I will describe two modes of political discourse, which I call persuasion mode and demonization mode. In persuasion mode, we treat people on the other side with respect, we listen to their logical and factual presentations, and we respond with logical and factual presentations of our own. In demonization mode, we tell anyone who will listen that people on the other side are awful human beings.
For an example of persuasion mode, consider a high school debate team. Your chances of winning increase as you better understand the arguments on both sides. You do not help your team by insulting the members of the opposing team.
For an example of demonization mode, consider road rage. You gesture and curse. You wish that the whole world could realize that the driver who just cut in front of you is an awful human being.
We have arrived at a moment where persuasion mode is scarce and demonization mode is everywhere. I concede that demonization has always been a part of American political life. Our history includes not just the persuasion mode of the Lincoln-Douglas debates but also the demonization mode of the McCarthy era.
Still, we used to be able to expect some of our institutions to live up to the standards of operating mostly in the mode of persuasion. In particular, the Presidency and institutions of higher education used to be relatively free of demonization. Later in this essay, I will offer reasons to hope that some recent trends can be reversed.
How and why we demonize
In my book, The Three Languages of Politics, I go into how and why we demonize in our current political discourse. Each political tribe — progressive, conservative, libertarian — uses language that implies that the other tribes are awful human beings.
The progressive demonizes along the oppressor-oppressed axis. The progressive speaks about those on the other side as if what they want is to perpetuate oppression of disadvantage groups.
The conservative demonizes along the civilization-barbarism axis. The conservative speaks about those on the other side as if what they want is to tear down civilized institutions and return humanity to a primitive state.
The libertarian demonizes along the liberty-coercion axis. The libertarian speaks about those on the other side as if what they want is the expansion of the coercive power of the state in order to repress individual liberty.
Various factors make demonization attractive to us. There are elements of both individual psychology and social psychology that incline us toward demonization.
As individuals, we seek to minimize cognitive dissonance. It troubles me to believe that there are good reasons for people to disagree with my views. The dissonance goes away if I can dismiss those who disagree as driven solely by bad motives.
As social creatures, we are motivated to demonstrate loyalty to our tribe. Demonizing people of other tribes is a way of doing this.
Persuasion and Demonization in the Media
It is tempting to blame social media for the abundance of demonization and the scarcity of persuasion. But I would argue that the deterioration in discourse preceded Twitter and Facebook. It began in mainstream media.
As best I recall, fifty years ago, more of the commentary in newspapers, magazines, television, and radio was in persuasion mode, and less of it was in demonization mode. But in recent decades Rush Limbaugh discovered that demonization could appeal to a mass audience and Paul Krugman discovered that demonization could appeal to the readers of the New York Times.
Have we reached Peak Demonization?
Unfortunately, I don’t foresee the bad trend in the media environment turning around in the near future. But I want to conclude on a note of optimism. I believe that many people deplore the trend away from persuasion mode and toward demonization mode. And I can imagine a more optimistic scenario for the Presidency and for academia.
I see reason to hope that once Donald Trump leaves office, the Presidency will once again be an office where the public expects discourse to be in persuasion mode rather than in demonization mode. This is true whether he is succeeded by a Democrat or a Republican.
Part of Mr. Trump’s appeal comes from his willingness to break rules, which his supporters interpret as showing strength and determination. But once the rules against the President stooping to insults and personal attacks have been broken, future candidates cannot show muscle by emulation. They will have to find new rules to break.
Moreover, there could well be a backlash against rule-breaking by leaders. Conservatives, after all, are not known for their disdain for rules. Instead, they believe that in order for human beings to navigate the highway of life without crashing into telephone poles, guardrails are a necessity.
Falling like the Berlin Wall
I also believe that there could be a backlash against a trend that predates the emergence of President Trump by more than a decade. I am referring to the trend in academia for the social justice movement to employ demonization.
One early instance was in 2005, when Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard, tried to argue in persuasion mode that the high proportion of males in top mathematics departments might not be attributable entirely to discrimination against females. His opponents immediately went into demonization mode, misconstruing what he said and not bothering to offer facts or logic that would prove the importance of discrimination against females in the field of mathematics. Summers was forced to resign from his job.
Demonization continues to be the mode of choice for the social justice movement on campus. Speakers are uninvited, assaulted, or shouted down. Lines of inquiry are closed off. Language is policed. More administrators have been forced to resign, and many more professors and administrators have been intimidated into silence.
If I could speak to a college President today, I would say something like this:
The campus is a place for persuasion mode, not for demonization mode. Those are our norms, and we expect the social justice movement to abide by them.
I suspect that many college professors agree with me. What would happen if all of them suddenly felt free to speak up? Consider the Berlin Wall, which appeared to be formidable as long as the East German people were afraid. Once their fear went away, they quickly tore down the wall. I wonder if something similar could take place on college campuses.