About This Book

Demagogue began as my doctoral dissertation, which was about the historical tendency of pure democracies to self-destruct through demagogues. The ancient political theorists called this the “cycle of regimes,” and it fascinated the Founding Fathers—including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—who placed a concern with demagogues at the heart of America’s own Constitution.

Demagogue tells the story of the fight against demagogues in several arenas: in American history, in political theory, and in foreign policy and democracy promotion. Along the way, readers meet fascinating figures and remarkable stories, from the Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, the Detroit “radio priest” Father Coughlin, and the Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, to great thinkers including Plato, Thomas Jefferson, and Hannah Arendt. The end result is a vision of a demagogue-free democracy that crucially depends on an active, self-maintaining culture of civic values among citizens, called constitutionalism.

With constitutionalism, citizens can take control of democracy for themselves, arresting the cycle of regimes  and protecting democracy through political culture, rather than just through checks and balances and institutions.

Articles & Interviews


“Signer . . . delivers hope, confidence and a vision for diplomacy amid a discussion of why the United States has eluded the grip of the demagogue via its collective ‘constitutional conscience.’ While the U.S. has created opportunities for demagogues abroad, it has consistently marginalized and suffocated demagogues at home, from Huey Long to George W. Bush, not by definition a demagogue, but whose attempts to trump the Constitution met with ‘vigilance against… [his] bullying.’ According to the author, these charismatic leaders typically emerge during times of national crises; their identification with the common people elicits deep emotional responses—yet societies can be immune if the rule of law supersedes the power of the individual charged with enforcing it. The book signals the need for a new direction in foreign policy, revealing how the U.S. frequently gives demagogues just ‘what they seek… an easily hated enemy for them to agitate the masses against.’ ‘The story of America’s struggle with demagogues,” Signer writes, “is the story of America herself.’”
— Publisher’s Weekly

“The author . . . views the problem of demagoguery as both timeless and immediate. Among the “new cast of cagey, aggressive mass leaders” confronting the United States and attempting to install autocratic governments in their homelands at the beginning of the 21st century, he includes Hugo Chávez, “furiously charismatic” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr. Signer finds their historical forerunner in Cleon of Athens, who argued in the fifth century BCE that “political decisions should be guided by a harsh calculation of self-interest, no matter the human cost or the sacrifice of our ideals.” Fortunately, the author argues, Cleon’s demagoguery “triggered a wave of self-criticism and self-restraint among Athenians that ultimately helped democracy survive; their example echoes today as a powerful but forgotten answer to democracy’s demagogue problem.” . . . The author constructs a muscular narrative to support his definitions and address disturbing questions . . . . Makes a forceful case for civic engagement and eternal vigilance.”
Kirkus Reviews

“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, Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, 2009-2011 and President and CEO, New America Foundation

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

“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, Assistant Secretary of Defense and coauthor, America Between the Wars

“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, Founder, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, author The Next Deal and The Candy Bombers

“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