, Democrat or Republican. Flattery works as a political tool, but a public that has been told only of its goodness will not understand why it should be penalized for its virtue. When the American people wake up the morning after the great political seduction, they will have a nasty hangover.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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