Why do people consider a lying demagogue – someone who deliberately tells lies and breaks publicly-endorsed norms while appealing to private prejudices – as authentic? The 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections presented us with this puzzle. It is no surprise to any of us that politicians lie and that they often do so to further their private interests. Moreover, the very nature of politics in representative democracies mandates them to modify their message to different voter groups. This in turn evokes suspicion among the public that the politician is playing to the gallery, and therefore, is inauthentic. By extension, one could reach a reasonable conclusion that such suspicions of inauthenticity will be even greater if the politician makes false statements in public forums (and repeatedly so)and when he deliberately violates publicly-held norms. However, the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections showed us that a significant portion of voters considered the presidential candidate Donald J Trump –who deliberately and repeatedly made false statements, broke publicly-endorsed norms, and catered to private prejudices – as an authentic person. As per a poll conducted by New York Times and CBS, over 76% of the Republican primary voters considered Donald Trump as authentic: as someone who “says what he believes” rather than “what people want to hear.” Why is this the case? Why would anyone perceive a lying demagogue as an authentic champion of their interests?
This puzzle is even more intriguing in light of the following evidence. Politifact, the nonpartisan fact-checking organization, analyzed the presidential campaign statements of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It found that while 12% of Hillary Clinton’s campaign statements are “false,” over 50% of Trump’s statements are “false” and 30% are “mostly false.” Yet, Hillary Clinton was widely perceived as inauthentic and as someone who is motivated by furthering her self-interests, while Donald Trump was perceived as authentic, despite ample evidence that the was more prone to falsehoods and even more susceptible to using electoral politics as a way to further his business/self-interests. In addition, Trump flagrantly violated many long-standing and publicly-endorsed norms. He accused a former prisoner of war (John McCain, a senior U.S. senator who was also the 2008 Republican nominee for President of the United States) as a poor pilot (“I like people who weren’t captured”), made racial comments about a federal judge who presided over the Trump University case, and name-called his political opponents (“Little Marco,” “Low energy Jeb” etc.)
Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue
The politician as a lying demagogue is a pervasive figure across the world and has been a well-established part of the literary lore and popular culture. Yet, not all lying demagogue politicians are viewed as authentic. For example, Hong Joon-Pyo, who contested in the 2017 South Korean presidential election, was widely considered to be a lying demagogue, but was not perceived as authentic even by his own constituents. The empirical challenge, therefore, is to account for the variation in the authentic appeal of the lying demagogue. More generally, what are the social and political conditions that must be in place for the lying demagogue to be viewed as authentically appealing by his constituency? My colleagues Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim, and Ezra Zuckerman set out to address this puzzle. Far from a mere academic exercise, unpacking this puzzle has important and far-reaching implications for electoral politics – as well as for reimagining the public sphere– in representative democracies.
An often-used explanation for the authentic appeal of the lying demagogue is partisanship. Strong partisan identification (for e.g., along the Democrat vs. Republican or the Liberal vs. Conservative lines) is said to shape what news media channels that people watch, what type of information that they consume, how they justify the problematic behavior of their preferred candidates, and more broadly, how they view falsehoods made by their candidates in a favorable light. Such forms of motivated reasoning are further reinforced, thanks to the increasingly polarized media discourse and the social media filter bubbles. Yet, the post-election survey conducted by Hahl and colleagues suggested that mere partisan identification alone cannot explain the authentic appeal of the lying demagogue. Their survey showed that most Trump supporters recognized his notorious lie as false (Trump said that the Chinese invented the concepts of Global Warming and Climate Change. In his own words: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”), but nevertheless considered him as highly authentic. Hillary Clinton supporters did not view her as authentic, but emphasized her other attributes such as competence. Therefore, strong partisan identification and motivated reasoning alone are not enough to explain why voters consider a lying demagogue as authentic.
Hahl and his co-authors argue that a set of social-structural and political conditions must be in place for the lying demagogue to appear as authentically appealing to his constituents. To construct their argument, they draw upon the works of Seymour Martin Lipset, a renowned political sociologist. Specifically, the authors propose that a lying demagogue will be viewed as authentic when (1) certain types of lies – what the authors refer to as “common-knowledge” lies – are viewed by the political constituents as deliberate violations of the norm of truth-telling, and (2) when the political system is suffering from a “crisis of legitimacy.” Let us examine this one by one.
