Believing demagogue

Cancel Brexit

Photo @ RealPaulLewis

Simon Wren-Lewis writes: “Brexiters… need to believe in the fantasy of Global Britain”. Do they believe? And do they even need to? Does a demagogue believe or need to believe in his or her demagogy? There are, I think, three possibilities.

One is that the demagogue is rational. In the instrumental sense: demagogy is a way to mobilise followers and advance one’s interests. The demagogical content is secondary. Is there a chance that demagogy will be successful to mobilise support? There is, if the demagogue’s followers or supporters are also rational. Not in the sense of them joining the party, although that is one way in which political parties emerge. But in the sense that they might not be asked to invest too much in the realisation of the demagogue’s enterprise, political or any other. If the price of a pipe dream, assuming it is not logically impossible, is small, then even a small probability of it coming true is worth subscribing to. Indeed, the loftier the end, the more rational it becomes to support it with applause. Indeed, sheer participation, its consumption value, might be enough of a reward.

Thus, a rational Brexiter demagogue does not have to believe in the fantasy of Global Britain to profess it and to attract a sizable following that can help make history.

The actual costs of following a demagogue may turn out to be very high, however. So, the other possibility is that the demagogue advances their cause out of confusion of one sort or another. The end sought is neither feasible nor unfeasible, it is both probable and improbable, so the claim the demagogue is making is neither true nor false. Harry Frankfurt offered a technical term for such a belief – bullshit.1 Global Britain falls squarely in that category. It is vague enough, it invites all the contradictions to cohabitate, it is reachable, at least rhetorically, to those who search long enough without exactly knowing what they are looking for and where they are going to end up at, and offers everything to everybody, thus making the cost, almost any cost, of commitment to leaving the EU worthwhile.

Is it rational to search for bullshit? No. The motivating – or rather moving – force is, as Keynes argued in general, the animal spirit. That was echoed in the context of Brexit, I found, by the former governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, and many others, not just by the Brexiters in the Parliament or in the media, who argued that all that was needed for Britain to go Global was the personal resolve and a decisive leader. Just do it. You get on the ship, the people follow, and you sail. And then you make the best of it.

Does the demagogue need to believe in bullshit? That depends on what one means by belief. This is the place where I might, I hope, usefully opine on a complementary matter. It is often said that the reason that people, many people, follow demagogues is that they are angry, i.e. the reason is people’s anger. But, of course, anger does not need reasons. There is something fundamentally different between acting on reasons and acting on feelings.2 One acts out of anger. The anger is neither the reason for action nor the outcome of reasoning. It is often said that people who feel “left behind” are angry because they have been left behind – they are the forgotten ones, which is the reason that they are angry. But if they have reasons to e.g. support Brexit, they will be acting on those reasons, not on their anger, although the anger may indeed have been caused by them being left behind.3

Rather than having reasons to be angry, anger may very well be caused by, can be excited by, e.g., being marginalised. That, however, does not mean that acting out of anger is instrumentally rational i.e. that it is an effective means to the desired end, which would make acting out of anger rational or reasonable. Similarly, even if one allows for bullshit beliefs, as one must when dealing with demagogues, they have to be reasoned ones, to at least a degree. So, the demagogue and their followers may very well believe in their bullshit. And so, may be proven right or wrong at least post factum.

Thus, to the extent that the demagogy is just bullshit, it may be a reasoned one, while the demagogues and their followers may be committed to it out of anger or resentment (the latter being famously discussed by A. Camus in The Rebel).

Do some demagogues indeed believe in their one demagogy? While you may believe in bullshit, it is almost contradictio in adjecto to believe in a fantasy, if that is what the demagogy amounts to. That would be delusional, which is really not a belief-based state of mind, rather the opposite. Can that be helpful, in terms of effectiveness, to the demagogue and to his followers? That was used as an argument by quite a number of people that tried to explain the demagogues of the 1930s. A successful demagogue, a charismatic one, has to have mastered the rhetoric of authenticity, and the best way to be proficient in it is to convince oneself of the truth of one’s convictions. That helps with the followers to the extent that they are likely to follow authority, if they have an authoritarian personality, something studied by some of the same researchers in authenticity of e.g. racism of one kind or another.

Thus, demagogues need not, but may indeed, be delusional and may get ever more so if they are successful in attracting the following of a resentful audience. But, believing in fantasy that is not. There may be causes for the delusion and the delusion itself will obviously have consequences, but there are no reasons to support it, so a belief it is not.

To put this in terms of Weber’s ideal types: a rational demagogue is a political con-person. A professor of bullshit tends to be a partisan public intellectual, the one primarily ideologically committed. The convinced demagogue is a fanatic.

So, no, Brexiters need not believe in the fantasy of Global Britain and indeed most of them do not. They are for the most part just selling moonshine, which they hope will benefit them, while their customers or followers find it to be rational to support the whole enterprise as a fair, though unlikely to win, bet. Their marketing is done by the publicists who traffic in bullshit, and the mobilisation of followers is partly done by fanatics.

Pešč, 28.03.2019.


  1. Harry Frankfurt (1986), “On Bullshit”, Raritan. The essay was extended into a book which was published by Princeton University Press in 2005.
  2. See D. Davidson (1963), “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”, Journal of Philosophy 60: 685-700.
  3. Feelings can mess up your reasons, thought D. Kahneman in: Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.