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A demagogue /ˈdɛməɡɒɡ/ (from Greek dēmagōgos, dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading’)[1] or rabble-rouser is a political leader in a democracy who gains power by appealing to the passions, prejudices, and ignorance of the common people, tending to undermine democratic procedures and the rule of law.[2][3] Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis; they accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness. Demagogues have appeared in democracies since ancient Athens. They exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, nothing stops the people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population.

History and definition of the word[edit]

The word demagogue, originally meaning a leader of the common people, was first coined in ancient Greece with no negative connotation, but eventually came to mean a troublesome kind of leader who occasionally arose in Athenian democracy.[5][6] Even though democracy gave power to the common people, elections still tended to favor the aristocratic class, which favored deliberation and decorum. Demagogues were a new kind of leader who emerged from the lower classes. Demagogues relentlessly advocated action, usually violent[3]—immediately and without deliberation. Demagogues appealed directly to the emotions of the poor and uninformed, pursuing power, telling lies to stir up hysteria, exploiting crises to intensify popular support for their calls to immediate action and increased authority, and accusing moderate opponents of weakness or disloyalty to the nation. While many politicians in a democracy make occasional small sacrifices of truth, subtlety, or long-term concerns to maintain popular support, demagogues do these things relentlessly and without self-restraint.[7]

Throughout its history, people have often used the word demagogue carelessly, to disparage any leader whom the speaker thinks manipulative, pernicious, or bigoted.[3] While there can be no precise delineation between demagogues and non-demagogues, since democratic leaders exist on a continuum from less to more demagogic, what distinguishes a demagogue can be defined independently of whether the speaker favors or opposes a certain political leader.[3] What distinguishes a demagogue is how he or she gains or holds democratic power: by exciting the passions of the lower classes and less-educated people in a democracy toward rash or violent action, breaking established democratic institutions such as the rule of law.[3] James Fenimore Cooper in 1838 identified four fundamental characteristics of demagogues:[3][4]

  1. They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, as opposed to the elites.
  2. Their politics depends on a visceral connection with the people which greatly exceeds ordinary political popularity.
  3. They manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition.
  4. They threaten or outright break established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law.

The enduring character of demagogues[edit]

Demagogues have arisen in democracies from Athens to the present day. Often considered the first demagogue, Cleon of Athens is remembered mainly for the brutality of his rule and his near destruction of Athenian democracy, made possible by his "common-man" appeal to disregard the moderate customs of the aristocratic elite.[8] Modern demagogues include Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and Joseph McCarthy.[3] All, ancient and modern, meet Cooper's four criteria above: claiming to represent the common people, inciting intense passions among them, exploiting those reactions to take power, and breaking or at least threatening established rules of political conduct, though each in different ways.[3]

Demagogues exploit a weakness of democracies: the greater numbers, and hence votes, of the lower classes and less-educated people, the people most prone to be whipped up into a fury and led to catastrophic action by an orator skilled at fanning that kind of flame. Democracies are instituted to ensure freedom for all and popular control over government authority; demagogues turn power deriving from popular support into a force that undermines the very freedoms and rule of law that democracies are made to protect.[9] The Greek historian Polybius thought that democracies are inevitably undone by demagogues. He said that every democracy eventually decays into "a government of violence and the strong hand," leading to "tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments."[9]

Famous demagogues[edit]

Ancient demagogues[edit]


The Athenian leader Cleon is known as a notorious demagogue mainly because of three events described in the writings of Thucydides[10] and Aristophanes.[11]

First, after the failed revolt by the city of Mytilene, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to slaughter not just the Mytilenean prisoners, but every man in the city, and to sell their wives and children as slaves. The Athenians rescinded the resolution the following day when they came to their senses.

Second, after Athens had completely defeated the Peloponnesian fleet and Sparta could only beg for peace on almost any terms, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to reject the peace offer.

