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Special Issue 2019, 49.3

Using Democracy Against Itself: Demagogic Rhetoric as an Attack on Democratic Institutions

Abstract: Demagoguery is a subject of much discussion around the world in light of recent international political affairs. But since demagoguery remains a contested term, the definition invites continued rhetorical deliberation as rhetoricians grapple with its usefulness, persistence, and presence in world affairs, and consider what, if anything, we will do about it. Building from Aristotle’s famously imprecise definition of demagoguery and from contemporary definitions that locate demagoguery in culture not in a specific speaker, this essay argues that demagogic rhetoric necessarily incorporates arguments, topoi, and evidence that attack and attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Specifically, demagogic rhetoric hyperextends or supercharges direct democracy by amplifying “the will of the people” to undermine the constraining functions of democratic institutions.

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