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Dialogue Over Demagoguery

First Year Book Author Argues for Moving Beyond ‘Us vs. Them’ in Politics

By Liam Farrell

“Demagoguery and Democracy” books

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

“Demagoguery and Democracy” by Patricia Roberts-Miller is the 2019–20 First Year Book, a program that invites new undergraduates to share an intellectual experience and discuss a book from different disciplinary perspectives. 

While some experts in rhetoric focus on how people inspired and influenced others to do the right thing, Patricia Roberts-Miller has always been interested in what makes communities make really bad decisions.

A professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, Roberts-Miller believes societies from the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War to the Germans in the 1930s often became most destructive when public policy narrowed to an argument between an “us” and a “them.”

Her 2017 book on the subject, “Demagoguery and Democracy,” is the 2019–20 First Year Book for UMD students, a program that invites new undergraduates to share an intellectual experience and discuss a book from different disciplinary perspectives. 

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. She spoke to Maryland Today about the dangers of that thinking, the importance of getting input from different sides and holding everyone to the same standards of argument.

What do you want students to learn from your book?
I hope that they come to recognize how we’re all drawn to demagoguery and not just be able to identify demagoguery in the political parties they don’t like, but for their own. What I would love to happen is people to focus more on arguments rather than identities and for political discourse not to be some sort of wrestling match. Members of the in-group have to call out other members of the in-group. If we only identify demagoguery on the part of out-group, then we are actually increasing demagoguery.

What are the consequences to this approach in politics?
There are circumstances under which demagoguery is kind of silly. There can be demagoguery about sports teams. When it’s in politics, we no longer argue policy. If we think in demagogic terms, we actually constrain politicians from compromising with each other and finding policies that might actually work. Politics becomes a zero-sum battlefield. People get more interested in causing harm to the other side than solving a community’s problems.

So it limits our political imagination?
It doesn’t just limit it, it redirects it. We’re arguing about which group is better or worse, how evil the outgroup is. Once you get a culture of demagoguery, a culture that’s really bifurcated, you’re definitely going to end up pretty quickly with disenfranchising people, probably expelling them, maybe some kind of extermination. It might be symbolic violence, it might be actual violence. In the Peloponnesian War, Athens got so bifurcated that people were perfectly willing to engage in policies that hurt the Athenians as long as it hurt some political enemy. We get to a point where we are willing to set ourselves on fire as long as it makes the other side uncomfortable.

What is the best antidote?
Acknowledging there aren’t just two sides on every issue and then trying to find out what the best arguments are on out-group positions. It allows you to distinguish genuinely harmful actors from someone who has the same values but just has different policies. It means that your energy is focused in the right place.

But can’t “hearing all sides” be weaponized by people who are arguing for destructive politics?
Yes, absolutely. It depends on what we mean by fairness. Demagogues are really good at looking reasonable and having the patina of reasonableness, using data. If we think of demagogues only as Hitler pounding the podium, we are going to miss the most damaging kind. The kind of fairness that we want is holding people to the same standards of argumentation and not the same standards of tone or niceness.

Can listening to all arguments be interpreted as sanctioning them?
That’s because we’re in such a polarized vacuum. (Critics will) hear you say you need to be fair to the most extreme, most threatening opposition. That’s not what I’m saying. As long as you are trying to think about politics within “us vs. them,” “them” is going to be represented by the most noxious, threatening version. That’s the false binary. Sometimes the reason you listen to people who are threatening and making bad arguments is to identify that’s what they are doing.

What is a historical example of someone working against demagoguery?
The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision is a very good example of a really well-argued, anti-demagogic piece. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) would be another one.

What do you believe makes for a functioning democracy?
We make better decisions when we get input from different perspectives, which is not to say all perspectives are valid. What a lot of people want to believe is there is one group that represents true Americans, or true Texans or whatever, and everyone else is arguing from a position of special interest. We need to understand we generally disagree because we have different needs and different goals and different values.



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