Demagoguery and American constitutionalism
Despite a renaissance in the study of demagoguery and related concepts like populism, scholars have said relatively little about the range of meanings that demagoguery can have when deployed in different ways, by different political figures, for the sake of different political ends. Since William Fennimore Cooper’s classic 1831 essay on the subject, almost every account of demagoguery in American political thought has described a form of rhetorical leadership that is essentially bad. In this view, demagoguery is defined at the outset as divisive and destabilizing leadership that appeals to what is worst in an audience at the expense of what is best for the sake of the leader’s own aggrandizement. Scholars working within this thought paradigm appear, as a consequence, to have been closed off from the more interesting possibilities that a less emphatically moralistic approach to the subject opens up. Curiously, these same possibilities seem to be intuitive for most scholars even though their implications have not been explored: the same writers and commentators who insist on a moralistic conception of demagoguery will also concede that rhetorical tactics traditionally associated with demagoguery, like appeals to the passions and settled opinions (or prejudices) of one’s audience, can be legitimate in special instances and when executed in a responsible way for the sake of a publicly beneficial end. This dissertation draws out and develops the intuition on which this concession is based. What are the factors and considerations that make the use of demagogic tactics plausibly legitimate in American politics, even though thoroughgoing demagoguery is acknowledged to be bad? Looking to the basic principles of American constitutional democracy, the dissertation proposes an evaluative framework for distinguishing the few instances in American politics where demagogic rhetorical tactics are justifiable from the overwhelming majority in which they are not. Its goal is to help us see the good in rhetorical leadership that we have previously dismissed as mere demagoguery, and to see what is harmful in rhetoric that we currently lack the tools to understand.