Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Demagogue by Michael Signer

demagogue With a title like that, I was expecting a strident book full of forceful opinions with an array of historical examples. Instead, it was a lot of name dropping and a distinct lack of commitment to all but the core idea. While I did learn stuff, at the end, I was disappointed by the lack of substance in the book, there was so much more he could’ve done with it.
While the book slants towards America, it has global implications. He defines a demagogue with a strict 4 point criteria, based upon popularity with the masses and circumventing the law. He lists a number of demagogues past and present, but only explores a few. The historical ones, such as Hitler and Cleon of Athens, are used mainly to show how they affected various philosophers and political scientist/commentators. He avoids labeling any American presidents as such, despite saying that Bush and Andrew Jackson came closest. But Senators Joseph McCarthy and Huey Long definitely fit the bill. The latter was a sort of Depression-era Robin Hood, making me curious enough for further reading on him. There are more leaders which are listed as demagogues, but aren’t expanded upon, unfortunately.
The author maintains the seeds of demagoguery are within democracy, and only the vigilance of a knowledgeable citizenry will prevent it. This is done by a strong grounding in constitutionalism, which he defines as not only a document, but a form of behavior, “…the culture that fights concentrated authority, it is a constant warning, in the peoples’ hearts and minds, to those who would be strongmen.” He uses the writings of such varied sources as Plato, de Toqueville, Hannah Arendt and Walt Whitman as backup.
In the middle of the book, Signer loses his way, going off on comparisons of the two Bush presidents and political commentators, Irving Kristol and his son Bill. This sets him off on a rant about current American neocons and their “foreign policy of arrogance”, most notably in Iraq, with their view of democracy as a metaphysical idea. While I agreed with this, it had only a distant connection with the main focus, especially since he danced around Bush’s own demagogue-ish tendencies.
Towards the end, it’s as if the author ran out of steam & becomes repetitious. He never brings his theory to a conclusion, nor does he suggest possible actions to thwart demagogues already in power. Despite an intriguing premise and a riveting cover, the book does not fulfill its promise, leaving the reader feeling let down and frowning.

Palgrave Macmillan 2009 272 pp. ISBN-13;978-0-230-60624-1

Jackie, a lifelong liberal, is a wildlife artist. You can see her work here

5 comments on “Demagogue by Michael Signer

  1. annebrooke
    July 6, 2009

    Sounds like a letdown indeed – as you say, that’s a shame …



  2. rosyb
    July 7, 2009

    Sounds like you are saying is that he didn’t quite have the follow-through to properly say the stuff that he was trying to imply? Do you think? Or was it just a case of the book falling into a bit of confusion?

  3. Jackie
    July 7, 2009

    It wasn’t confusion, everything was presented clearly, though sketchily in some areas. It was that the author lost his conviction partway through & didn’t commit to his own theory. I also thought he was a bit cowardly in not labeling Dubya or Jackson properly.

  4. Lisa
    July 8, 2009

    I can see why you picked this one up, Jackie. Great cover and enticing premise. Shame it didn’t deliver what you’d hoped for. Still, worth a read would you say, or best avoided?

  5. Jackie
    July 8, 2009

    It’s worth reading for the historical info on the philosophers & writers, that part was nicely done. It wasn’t an awful book, just one that lacked the courage of its convictions. 😦

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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