Reviewed by Ryan Skinnell (San Jose State University)
Published on H-Rhetor (May, 2018)
Commissioned by Cristen Fitzpatrick (St. John's University)
There will be a temptation among readers to treat Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Demagoguery and Democracy as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s hardly a stretch, given that Roberts-Miller, an academic, rhetorician, and acknowledged lefty, published a short treatise on rhetoric and demagoguery for a trade press in the first year of Trump’s presidency. Trump has been labeled a demagogue by academics, pundits, and news commentators alike, and he seems perfectly willing to live up to whatever definition of demagogue one holds up next to him. So a handy-dandy little guidebook for opposing him is a nifty bit of genius! Except, that’s not what this book is.
In fact, Trump doesn’t get so much as a mention in this book. As Roberts-Miller makes abundantly clear in this short but powerful book, to focus on Trump-the-demagogue would be to mistake for cause what is actually demagogic effect. Roberts-Miller’s central claim about demagoguery is that, contrary to popular belief, charismatic demagogues do not usher in periods of demagoguery through the sheer force of their personality; rather, periods of demagogic public argumentation make the means available for individual demagogues to step forward. In other words, demagoguery is not about what individual demagogues do; rather, demagoguery is about how a culture deliberates. Her theory of demagoguery is much more complex than resisting a particular president—even a demagogic one. It is “about how we, as citizens, argue, reason, and vote” (p. 8). The book, then, is about argument.
At one end of the argumentative spectrum, Roberts-Miller puts the ideal of democratic deliberation. Democratic decisions, by definition, are supposed to result in policies that serve everyone involved in some form or fashion. “The common good” is a grounding principle. But democratic policies are complicated because serving “the common good” entails balancing an awful lot of competing goals with each decision.
And democratic decisions, even in the ideal case, never serve anyone fully because they have to serve everyone at least partially. Democracy requires deliberation because the competing goals, visions, beliefs, and proposals have to be aired, heard, weighed, and measured. Like democracy, deliberation (especially about policy) is messy, it takes work and compromise, it requires the people involved to treat each other fairly, and it requires responsibility and self-skepticism from everyone involved. Democracy and deliberation about democratic issues are constitutionally hard.
Demagoguery, by contrast, is an art of simplifying decision-making. As Robert-Miller carefully teaches her readers, demagoguery reduces all questions to easy choices—specifically the choice between a good us and a bad them. In other words, demagoguery makes the process of arriving at decisions—even supposedly democratic decisions—about whether someone likes and agrees with people they are already disposed to liking and agreeing with.
Consequently, for Roberts-Miller, “demagogue” cannot simply be reduced to an epithet we use to slander our opponents as unethical, deceitful, and hateful. This is because such shorthand characterizations play directly into the structure of demagogic argument that makes demagogues not just possible but practically inevitable. Roberts-Miller writes, “Conventionally, demagoguery is about passion, emotionalism, populism, and pandering to crowds” (p. 7). We have a long tradition of applying such definitions to our best-known demagogues—Cleon, Hitler, Joe McCarthy, and so on. But for Roberts-Miller, “thinking about demagoguery that way makes it likely that we won’t notice when we are persuaded by and promoting demagoguery because it gives us criteria that enables us to see only their demagoguery” (p. 7).
It’s a classic us-versus-them scenario. Their orators are passionate and emotional, ours are logical and rational. Their orators are pandering, ours are telling it like it is. Their orators are demagogues, ours are democrats. Our team is always right, their team is always wrong, and any sign of weakness on our side portends doom.
If the stakes seem outlandishly high in this formulation, it’s because they are supposed to be. How else would people be convinced to give up on deliberation? Demagoguery reduces all public policy deliberation to questions of identity—again, us versus them. We are good, they are bad. As such, dissent is dangerous, compromise is treasonous, and failure is catastrophic.
But as Roberts-Miller makes clear, this happens at the level of public argumentation, across time and across multiple media. And when public argumentation falls into this pattern, it becomes circular and mutually reinforcing. As a result, demagoguery becomes available to everyone involved in in public deliberation. The thesis of this book, then, is resolutely not some decorous version of “here’s how to stop Trump’s idiot supporters” or “here’s how to counteract fake conservative news” or even “here’s how to fight idiots across the political spectrum.” It is, instead, that we all need to be better arguers about arguing. This assertion is stated most succinctly near the end of the book: “Basically, we need to persuade people to engage in more public deliberation and less demagoguery. That isn’t easy because demagoguery isn’t just a way of arguing about politics; it’s a way of thinking about decision making” (pp. 121-22).
Roberts-Miller’s argument turns on some crucial distinctions that bear elaborating. For one, the “we” she refers to in the above quote is more or less anyone who is concerned about living in an age of demagogues. It is ecumenical, nonpartisan, and openly invitational. For another, this means “we” are all responsible for demagoguery—for allowing it to grow and flourish. When I say “we,” I mean you and I mean me. None of us is off the hook for our current circumstances.
This is a complicated argument to make in such a small book—somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty thousand words—and for a nonspecialist audience. But Roberts-Miller does it, and she does it well. The book is broken into eight short chapters. In each, Roberts-Miller lays out a small aspect of her theory of demagoguery, which she then works through deliberately. This working through consists of definitions (what deliberation is, what most people think demagoguery is, what a more useful definition of demagoguery is), procedural descriptions (how demagoguery works in general, how it works in specific cases, what that means on a cultural scale), and recommendations (what do we do). The chapters are short, digestible, and provocative.
In working through these various sections, Roberts-Miller exemplifies her definition of democratic deliberation. Rhetoricians will note, for instance, that the above sections correlate to establishing stases, making claims and using evidence, and inducing action. In addition, she practices what she identifies as four basic principles of democratic deliberation: insisting on fairness, which means “whatever the argument rules are, they apply equally to everyone in the argument”; responsibility, which means “representing one another’s arguments fairly, and striving to provide internally consistent evidence to support their claims”; internal consistency, which means appealing to consistent “premises, definitions, and standards” and not making contradictory claims or appealing to contradictory premises; and falsifiability, which means making arguments that can be proven wrong and that you “can imagine abandoning, modifying, and reconsidering” (pp. 125-26). In so doing, she models what her vision of good deliberation can be.
This book is not without its limitations. There are some things that simply cannot be done in such a short book, such as providing extensive historical context for various references (the Warren Commission, for example). There are specialist rhetorical, sociological, and political terms that don’t get the full definitional treatment, despite the main audience being a nonspecialist one. Readers will probably have to know some stuff and will have to be willing to look up other stuff. That may be a high bar for many readers.
That said, it is an important book. For rhetoricians, this book does double duty—it extends scholarship about demagogic rhetoric in ways scholars can learn from (and argue with), and it also extends rhetorical scholarship more generally to a broader audience of potentially interested citizens (and would-be citizens). But more centrally, and probably more importantly, Democracy and Demagoguery is designed to teach us—all of us—to be better citizens by learning to be better deliberators.
It is more about the latter than the former, which means—at least by my accounting—that it has the potential to do far more than just strengthen rhetorical studies. It has the potential to make our democracy (and maybe any democracy?) stronger and deliberatively healthier. In working through how to define demagoguery, how it works, how it connects to deliberative democracy, how it pervades argumentative cultures, and what we can do about it, Roberts-Miller invites all of her readers to see that we are all responsible for whether deliberation or demagoguery predominates in our culture. And maybe that eventually results in fewer demagogues running our government(s).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-rhetor.
Ryan Skinnell. Review of Roberts-Miller, Patricia, Demagoguery and Democracy.
H-Rhetor, H-Net Reviews.
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