Third, he taunted the Athenian generals over their failure to bring the war in Sphacteria to a rapid close, accusing them of cowardice, and declared that he could finish the job himself in twenty days, despite having no military knowledge. They gave him the job, expecting him to fail. Cleon shrank at being called to make good on his boast, and tried to get out of it, but he was forced to take the command. In fact, he succeeded—by getting the general Demosthenes to do it, now treating him with respect after previously slandering him behind his back. Three years later, Cleon and his Spartan counterpart Brasidas were killed at the Battle of Amphipolis, enabling a restoration of peace that lasted until the outbreak of the Second Peloponnesian War.

Modern commentators suspect that Thucydides and Aristophanes exaggerated the vileness of Cleon's real character. Both had personal conflicts with Cleon, and The Knights is a satirical, allegorical comedy that doesn't even mention Cleon by name. Cleon was a tradesman—a leather-tanner; Thucydides and Aristophanes came from the upper classes, predisposed to look down on the commercial classes. Nevertheless, their portrayals define the archetypal example[11] of the "demagogue" or "rabble-rouser."


Alcibiades convinced the people of Athens to attempt to conquer Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, with disastrous results. He led the Athenian assembly to support making him commander by claiming victory would come easily, appealing to Athenian vanity, and appealing to action and courage over deliberation. It should be noted, however, that Alcibiades's expedition could have succeeded if he was not denied from command due to the political maneuvers of his rivals.[citation needed]

Gaius Flaminius Nepos[edit]

Gaius Flaminius Nepos was a Roman consul most known for being defeated by Hannibal at the Battle of Lake Trasimene during the second Punic war. Hannibal was able to make pivotal decisions during this battle because he understood his opponent. Gaius Flaminius was described as a demagogue by Polybius, in his book the Rise of the Roman Empire. "...Flaminius possessed a rare talent for the arts of demagogy..."[12] Because Flaminius was thus ill-suited, he lost 15,000 Roman lives, his own included, in the battle.

Modern demagogues[edit]

Adolf Hitler[edit]

The most famous demagogue of modern times, Adolf Hitler first attempted to overthrow the German government not with popular support but by force in a failed putsch in 1923. While in prison, Hitler chose a new strategy: to overthrow the government constitutionally, by cultivating a mass movement.[13] Even before the putsch, Hitler had rewritten the Nazi party's platform to consciously target the lower classes of Germany, appealing to their resentment of wealthier classes and calling for German unity and increased central power.[14] Hitler was delighted by the instant increase in popularity.[15]

While Hitler was in prison, the Nazi party vote had fallen to one million, and it continued to fall after Hitler was released in 1924 and began rejuvenating the party. During the 1920s, Hitler and the Nazi party were generally regarded as a laughingstock in Germany, no longer taken seriously as a threat to the country. Despite Hitler's oratorical gift for stirring up the passions of a crowd, he was unable to stop the decline of the Nazi party. The prime minister of Bavaria lifted the region's ban on the party, saying, "The wild beast is checked. We can afford to loosen the chain."[15]

In 1929, with the start of the Great Depression, Hitler's populism started to become effective. Hitler updated the Nazi party's platform to exploit the economic distress of ordinary Germans: repudiating the Versailles Treaty, promising to eliminate corruption, and pledging to provide every German with a job. In 1930, the Nazi party went from 200,000 votes to 6.4 million, making it the second-largest party in Parliament. By 1932, the Nazi party had democratic control of Parliament and Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Hitler then staged the Reichstag fire, which he used as a pretense to arrest his political opponents and consolidate his control of the army. Within a few years, exploiting democratic support of the masses, Hitler took Germany from a democracy to a total dictatorship.[15]

Joseph McCarthy[edit]

