Will the Democrats Endorse Modern Demagoguery?
As the 2020 campaign for president matures, three of the leading candidates, meaning Sanders, Warren, and Trump, routinely engage in pure and simple demagoguery. Just because one of them might be your candidate, you shouldn’t overlook the danger of their demagogic language.
First, a simple definition of the word demagoguery from the Oxford Dictionary: “Political activity or practices that seek support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument,” for example, “the demagoguery of political opportunists.”
Historically, the creation of a common enemy has been a highly motivating and bonding phenomenon. The demagoguery of President Trump is legendary, as he routinely degrades and creates enemies out of immigrants, the press, foreign competitors, multilateralism, and even at times our own institutions and allies.
Sanders and Warren have different targets, but elements of their approaches are the same.
Once he became a millionaire himself, Sanders pivoted from his familiar 2016 attack on “millionaires and billionaires” to just the “billionaires.” This had the perverse effect of accentuating his demagoguery by narrowing the size of the target. There are approximately 600 billionaires in America. In his words, this small class of people is responsible for so much of what ails America that “they should not exist.” Is the targeting of such a small group based on their wealth really any different from targeting a group for their immigration status, color, or religion?
Regardless of one’s position on the tax rates, privileges, and influence of the super wealthy, why is it useful to denigrate them as a unified class? Particularly when surveys show that billionaires self-identify as Republican, Democrat, and Independent roughly along the same lines as the population at large—hardly constituting a unified bloc.
Warren’s approach is equally demagogic, routinely criticizing “giant multinational corporations,” insurance companies, drug companies, and the like.
In her words, “Insurance companies last year sucked 23 billion in profit out of the system. How did they make that money? Every one of those 23 billion dollars was made by saying no to your health care coverage.”
Sounds good if you have no insurance or recently had a claim rejected. For now, however, America has a free-market healthcare system, and that means we have for-profit insurance companies to administer it. While a different approach is overdue, it is not helpful to vilify insurance executives or an industry that is doing what it is designed to do. Like it or not, the current insurance model involves a contract between a buyer and a seller. Not everything is covered in the contract, and profits are part of the equation. By the way, even in the most generous of universal healthcare systems, not EVERY possible claim can be covered.
Referring frequently to “the giant multinationals,” Warren also often says, “They have no loyalty to America. They have no patriotism. If they can save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico, they’ll do it in a heartbeat.” Not to be outdone, Sanders adds, “The greed of corporate America and Wall Street is destroying the economy of the United States. These guys have got to be confronted.”
Again, it sounds great if you have just lost your job to a low-cost producer in Mexico. But, for now America has chosen the system of capitalism to allocate capital and produce goods and services. Free markets and for-profit corporations are essential actors in a capitalistic system. Indeed, it is true that in capitalism a company’s priority is to deliver a competitive return on capital, which requires producing goods and services and employing labor and technology at competitive price and value. It is not their responsibility to employ workers or produce products at above-market prices, nor is it the purpose of capitalism to minimize the gap in wealth or income. While there are many compelling reasons to engage in a debate over these limitations, and many arguments have been made for the reform of our capitalistic system, vilifying the actors for doing what they are designed to do is not productive or helpful.
Surely, we can have a fact-based, rational discussion about the imperfections of capitalism, free-market healthcare, tax rates, and the distribution of wealth without employing such demagogic language. Until we do, we will continue to polarize the audience and impede progress. We deserve better.