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Demagoguery and Democracy

By Patricia Roberts-Miller

A clear-eyed guide to demagoguery—and how we can defeat it
What is demagoguery? Some demagogues are easy to spot: They rise to power through pandering, charisma, and prejudice. But, as professor Patricia Roberts-Miller explains, a demagogue is anyone who reduces all questions to us vs. them.

Why is it dangerous? Demagoguery is democracy’s greatest threat. It erodes rational debate, so that intelligent policymaking grinds to a halt. The idea that we never fall for it—that all the blame lies with them—is equally dangerous.

How can we stop it? Demagogues follow predictable patterns in what they say and do to gain power. The key to resisting demagoguery is to name it when you see it—and to know where it leads.

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Patricia Roberts-Miller

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Review quotes
“An important book. . . designed to teach us—all of us—to be better citizens by learning to be better deliberators. . . . It has the potential to make our democracy (and maybe any democracy?) stronger and deliberatively healthier.”—H-Rhetor

“This book raises timely, relevant questions about how we talk to each other as it explores the ways demagogues promise stability and certainty by scapegoating and punishing an out-group for society’s ills.”—Maryland Today

“If you are looking for a book to hand to those friends who are never wrong, always certain, often disdainful of others, and convinced that their arguments are irrefutable, then this is the book for you.”—Martin J. Medhurst, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication, Baylor University

“In Demagoguery and Democracy, Patricia Roberts-Miller does for demagoguery what Hannah Arendt did for evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem. She takes a familiar concept that seems straightforward and obviously detestable, and she challenges her readers to understand it for its complexity, and more importantly, to see how connected we all are to it. Demagoguery and Democracy is one of those rare books that is simultaneously approachable and complex, timely and timeless, and absolutely indispensable for understanding not just how to confront demagoguery, but also how to strengthen democracy.”—Ryan Skinnell, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at San José State University, and author of Conceding Composition: A Crooked History of Composition’s Institutional Fortunes

“Roberts-Miller writes clearly, economically, and usefully so that we might recognize demagoguery for what it is—a discourse that depoliticizes politics—and start making our arguments more democratic, which is to say inclusive and fair instead of demonizing and menacing. Admittedly, demonizing is the easier option, but this small book makes a large case for deliberating instead.”—Robert L. Ivie, Professor Emeritus in English (Rhetoric) and American Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington

“A timely guide for all who care about the quality and character of our democracy—from professors of rhetoric to family members at the Thanksgiving table.”—Janet M. Atwill, Professor of Rhetoric, University of Tennessee

“Everything we know about demagoguery is wrong, and misinformation can be fatal for democracy. Fortunately, Patricia Roberts-Miller’s concise and insightful guide to the rhetoric of dangerous populism is the antidote. Using accessible examples—everything from squirrels to former Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren—and clear language, Roberts-Miller points the way toward a compassionate public discourse that rests on principle. Prepare to be made uncomfortable, though; we have met the demagogue, and sometimes, it is us.”—Kel Munger, journalist and book critic
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Publication date
March 17, 2020