Senator Joseph McCarthy, an American demagogue

Joseph McCarthy[16][17][18] was a U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. Though a poor orator,[19][20] McCarthy rose to national prominence during the early 1950s by proclaiming that high places in the United States federal government and military were "infested" with communists,[21] contributing to the second "Red Scare". Ultimately his inability to provide proof for his claims led him to be censured by the United States Senate in 1954, and to fall from popularity.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "demagogue, n.". Oxford English Dictionary. June 2012. Retrieved June 13, 2012. A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests… 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Defining the Demagogue". Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies. Macmillan. 2009. pp. 32–38. ISBN 0230606245. 
  4. ^ a b "On Demagogues". The American Democrat. Cooperstown: H. & E. Phinney. 1838. pp. 98–104. 
  5. ^ Samons, Loren J. (2004). What's Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship. University of California Press. pp. 43–44. 
  6. ^ Ostwald, Martin (1989). From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law. University of California Press. p. 201. ISBN 0520067983. 
  7. ^ Ceasar, James W. (2011). "Demagoguery, Statesmanship, and Presidential Politics". Designing a Polity: America's Constitution in Theory and Practice. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 75–118. ISBN 1442207906. 
  8. ^ "Cleon of Athens". Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies. Macmillan. 2009. pp. 40–51. ISBN 0230606245. 
  9. ^ a b "Democracy's Own Worst Enemy". Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies. Macmillan. 2009. pp. 38–40. ISBN 0230606245. 
  10. ^ Michael Grant, Ancient Historians, p. 98, pp. 110–111. Barnes & Noble Publishing (1994). ISBN 1-56619-599-3
  11. ^ a b Aristophanes, The Knights. Here is an old free version translated by William Walter Merry, Clarendon Press (1902). The translator says on p. 5:
    "The picture of Cleon the demagogue has been painted for us in the comedies of Aristophanes, and in the graver history of Thucydides. On the strength of these representations, he is commonly taken as the type of the reckless mob-orator, who trades upon popular passions to advance his own interests."
  12. ^ Polybius, the Rise of the Roman Empire
  13. ^ Shirer, William (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 119. He had explained the new tactics to one of his henchmen, Karl Ludecke, while still in prison: 'When I resume active work, it will be necessary to pursue a new policy. Instead of working to achieve power by armed coup, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag against the Catholic and Marxist deputies. If outvoting them takes longer than outshooting them, at least the result will be guaranteed by their own constitution. … Sooner or later we shall have a majority—and after that, Germany.' 
  14. ^ Shirer, William (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 40–42. A good many paragraphs of the party program were obviously merely a demagogic appeal to the mood of the lower classes when they were in bad straits… Point 11, for example, demanded abolition of incomes unearned by work; Point 12, the nationalization of trusts… Point 18 demanded the death penalty for traitors, usurers, and profiteers. 
  15. ^ a b c "The Cycle Begins Again". Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies. Macmillan. 2009. pp. 143–148. ISBN 0230606245. 
  16. ^ Richard Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, Methuen Books (1959); reprinted by the University of California Press (1996). ISBN 0-520-20472-7. The book describes McCarthy's tactics, compares him to the ancient demagogues and previous U.S. demagogues, and concludes that McCarthy was the first "national demagogue" in the U.S. (as opposed to demagogues whose influence is limited to a small area like a town or county).
  17. ^ a b Tom Wicker, Shooting Star: the Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2006) ISBN 0-15-101082-X
    "Joe McCarthy may have been the most destructive demagogue in American history." p. 5
    "McCarthy's Senate colleagues voted sixty-seven to twenty-two to censure him for his reckless accusations and fabrications." back cover
  18. ^ Haynes Johnson, The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, Houghtin Mifflin Harcourt (2006). ISBN 0-15-603039-X
    "Joe McCarthy was a demagogue, but never a real leader of the people." p. 193
    "McCarthy represented what Richard Hofstadter called 'the paranoid style of American politics.'" p. 193–4
    "While he never approached the importance of a Hitler or a Stalin, McCarthy resembled those demagogic dictators by also employing the techniques of the Big Lie." p. 194
  19. ^ "History News Network - What Qualifies as Demagoguery?". 
  20. ^ Mayer, Michael (2007). The Eisenhower Years. Infobase Publishing. Unlike most demagogues, McCarthy did not give stem-winding, highly emotional speeches. Rather, he spoke in a monotone, even as he made his most outrageous charges. The delivery lent credence to his accusations, in that they seemed to be unemotional and therefore "factual." 
  21. ^ Harold Barrett (1991). Rhetoric and Civility: Human Development, Narcissism, and the Good Audience. SUNY Press. p. 108. ISBN 0791404838. 

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of demagogue at Wiktionary