Roberts-Miller: Demagoguery and Democracy
Release Date: 09/13/2017
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Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, and I’ve had a hard time getting started on this one.
Sometimes I procrastinate an episode because I don’t want to get into an idea or movement that is potentially stupidfaced. Other times, I’m nervous about doing a great work a disservice in doing a stupidfaced episode. This is one of those times.
Patricia Roberts-Miller was one of my mentors at the University of Texas, and I always knew that she was doing work on demagoguery. She’s one of those wonderful rare people who let you in on the secrets of their research revision and editing process, letting you behind the curtain of producing academic work. But until I read Demagoguery and Democracy, I had no idea how important that work could be. I am not exaggerating when I say this is the most important book I’ve read this year.
First off, let me give you the caveat that the small, portable, ultimately very readable Demagogury and Democracy is not, strictly speaking, the academic version of her research. That’s forthcoming. But Demagoguery and Democracy is compact and makes a handy gift for friends and relatives this holiday season. Perhaps you can think of someone who needs it.
The fact is we all need it. Roberts-Miller argues that when we think of demagoguery, we usually think of demagogues-- silver tongued seducers who memorize their audience into doing stupid things they would normally never do. These lying liars know what they’re saying is false, but they know it will manipulate the sheeple follow them. But that’s not the direction it goes. “We don’t have demagoguery in our culture because a demagogue came to power,” she argues, “when demagoguery becomes the normal way of participating in public discourse, then it’s just a question of time until a demagogue arises” (2). So if we should be focusing less on individual demagogues and more on the practice of engaging in demagoguery, if it’s something you and I could be doing, how do we know if we’re doing it?
“Demagoguery,” Roberts-Miller says “is about identity. It says that complicated policy issues can be reduced to a binary of us (good) versus them (bad). It says that good people recognize there is a bad situation, and bad people don’t; therefore, to determine what policy agenda is the best, it says we should think entirely in terms of who is like us and who isn’t” (8). In other words “demagoguery says that only we should be included in deliberation because they are the problem” (20 emphasis in original).
I shouldn’t have to say that if you’ve been following American politics for the past, oh, especially year and a half, all of this is going to sound familiar, but again, remember that demagoguery isn’t about one powerful individual--it’s about a range of discourses that gives power to an individual. When compromise is out of the picture and persuasion is about being the right kind of person rather than having a good idea, democracy withers.
Roberts-Miller gives the example of Earl Warren as someone who go burned by participating the demagoguery. Warren, if the name doesn’t ring a bell, was the WWII-era attorney general for the state of California, and he advocated strongly for Japanese internment. He made spurious claims, like that people of Japanese descent were living disproportionately close to areas like factories, ports, railroads, highways etc. without considering that PEOPLE live disproportionately close to factories, port, railroads, etc. because that’s part of living in civilization. Years later, in his 1977 memoirs, Warren himself said he deeply regretted his role in advocating in Japanese-American internment. Warren wasn’t an evil mustache-twirler, even though he participated in some pretty wicked demagoguery. Later, Warren was the supreme court justice who, among other things, managed to bring about the pivotal Brown vs. Board ruling, hastening racial desegregation. So if this generally good dude could engaged in bad demagoguery, we’re all at risk of falling into it. I like to think that he might have had fewer regrets iif one of Warren’s friends had been all, “Hey Earl, seems like you’re getting carried away. Let’s take a couple steps back and talk about your reasoning.”
And that, Roberts-Miller suggests, is one of the keys to fighting demagoguery whereever we find it--with others or with our friends or even ourselves. She gives us some key todos:
- Consume less of it yourself. That means not clicking on links that say “Look at this stupid thing the other side did--aren’t they idiots?” It’s hard to restrain yourself because, as demagoguery, it will make you feel good for not being one of those idiots. But it’s not what you or democracy need
- Don’t engage in purely “us vs. them” arguments who are just repeating talking points someone told them to think. Instead, consider sharing counter-examples or stories, which can lead them to think for themselves. Instead of arguing abstractly with, for example, someone who thinks immigrants are lazy, tell them how proud you are of your sister-in-law for learning three languages and graduating college and becoming a high school math teacher. Even better, invite them to meet her and get to know her personally. It’s hard to think of someone as “them” when you’re meeting him or her individually.
- If appropriate, go ahead and engage those arguments, but be prepared to point out inconsistencies in reasoning. This is where Roberts-Miller encourages all of us to review our logical fallacies and learn to reason abstractly in order to look for internal inconsistencies. Again, think of Earl Warren’s imaginary friend saying, “Say, Earl, don’t you think those folks are living next to highways and railroads because they need to commute to work, not because they want to sabotage them?” You can’t just go around saying “that’s a fallacy” because that will make people want to punch you, so you might as well also ask, or discover, the key question “what are the circumstances under which [you] would change [your] mind?”
- Finally, and most importantly, support and argue for democratic deliberation. Encourage inclusion, fairness, self-skepticism and the other values of democratic deliberation. As Roberts-Miller puts it “Democracy is about having to listen, and compromise, and it’s about being wrong (and admitting it)” (129).
I’ve given you the quick summary and takeaways of this book, but I really do recommend checking it out yourself, and recommending it to others who are concerned about the increasingly bifurcated social and political world we inhabit. I don’t know about you, but I hate always having to wonder if I’m the “right kind of person.” It’s much more freeing to think, “Am I having the right kind of conversations?”
If you have a favorite strategy for more productive deliberation, why not send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org? I’m thinking we’re probably going to be talking a lot more about this sort of thing in the future, so probably an episode on listening rhetorics? Maybe something on protest rhetoric? What would you like?