“Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric,” by Patricia Roberts-Miller

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. “Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 8 (2005): 459-76.

Reviewed by Sarah Meinen Jedd, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Patricia Roberts-Miller tackles the twin problems of restricting deliberative democracy so as to exclude demagoguery and rehabilitating the notion of a critical rhetoric that enables social criticism. Attempting to reintroduce the idea of demagoguery to a field of rhetoricians she claims have abandoned both the term and its dangerous implications, Roberts-Miller answers the poignant call issued by Kenneth Burke in his essay “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” Burke begins his analysis of Hitler’s techniques of scapegoating and unification by urging scholars to pay close attention to the rhetoric of demagogues, advising, “Let us try also to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America” (Burke 191). Ending her own essay with this same quotation, Roberts-Miller issues a similar call, bridging the gap between rhetorical criticism and critical rhetoric to “revivify scholarship on demagoguery” in the hopes of facilitating more robust democratic deliberation (474).

Arguing that rhetoricians, unable to agree upon a definition of demagoguery that did not endorse positivism or brand charismatic social movement leaders as demagogues, abandoned scholarly interest in the term by the late 1980s, Roberts-Miller contends that political scientists, historians, and scholars of religious studies have all turned their theoretical and critical attention to the term. To rekindle rhetorical interest in demagoguery, she proposes the following definition: “Demagoguery is polarizing propaganda that motivates members of an ingroup to hate and scapegoat some outgroup(s), largely by promising certainty, stability, and what Erich Fromm famously called ‘an escape from freedom’” (462). From this definition, Roberts-Miller discusses several key theories of argumentation, demonstrating how the demagogue’s use of oversimplified identification and division violates not only these rules but also the ethical precepts of deliberative democracy.

Noting that demagoguery can be “unemotional, elite, and intellectual,” Roberts-Miller makes a significant contribution to rhetorical theory by revitalizing the term and offering a definition of demagoguery that refuses to “demonize emotionalism, populism, or anti-intellectualism” (471). In so doing, she issues an important invitation for further theorizing about demagoguery and its implications for social movement criticism, as well as for the development of a critical rhetoric that allows the critic to stage an intervention in public deliberation. Moreover, Roberts-Miller reminds rhetorical critics of their unique opportunity to both scrutinize and influence public discourse. Spending the last third of her essay raising potential weaknesses with her definition and asking provocative questions like “Is [demagoguery] always harmful?” and “Does humor change the consequences of the demagoguery?”(474), Roberts-Miller points fellow scholars in specific directions, opening a new (or at least reclaimed) field of rhetorical inquiry.

Throughout her essay, Roberts-Miller refers in passing to famous demagogues Adolph Hitler, Theodore Bilbo, Joseph McCarthy, and John C. Calhoun. She uses these historical figures to illustrate on a very general level how rhetors construct ingroups and outgroups, how they manipulate the curative powers of scapegoating, and how they lend the illusion of stable certainty to volatile rhetorical situations. Roberts-Miller does not, however, quote any of these rhetors at length, nor does she provide a specific discussion of their disparate rhetorical contexts. Perhaps this vague treatment of their rhetoric is part of the invitation for future research that Roberts-Millers extends to her readers. A more specific analysis of the words of actual demagogues, however, would better illustrate Roberts-Miller’s definition and her implicit tenets of social criticism. Although Roberts-Miller refers at great length to Burke’s “Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” throughout her article, using his essay to talk about Hitler in more specific terms and to provide a very basic analysis of scapegoating, she is reluctant to delve deeper into Burke’s notion of tragedy and mortification. Instead, Roberts-Miller relies on other scholars’ definition of key terms and explanations of the scapegoating process. While “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” is an excellent example of Burke’s social criticism in action, it may not be a sufficient explanation of his theoretical understanding of scapegoating, victimage, and mortification. Perhaps Roberts-Miller could have delved deeper into Burke’s corpus to provide a more sophisticated theoretical account of demagoguery.

In an essay in the same issue of Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Mari Boor Tonn takes up one of Roberts-Miller’s key contentions. In “Taking Conversation, Dialogue, and Therapy Public,” Tonn seems to consider demagoguery without demagogues, a concept that Roberts-Miller alludes to near the end of her article, when she notes that demagogues manipulate stereotypes and insecurities that already exist in the discourse economy. Tonn investigates the ways in which framing democratic deliberation as an open-ended, non-confrontational conversation harms democratic ideals and impedes public policy creation. Examining staged political conversations of the Clinton Whitehouse and the Blair administration, Tonn mines the appendix of Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form to argue that democracy leads to democratic conversation, not the other way around. Tonn’s discussion of deliberative democracy in a conversational frame relates to Roberts-Miller’s discussion of demagoguery because Tonn describes a political process whereby “debate” is repeatedly scapegoated and replaced with “dialogue.” This substitution leads to the further formation of ingroups (those who dialogue) and outgroups (those who prefer divisive debate and thus attempt to exclude the nonelite from the democratic process). As Tonn’s analysis illustrates, the process of dialogue seems even more favorable to a tyrannical minority, allowing their voices to overwhelm the majority. Terms that seem to promise inclusion, like dialogue, obfuscate this exclusion.

Not only does Tonn’s essay help to explain the concept of demagoguery without demagogues, it also lends credence to Roberts-Miller’s claim that demagoguery is a term that has fallen out of critical favor. By providing a new definition for the term and interrogating the ethical requirements for deliberative democracy, Roberts-Miller articulates a significant form of critical rhetoric. Attempting to renew scholarly interest in demagogues and their rhetoric, Roberts-Miller’s essay provides both theorists and critics with a call to action that is hard to ignore.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 1941. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Tonn, Mari Boor. “Taking Conversation, Dialogue, and Therapy Public.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 8 (2005): 405-30.

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