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How Many Polemics Does it Take to Change a Demagogue?

Updated on March 31, 2012

According to Aristotle, the worst type of democracy is the one in which those who govern do not do so because they deserve to, but govern because they are able to pervert the rule of the majority by demagoguery. In a true democracy the rule of the majority has greater authority than the rule of law and since everyone's voice is equal, the will of the people prevails. Unfortunately, in real life, two kinds of manipulators can move this democratic ideal into a virtual dictatorship.

A Polemicist is a person drawn to controversy and disputes in support of one opinion, doctrine or system in opposition to another. An argument or rhetoric becomes polemic when frustration or a sense of righteousness promotes hostility and name calling. The word is derived from the Greek (polemikos,) meaning "warlike, hostile."

...unlike debate, which may seek common ground between two parties, a polemic is intended to establish the supremacy of a single point of view by refuting an opposing point of view. ~ Wikipedia

A Demagogue is a person who gains favor by pandering to or exciting the passions and prejudices of an audience.

A leader who uses demagoguery takes control of public opinion and uses it to become a kind of tyrant. The leader gets the support of most of the people by manipulating emotions or prejudices and begins to speak with their voice. Because the voice of the people rules, the demagogue is free to do what he wants.

Most of us think we are not a country ruled by a tyrant because we have elections and get to vote. The truth is, the majority of us sign over a proxy to those who are skilled in using the media and political stereotyping to control what we think. If we surrender our will to our elected officials, is there any real difference?

I know what you're thinking--you are thinking that even if a charismatic leader who is secretly a tyrant got into office, we have the other party to keep things straight. They could write or argue polemics to alter public opinion and thus change the demagogue in office couldn't they? I have to ask the Dr. Phil question--"How is that working for us?"

Abigail Breslin is Valentine in the upcoming Ender's Game movie in 2013.
Abigail Breslin is Valentine in the upcoming Ender's Game movie in 2013.

In the remarkable novel, Ender's Game, Andrew Wiggins is sent to Battle School to prepare for his role as the only one capable of saving the earth from alien invasion. While he is away, his older brother Peter pressures his sister Valentine to help him in his scheme to dominate the world. They write political commentary on the web under pseudonyms that disguise the fact that they are still children. Peter forces Valentine to take on the character of Demosthenes who calls for war with the country's coalition partners, especially Russia, while he assumes the character of Locke, a mild intellectual who writes polemics against Demosthenes advocating diplomacy — just the opposite of their actual personalities.

Demosthenes role as a demagogue succeeds wildly in stirring up fears and prejudices and is extremely popular with the masses. Valentine knows that Peter is trying to manipulate her for his own purposes, but she thinks she can manipulate him as well and at the same time persuade others to her point of view. Each of the two writers gradually gain a huge following. Playing off each other’s writings, the siblings work to manipulate world interests, helping to control world events and opinions.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does either party in government speak to the real problems facing "we the people" and work with the other party to solve them or do they spend most of their time finger pointing and making emotional arguments, short on facts and long on accusations to control their share of "democratic rule?"

To the right are many examples of demagogic or polemic political images illustrating the lack of attention to the nuts and bolts of our problems. Maybe it would help to list the stereotypes associated with our two main political parties. I will let you decide which is Republican and which is Democrat.

Bleeding Heart Liberal, Entitlement Party

Wants big "Nanny style" government

Blames the rich for all problems and wants to tax the rich to solve them

Victim and impaired work ethic

Entitlement philosophy--"The government should take care of me."

Likes to kill babies

Hates God/Evolution is god

Wants to write God out of our history and textbooks

Politically correct is more important than truth or facts

Controls the media

Government must raise taxes so it can spend more

All businesses are evil and are killing the planet

The second amendment needs to be repealed

Morals are relative and Christians are stupid

Overspend, accumulate deficits and let our children pay for it

Self-righteous Hate Party

Hates gays

Opposes any environmentalist activity

Fills talk radio with wackos

Obsessed with guns which promote crime and violence

Religious hypocrites and adulterers

War mongerers

Obsessed with defense spending

Favors the rich

Ignores the poor and immigrants

Does not tax enough

Does not spend enough

Mentally deficient "Creationists"

Hate women and their rights to their bodies

Slaves to big oil and other corporations

Overpollute, destroy climate and let our children pay for it

Speaking at the Human Rights Campaign meeting, President Obama defined the upcoming election as a “fundamental debate about who we are as a nation.”

We don’t believe in a small America, where we meet our fiscal responsibilities by abdicating every other responsibility we have, and where we just divvy up the government as tax breaks for those who need them the least, where we abandon the commitment we’ve made to seniors though Medicare and Social Security, and we say to somebody looking for work, or a student who needs a college loan, or a middle-class family with a child who’s disabled, that “You’re on your own.” That’s not who we are.

Mona Charen of the National Review responds:

Well, that’s not who anybody is. But what this cartoonish slur on Republicans and conservatives does reflect is what President Obama has become — a liberal demagogue...

The president is perfectly aware that reducing government spending is the principal way to escape national insolvency. But he will not say so because that would be courageous, statesmanlike, and honest. And that’s not, if you will, who he is.

Is anyone besides me sick of being spoken for by demagogues on both sides who want to use our collective rivalry as an excuse for avoiding rational and intelligent discussion? If the North and South would have sat down and talked unemotionally about the issues dividing them we would have avoiding killing over 625,000 of our brothers--more than WW1, WW2, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. Most of the so-called causes of that war were essentially related to slavery. If they had just concentrated on that moral and economic issue instead of polarization, emotional demagoguery and cultural slurs, we might have started to grow up a lot sooner as a country.

How to Take Back Your Democracy from Demagogic Tyrants

The first step to taking back your freedom and power is to reacquaint yourself with some basic principles.

1. Everyone is responsible for their own actions. Just because a lot of people are doing it doesn't make it right.

2. If you can't agree on one thing, move forward with that on which you can agree. Even if both parties only acted on legislation they both could support instead of wasting all their time attacking and defending, considerably more would get done.

3. There are only three indisputable rights--Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. All others seem to be excuses for taking money from one group to support another.

For example, to pay for our present excesses we let our "rights" ignore our children and grandchildren's, more pertinent right: No taxation without representation. We pass on trillions of debt to our descendants--they have no representation. They deserve a voice before being taxed in absentia.

4. Own your opinion. Base your words on what you need or want, not the supposed character or motivations of your opponent.

5. Debate, not assassinate. In a scene from the movie "The Iron Lady," Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher in Parliament exchanging barbs.

(Excerpt from 'The Iron Lady' plays)

(Scene: Floor of House of Commons, Thatcher is wearing a pale blue suit.)

SHADOW MINISTER (DAVID WESTHEAD): Methinks the right honourable lady does screech too much.


SHADOW MINISTER (DAVID WESTHEAD): And if she wants us to take her seriously she must learn to calm down.

MARGARET THATCHER (STREEP): (Rising to her feet) If the right honourable gentleman could perhaps attend more closely to what I am saying rather than how I am saying it he may receive a valuable education in spite of himself.

Even though she is engaging in the same kind of verbal attacks, her advice is sound. If we would concentrate on the issues rather than the personalities involved, we could learn something.

A politician divides mankind into two classes: Tools and enemies. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others. ~ Ayn Rand

6. Use only honest arguments. In his book, Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan introduced tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").

Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours

For an extensive list of dishonest debate tactics see And others at and

Where is Murray when we need him?


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