Hypocrisy Versus Social Desirability Bias
One of the most rhetorically powerful antidotes, as I’ve argued, is to appeal to freedom. Don’t say, “Money matters more than patriotism,” “Vacations matter more than pandemics,” or “I can’t be bothered to follow these safety rules.” Instead, when you want prosperity, fun, and convenience, cry “Freedom!”
Another potent antidote against demagoguery, however, is to highlight the demagogues’ hypocrisy. Instead of directly pointing out the absurdity of the principle of infinitely prioritizing health over fun, it is much more effective to mock, tease, scorn, and scoff at any demagogue who personally chooses to enjoy a little less-than-perfectly-health-conscious fun.
Such mockery has two anti-demagogic effects. First, it helps less-demagogic politicians unseat more-demagogic politicians. Second, it encourages all politicians to restrain their demagoguery. A politician who “goes full demagogue” has to live like a saint to avoid charges of hypocrisy.
Consider: How influential have cost-benefit analysis of Covid policies been over the last two years? Quantitative risk analysis? Though I’ve invested a fair amount of my time in such analyses, it’s not clear they’ve made a whit of difference. In contrast, a story about California Government Gavin Newsom relaxing in a fancy restaurant without a mask jump-started a recall campaign. Yes, the campaign ultimately failed. But it was close for a while, and Newsom the Covid demagogue suffered a year of scorn and stress.
Why was the public reaction so negative? Because of his egregious hypocrisy. Newsom orders Californians to stay home and wear masks. He fills the airwaves with hyperbolic self-congratulatory propaganda, like “We’re doing everything in our power as well, not only to message a recognition of the importance of minding your mental and physical health, but also to prepare.” And then he flouts his own rules. Like Daffy Duck, we can all sputter, “Despicable!” Cost-benefit analysis requires rational thinking, which requires mental effort. The loathing of hypocrisy, in contrast, comes readily to almost every human being – and at least one duck.
Much the same goes every time someone tallies Bernie Sanders’ net worth. “If he’s a socialist, why is he so rich?” What a hypocrite, right?
Or to consider a far more horrifying case: Why exactly did Communism crumble? Sure, there were intellectually decisive economic and political objections. But those were around before Lenin, and failed to stop his seizure of power. What probably mattered far more for Communism’s collapse, rather, was the hypocrisy of its leadership. They preached their love of the poor, common worker – while living in dachas, driving around in limousines, and eating caviar. People can forgive the mass murder of landlords and money-lenders, but not if the mass murderers live in luxury.
The danger, of course, is that hunting for hypocrisy will hand power over to sincerely puritanical fanatics. And occasionally, that’s what happens: see the Protestant Reformation. But if you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, you’ll see this as a fairly low risk.
Why? Because literally living as Social Desirability Bias asks is almost inhumanly onerous. In their hearts, virtually everyone wants prosperity, fun, and convenience for themselves. As a result, demagoguery and vulnerability to hypocrisy go hand in hand. During Covid, Florida’s Ron DeSantis almost certainly spent more time enjoying life than Gavin Newsom. But almost no one would accuse DeSantis of Covid hypocrisy. As a politician, he advocated a mild response; and as a person, he offered a mild response. Since Newsom, in contrast, advocated a draconian political response, a modest personal response left him with egg all over his face.
Upshot: While demagogues rule the world, the rhetoric of hypocrisy tempers their reign. If no one cared about hypocrisy, politicians would devolve into a bidding war of wishful thinking. If your rival promises to give every child in America a pony, you promise two ponies. In the real world, though, you could instead respond, “My opponent doesn’t even like ponies! In fact, I have proof that he has repeatedly refused his daughter’s pleas for a birthday pony. Shame! O thou hypocrite!”
While there’s no guarantee, harping on your rival’s hypocrisy is at least a plausible path to power. And by the time the dust settles, perhaps both sides will have totally forgotten the great Pony Purchase Program.