Special-Access Lies and Common-Knowledge Lies
The authors draw a distinction between two ideal-types of lies. One type of lie is what they call a “special-access lie:” a deliberately false statement made based on information that a candidate has special access to. Examples of special access lies include Bill Clinton’s (false) claim that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” (Monica Lewinsky) or George Bush Sr.’s false promise during his campaign (“Read my lips: no new taxes.”). The second type of lie is a “common-knowledge lie,” which is a false statement about facts that the candidate has no special access, and the candidate not only knows that the purported statement is false but that the listeners/constituents too know that the statement is false. The distinctive feature of the common-knowledge lie is that it flagrantly violates the norm of truth-telling. As the authors elaborate:
“The distinction [between special-access and common-knowledge lie] is useful because it clarifies what is at stake. In particular, whereas the speaker of a special-access lie is implicitly upholding the norm of truth-telling, the common-knowledge liar is implicitly attacking this norm. Following Frankfurt (2005), such a liar is a type of “bullshit artist”: he is publicly challenging truth as a prescriptive norm. Indeed, although it may be possible to signal that one is engaged in bullshit artistry even while telling a special-access lie (perhaps the manner by which the lie is told conveys a lack of seriousness about the truth-telling norm), the challenge is much clearer when it is common knowledge that the statement is false.
Insofar as a speaker seems capable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood and yet utters a statement everyone knows is false, the speaker is flouting the norm of truth-telling and inviting his listeners to endorse such violations. Indeed, listeners are complicit in the norm violation as long as they do not challenge him—and especially if they applaud him.” (p. 9).
While Trump did tell several special-access lies during and after his presidential campaign (such as the statement that he had never done any business with the Russians), he told far more common-knowledge lies (such as the Chinese invented the concept of Climate Change to undermine U.S. manufacturing that his base also knew were lies, as shown in the post-election survey) that visibly flouted the norm of truth-telling. Such norm-violations, in turn, signaled to his base that he is “giving the middle finger” to the D.C. beltway political establishment that they believe is illegitimate.
Crisis of Legitimacy: Representation and Power Devaluation
This brings us to the second condition that the authors propose as necessary for the lying demagogue to be perceived as authentic: that at least one side of the social divide needs to regard that the political system as illegitimate. That is, a crisis of legitimacy paves the way for lying demagoguery to flourish and be viewed as authentic. Seymour Lipset argued that crises of legitimacy in democracies can emerge (1) when a social group believes that the political establishment is not governing on its behalf , and where “established political leaders claim to govern on behalf of all citizens but in fact are believed to pursue their own interests or that of an incumbent social category—that is, a group that has enjoyed more rights or resources in the past… the government seems illegitimate because it promotes democratic norms that it does not in fact uphold,” (p. 12; Lipset referred to this form of legitimacy crisis as the representation crisis), and (2) when an incumbent (or established) social group believes that the political establishment is favoring new social groups (such as immigrants) over them, and where the “erstwhile higher-status category… [is perceived to be] losing status relative to groups that had formerly been even lower status.” (p. 14; Lipset termed this form of legitimacy crisis as the power devaluation crisis)
On the one hand, representation crisis creates the conditions for the lying demagogue to be viewed as authentic by certain outsider social groups, as he claims to challenge established norms. The more the lying demagogue visibly violate established norms that are endorsed by the political establishment, the more it signals to those outsider social groups, who themselves view the political establishment as flawed and working against them, that he will be an authentic champion of their interests. On the other hand, power devaluation crisis reinforces the fear among incumbent/established social groups (such as the White Working Class) that they are not just falling in power, but that “new and upstart social groups” (such as the non-Whites and Immigrants) are gaining status and power, as they are allowed to “jump the queue” and favored by the political establishment in an unfair manner. In that sense, the power devaluation crisis enables the lying demagogue to challenge new norms and policies (e.g., Affirmative Action programs, Immigration policy, Offshoring) as well as to attack the political establishment for betraying the “values and interests” of the ‘aggrieved’ incumbent group. In summary, the authors summarize their arguments using the below proposition (p.15):
Voters who identify with social category X will attribute greater authenticity to a lying demagogue (relative to a candidate who is not a lying demagogue) who represents X insofar as members of X feel aggrieved due to at least one type of legitimacy crisis:
Representation crisis: X is an outsider social category and its members perceive the political establishment as serving incumbents at the expense of the public welfare.
