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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.3 (2005) 459-476

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Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric

For democracy to work, people have to talk. For it to work well, we need to talk well. Or, in other words, a basic principle of democracy is that the ability of the general public to make appropriate decisions depends to a large degree on the quality of public discourse. The more that the public has the ability to argue together about issues of common concern, the more that the polis approaches the goal that political theorists have called "deliberative democracy." James Bohman has defined this goal: "In democratic deliberation, citizens address one another with their public reasons in the give and take of free and open dialogue."1 The goal of this discourse is not simply to impose one's will on others, nor to induce them (through bargaining or threats) to support one's policies, but to engage in a discourse "in which citizens and their representatives, going beyond mere self-interest and limited points of view, reflect on the general interest or on their common good."2 This is not some positivist project, in which citizens reflect on what is, epistemologically and ontologically, obviously the true common good, but neither is it one in which people argue for what would serve their own narrow self-interest; it is one in which they argue about what they perceive the common good to be. This is the realm of rhetoric; it is neither positivism nor instrumental rationality.

There is a dilemma, however, and that dilemma is the topic of this article. On the one hand, restrictions regarding "reasonable" behavior have often acted (in consequence, if not intention) to exclude already marginalized groups. On the other hand, there must be some kind of restriction regarding [End Page 459] violence, threats, and coercion, or this is no longer deliberation. Can we develop a critical rhetoric that articulates standards for good public discourse that does not exclude the already excluded?

That is, restricting public discourse to something often called "objective"—unemotional, materialist, quantifiable—serves to rationalize (in several senses of the word) the disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised. Linda Alcoff points out the serious political consequences of this view of ideal discourse: "The tyranny of this subject-less, value-less conception of objectivity has had the effect of authorizing those scientific voices that have universalist pretensions and disauthorizing personalized voices that argue with emotion, passion, and open political commitment."3

Thus, the very kind of rhetoric most likely to effect social change by or on behalf of the oppressed is a priori dismissed, albeit on ostensibly "formal" grounds. It appears, in other words, that there is a dilemma between the goal of inclusion and the need for rules.

Rather than try to resolve this dilemma, I will simply point toward how it might be solved: through a renewed interest on the part of rhetoric teachers, theorists, and critics in the topic of demagoguery. As a field of rhetorical scholarship, demagoguery has more or less disappeared from journals and books—even the recent Encyclopedia of Rhetoric has no entry for the term. At the same time, projects like deliberative democracy mean that other fields are becoming more interested in it. Thus, considering that political theorists may be rediscovering a wheel, it is worth taking some time to contemplate just why rhetoricians thought that wheel didn't roll.

In the 1950s and 1960s, probably because of recent experience with demagogues like Adolf Hitler, Theodore Bilbo, and Joseph McCarthy, scholarship on demagoguery was thriving. Reinhard Luthin's American Demagogues: Twentieth Century discussed such notorious figures as Huey Long, Charles Coughlin, and Theodore Bilbo. Charles W. Lomas, in his oft-cited article, defined it: "Demagoguery may be described as the process whereby skillful speakers and writers seek to influence public opinion by employing the traditional tools of rhetoric with complete indifference to truth. In addition, although demagoguery does not necessarily seek ends contrary to public interest, its primary motivation is personal gain."4

This definition represents what might be considered an ethical...


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