Of Demagogues and Straw Men

Victor Davis Hanson, over at The National Review, is an accomplished classicist.  Today's column, "The Demagogic Style," was a short account of the early usage of 'demagogue' and 'demagogueryfrom Thucydides through Xenophon and Aristotle.  Once the apparatus is in place, Hanson turns to look at how the demagogic style works in President Obama's rhetoric.  One tactic that caught my eye was the strategic use of straw men:

3) The evocation of anonymous straw men, sometimes referred to as “some” or “they”

In the Manichean world of Barack Obama there are all sorts of such demons, mostly unnamed, who insist on extremist politics — while the president soberly and judiciously splits the difference between these fantasy poles. So for the last three years we have heard, but been offered few details, about the perils of both neo-con interventionists and reactionary isolationists, of both profligate big spenders and throw-grandma-over-the-cliff misers, of both socialist single-payer advocates and heartless laissez-faire insurers who shut emergency-room doors to the indigent in extremis — always with the wise Barack Obama plopping down in the middle, trying, for the sake of all the people, to hold onto the golden mean between these artificially constructed zealots.

Hanson's provided an interesting analysis of how demagogic moderates sell their ideas — they portray themselves as avoiding the vices of two extremes.  The trouble, as Hanson sees it, is that nobody actually occupies those extremes.  They are men of straw.

But a few things.  First, so far, all Hanson has done is say that the positions are anonymous.  That doesn't mean that they don't have occupants.  That just means that the president doesn't have to name his dialectical opponents.  That's an old rhetorical advantage presidents have always had — they are presidents. Second, Hanson's way off if given that President Obama doesn't name names, it means that nobody actually occupies that position.  I can name people on the two sides, at least for the medical insurance issue.  Mike Huckabee for the "personal responsibility" right, Michael Moore for the 'single payer' left.  Done.  Just takes some familiarity with the terrain, and we can easily populate those extremes for ourselves.

The straw man trouble with the setup, really, isn't that the extremes are anonymous or that they aren't populated, but that there is a lot of ground between the extremes.  And when one sets them that way, anyone can look like a moderate.

About Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.
This entry was posted in Specious allegations of fallacy, Straw Man, weak man and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Of Demagogues and Straw Men

  1. John Casey says:

    As I think you've pointed out elsewhere, Presidents enjoy the luxury of not having to name their opponents.  It comes with the territory they occupy as executives.  This doesn't mean, however, that they don't actually exist.  If anything, Obama has been too kind to the extremes–especially those to his right.  The late Willam Safire made the same point about Obama, confusing the "some" with the presence of a straw man.  It's only a straw or hollow man when there really isn't anyone there.  As long as Rush Limbaugh and his legions of followers in the Republican party exist, however, "some s x whereby x is some extremist position" will never be false or unrepresentative of a significant portion of the opposition party. 

  2. BN says:

    Some would disagree with you. Some would not :)
    Never been a big fan of  the word "some". I think it's an overused and not very useful word. It is, however, a powerful rhetorical tool.
    Some day I'll get it too :)

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