Thursday, March 31, 2016

Doctrinaire and Demagogue

In The Weekly Standard, I turn to the topic of demagoguery and the forces that enable it.
Pundits on both the left and the right accuse Donald Trump of being a demagogue. Whether or not one agrees with that particular diagnosis, it's gratifying to see a variety of voices worrying about the dangers of demagoguery. Self-government demands rationality, realism, and restraint--all virtues that a demagogue slanders as vices. However, defeating demagoguery over the long term will require more than eloquent denunciations of rabble-rousing. To fight demagoguery, we will have to look beyond the demagogues themselves, who are often as much a symptom as a cause of a fevered body politic.
In his 1838 essay collection, The American Democrat, James Fenimore Cooper offered the "demagogue" and the "doctrinaire" as complementary antagonists. For Cooper, the demagogue elevates popular whims over individual rights and the claims of reason. Preying upon popular sentiments in order to benefit himself, the demagogue panders to and manipulates public passions, fears, and anxieties.

The "doctrinaire" might differ from the demagogue but is, in Cooper's opinion, just as injurious. The doctrinaire "affirms a disinterestedness and purity in education and manners, when exposed to the corruption of power, that all experience refutes." Cooper portrayed the doctrinaire as a "theorist of the old school," who "clings to opinions that are purely the issue of arbitrary facts, ages after the facts themselves have ceased to exist." While the demagogue declares that the will of the people is infallible, the doctrinaire clings to a narrow policy vision that fetishizes old solutions to old problems. If the demagogue's vice is a distorted attention to current sentiments, the doctrinaire's is a haughty indifference to them.
Read the rest here.


  1. Thank you for the article in the WS. Much needed. Now I'll have to read JFCooper's essays.

  2. This is one of the few really good pieces I've seen responding to the Trump campaign.