The Demagogue’s Doom Loop

How to Stop Before the End

The demagogues are rising again around the world. In nation after nation, giving voice to anger, despair, fear, and hate.

You might think, like the media suggests (now that, at long last, it’s taken notice of demagoguery): the problem is solved by stopping a single demagogue here or there. Wrong.

Demagoguery is a symptom, not the syndrome. It is an effect of nations stagnating economically. Because they are stagnating economically, they are prone to fracture socially.

If there is not enough to go around, then the question becomes: who can the national economic product be denied to? Who doesn’t “deserve” life, work, property — so that I can have as much as I had yesterday instead?

The demagogue is the person that allocates a shrinking economic product according to society’s growing pool of rage. He points the finger at a scapegoat and says: this group of people should be denied the bounty of the harvest. That is, they should be excluded from the national product. In that way, there is as much as there was yesterday for everyone else. And as if by magic, stagnation appears to have been kept at bay.

Here is the problem with the demagogue’s game, and I would like you to see it very clearly.

It doesn’t solve the problem of a shrinking economic product in the first place. Excluding people doesn’t revivify a stagnant economy. And so the demagogue has created a vicious circle. More and more people have to be excluded, demonized, scapegoated, for the dwindling social product to be rationed out in stable increments to whomever is still included.

This is the end.

The end. It is the doom loop of a civilized society. Once a society enters this phase, it cannot get out, short of war, revolution, or catastrophe — all of which bring sure ruin. There is no example in history of a society entering the Demagogue’s Doom Loop and stopping it before it is ruined.

The demagoguery problem isn’t about a Trump, a Farage, or any other single figurehead. The real problem is deeper, subtler, and harder. It’s a kind of structural and institutional detonation slowly going off at the heart of a society. It is guaranteed to keep going off if all that is done is defeating a demagogue here or there. Tomorrow’s demagogues will emerge stronger, more vicious, and most frightening of all, with broader and stronger backing. And one of them, at last, will press the trigger on the doom loop.

And so the question before the civilized world today, the world made by FDR and Keynes, and inherited by us, is very simple — and very hard.

Can we stop the the Demagogue’s Doom Loop before it is begun? So far, it hasn’t really begun. It’s just threatening to begin.

Perhaps you would like gentle reassurance and easy optimism. I am very sorry, but I can’t give it to you. I’m not sure that we can stop the Demagogue’s Doom Loop on our current course. Even if this wave of demagogues is defeated, the next wave, as I said, will rise stronger and surer.

The only real way to stop demagogues is to share prosperity widely, broadly, and deeply. To reverse economic stagnation. But that is precisely what this generation of leaders will not do. No matter how much they are urged by people like me, pressed by you, or pushed by their peers. And in my view, that is the surest sign that the demagogues will rise, and rise. Until we fall.

And yet. Maybe it is knowing all that that gives us the power to try to change it.