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Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies Hardcover – February 3, 2009

3.5 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Demagogue is a simply extraordinary book. A fascinating work of political theory, an eloquent response to the Bush administration's disastrous efforts at promoting democracy, a roadmap for progressives seeking to chart a new foreign policy direction and an intellectual lifeline for anyone who believes America should be on freedom's side, and knows, in their heart, that there must be a better way.” ―Peter Beinart, author of The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

“The demagogue is the only enemy of democracy who pretends to be its friend. Michael Signer's erudite and eloquent defense of constitutional democracy against its demagogic counterfeit should be required reading for the citizens of established and emerging democracies alike.” ―Michael Lind, author of The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life

“Since our founding, Americans have seen our country's mission as bringing democracy to people around the world. The past few years have seen a lot of debate about how to spread democracy, but almost none about how to keep it alive in places where it is under attack. With a grounding in history and philosophy, Michael Signer offers an original foreign policy vision for the 21st century that puts democracy protection alongside democracy promotion. This is vital reading for anyone who cares about one of the great international challenges of the years ahead.” ―Andrei Cherny, Co-Editor Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, author The Next Deal and The Candy Bombers

“Michael Signer has written a strikingly original book. Demagogue tells the story of democracy by analyzing its antithesis – the often frighteningly charismatic leader who draws his strength from his purported connection to the demos itself. Amid the myriad studies of democracy and waves of democratization, of rising incomes, civil society, institutions and elections, Signer brings the human element back into the equation. The demagogue, he argues, is an eternal element in democracy's rise and fall, one that we ignore today, from Venezuela to Russia, at our peril.” ―Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University and author of The Idea That Is America

“With American democracy facing so many challenges at home and abroad, Demagogue could not have come at a more important moment. Michael Signer has given us a deeply thoughtful book, shedding new light on one of the most important ideas in American foreign policy and drawing vivid portraits of some of history's most troubling and pivotal figures. Written with refreshing clarity and flair, this is a book to enjoy – and not soon forget.” ―Derek Chollet, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and coauthor of America Between the Wars

About the Author

Michael Signer is Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress and Senior National Security Policy Fellow at the think tank Third Way. He was Senator John Edwards' foreign policy advisor on his presidential campaign. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, and Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and he has been interviewed by The Washington Post, NPR, and MSNBC, among others. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1 edition (February 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230606245
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230606241
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #751,172 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Signer is a lecturer at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; Managing Principal of Madison Law & Strategy Group, PLLC; and the Mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Dr. Signer is the author of Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father (2015) and Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (2009). He previously served as counsel to Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, chief national security advisor to the 2008 John Edwards for President Campaign, and Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress. In 2009, he was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. He is a principal of the Truman National Security Project.

His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and USA Today, among others. He has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, the BBC, and NPR.

He holds a Ph.D. in political science from U.C., Berkeley, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow; a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law; and a B.A. in politics, magna cum laude, from Princeton University.

He lives with his wife and twin boys in Charlottesville.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Demagogue was informative and thought inducing. Mike Signer has an engaging writing style interspersed with personal experiences / insights that makes Demagogue an easy, interesting read. His passion for democracy and the love of his country come through in his writing, but his optimism does not overshadow history. He acknowledges the contradictions of Jefferson owning slaves and the injustices of Andrew Jackson against the Native Americans.

My first impression of the book was "where was this book when I was sleeping through Western Civilization as an undergrad?" Demagogue quickly contextualizes the typical readings of a Western Civilization survey course with 21st century geopolitics, providing an historical context and theoretical framework of why democracy will survive in the U.S. Mike Signer shapes the major thesis of Demagogue through using the major philosophers and the demagogues that shaped their thinking. Starting with the ancient Greeks then moving quickly to the Constitutional framers the book presents the philosophy that provided the bedrock for the Constitution and the progression of democracy; reviewing Plato and Aristotle, Jefferson and the Constitutional framers and deTocquoville, as they relate to demagogues like Huey Long, Hitler and Moqtada al-Sadr. Mike illustrates his theory in a colorful, readable manner. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies
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Format: Hardcover
Had I not spoken with Michael Signer at a political event, I would probably never have read Demagogue: The Fight To Save Democracy--and I would have been the poorer for it.
The purpose of his book is to provide a political theory, both empirical (what is) and normative (what can be), to craft a foreign policy that promotes democracy by working with people within their own cultural context--as opposed to installing/imposing "one size fits all" democracy from the outside. And while his argument for such a foreign policy is compelling, his writing is far richer for what it tells us about our own (constitutional) democracy.
Signer uses the four criteria posited by James Fenimore Cooper in 1838 (yes, the Last of the Mohicans guy) to describe the demagogue (used in the most negative way).He included the "political tsunami" (41) Cleon of Athens and from the 20th century foreign favorites such as Hitler and Mussolini and lesser known domestic ones, such as Huey Long, Father Coughlin, George Wallace, among others.
Against this background, Signer introduces "seven great political thinkers who personally grappled with the fight to save democracy" (22)--Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Walt Whitman (yes, the poet as political thinker!) While Plato and Strauss "joined [together] on the wrong side of the democracy divide" (149) basically asserting the common people needed an elite to govern them, the rest of our grapplers "call[ed] for a strengthened political role for ordinary people [we the people!], coupled with a greater civic education and a stronger sense of responsibility and obligation" (23).
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Format: Hardcover
I especially liked the discussion of the "cycle of regimes" that started in ancient Greece. Signer managed to give readers an eloquent history lesson on the roots of democracies problems and the threats that are posed by those who would usurp the power granted them by the people. Too much blind devotion to a ruler tends to create a tyranny. The tyrant becomes corrupt. His enemies begin to die. The ship of state tends to flounder. Noblemen rise to overthrow the tyrant. Jealousy forces the disquieted people to conspire and overthrow the noblemen restarting the cycle with the next ruthless, charismatic personality with personal ambition.

Signer may believe too much in his described "constitutional conscious" as the means to hold off a demagogue in the face of a society lacking in civic knowledge and political engagement. Read this book and formulate you own opinion. Converse with me about your findings at usrepublic (at) aol dot com.
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Format: Hardcover
Michael Signer's book is an interesting synthesis of history, philosophy and foreign affairs and is likely to be enjoyed by any enthusiast of the same. As the Obama Administration inherits the previous administration's attempt to spread democracy, it would do well to draw on Signer's compelling explanation of constitutionalism as the glue that hold genuine democracy together.
The book welds historical events from Cleon of Athens through Huey Long and Saddam Hussein with the philosophers that drew conclusions from those same events. The final conclusion is that democracy promotion abroad is undoubtedly important, but cannot just be the mere mechanics of electing leaders. Rather, successful democracy promotion is really an exercise in nurturing the spirit of individual accountability amongst all citizens for the sustenance of the franchise. Signer illustrates how Athens and the United States were able to establish this spirit and gives specific ideas on how America may peacefully and sustainably foster democracy by drawing on those lessons.
This book is well worthwhile for anyone interested in democracy today, whether they are the President or a rifle platoon leader on his way to Afghanistan. (I wish I had read it before my deployment to Afghanistan). Short in length, the reader can breeze through it quickly, but the more pensive reader is likely to tarry and think through many of the passages.
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