Annotated Bookshelf: Demagoguery & Democracy

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. NY: The Experiment LLC, 2017.

A small book about people with small minds and even smaller hands, but with a big question behind it: What is (and what isn’t) demagoguery? and how do we fight it? In straightforward, conversational prose—speaking more to the hoi polloi than scholars—Roberts-Miller contends, first of all, that our common understanding of demagogues is wrong, and often reproduces the structure of demagoguery. Rather than conceive demagoguery as “about passion, emotionalism, populism, and pandering to the crowds” (7), R-M argues that it at bottom “is about identity” (8), about reducing politics to who is with us versus they who are against us. Her definition is succinct: “Demagoguery is discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric by framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and the means by which (not whether) the out-group should be scapegoated for the current problems of the in-group” (33); more often than not, demagoguery functions fetishistically or totemically when “people give power to a leader because they believe he or she has almost supernatural powers (or supernatural powers have chosen this leader)” (57). That is to say, demagoguery comes first, and demagogues second; cultures can be demagogic, and can “create an environment of more and more demagoguery” (79), particularly “when a culture imagines all political argument…as exclusively compliance-gaining, expressive, or bargaining” (84)—a problem exacerbated by “thoroughly factionalized” media (91). So what to do? Here, R-M offers some suggestions—limit media consumption, don’t feed the trolls, raise rhetorical consciousness, and support democratic deliberation—though these ultimately seem more like general guidelines for public discourse than specifically tailored to the political mayhem we face today.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

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