Power-devaluation crisis: X is an incumbent social category and its members perceive the political establishment as unfairly favoring an outsider category Y.
Hahl and colleagues test this using two experiments, where they simulate conditions to create a representation crisis and a power devaluation crisis. Participants in the experiment were manipulated in a manner that allowed them to identify as members of one or another social category. Under some experimental conditions, the candidate tells the truth to his/her constituents, while in other conditions, the candidate lies and makes demagogic or misogynistic statements.
I will spare the details of the experiment. You can read the full manuscript in the link provided below. The main result is that only when there is some form of a legitimacy crisis (i.e., either a representation or a power devaluation crisis), the lying demagogue was perceived as authentic. In conditions when there is no legitimacy crisis experienced by the electorate, the lying demagogue was not perceived as authentic.
Moreover, through performing several robustness checks, the authors find that the results are not driven by the differences in the participants’ gender. In their own words, “the same pattern of results appears for both men and women, and for both Trump supporters and Clinton supporters… the motivation to see a lying demagogue as an authentic champion overrides erstwhile tendencies for women to penalize men for making misogynistic statements” (p. 34).
The upshot here is that authenticity – or more precisely, the ability to forge authenticity – is fast-becoming the dominant currency to accrue and sustain political power in many democracies undergoing a legitimacy crisis.
As you are reading this, I’m sure you are thinking about the politics of authenticity in the context of the 2014 general election in India. But the forthcoming general election (as well as the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly election – whenever that happens!) will be far more complex. The opposition parties have learned a trick or two from the enemy’s playbook, and therefore, the upcoming election campaigns will be fraught with competing notions of authenticity. In the case of Tamil Nadu, we are already witnessing heightened levels of lying demagoguery in various shapes and forms – from the purveyors of sub-nationalism and populism to those who proclaim to bring back the ‘spiritual’ in politics – each self-declaring themselves to be the authentic champions of thamizar’s interests, proclaiming that they alone could bring back all the lost glories. But what is more worrisome is that such claims of authenticity by lying demagogues are slowly gaining traction among sections of the TN public, and more so, among the chattering class. The political and structural conditions are now ripe for a crisis of legitimacy to gain prominence within TN, both in its representational form (where the State government is believed to be ruled-by-proxy and therefore the political establishment is perceived to be illegitimate) and its power devaluation form (where outsider social groups are perceived to have accrued substantial wealth and influence, and therefore, framed as a threat to the interests and values of the “real people” – the manninmaindhargal).
We are all slowly getting pulled into this politics of authenticity. Insofar as a politician could feign and forge authenticity, we are willing to overlook his other flaws, be it rampant corruption, bigotry, religious fundamentalism, or a basic lack of competence. There is an increasing tendency toward justifying all aspects of a politician’s behavior by claiming that “s/he speaker just his heart” or “s/he doesn’t care about political correctness.” The mainstream news media, which is supposed to scrutinize those justifications, have instead become the political theatre where such lying demagoguery is performed. Social media amplifies the lying demagoguery, while at the same time enrolling new listeners and supporters for the demagogue. With some exceptions, the middle-magazines and little-magazines, once couched as an alternative avenue, where nuanced arguments were said to be made and dissident voices heard, are now preoccupied with endless virtue signaling, trying to mirror the polarized discourse of the news/social media in an attempt to showcase their authenticity as politically-conscious actors. This cult of authenticity, unfortunately, is promoting a widespread politics of resentment, leading to an ineffective public sphere under the sway of lying demagogues and their pet conspiracy theories, diminishing social trust, and a complete erosion of sensibilities – be it aesthetic, moral, or political.
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