American Demagogues

                                                                                                                                                                                                          (Published June 17, 2016)

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A demagogue (from the Greek d?mag?gos, d?mos “the people” + ag?gos “leading”) is a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power by arousing people's emotions, passions, and prejudices rather than by using rational arguments.

In the original Greek, “demagogue” meant a leader of the common people, originally with no negative connotation, but eventually came to mean a troublesome rabble-rouser who occasionally arose in Athenian democracy.  Even though democracy theoretically gave power to the common people, elections still tended to favor the aristocratic class, which stood for deliberation and decorum. Demagogues were a new kind of leader who arose from the lower classes. They consistently advocated action — action that was usually violent, immediate, and without deliberation. They appealed directly to the emotions of the poor and uninformed. Demagogues relentlessly pursued 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 all politicians in a democracy must make occasional small sacrifices of truth, subtlety, or long-term concerns to maintain popular support, demagogues do these things relentlessly and without self-restraint.

Demagogues have been found in democracies from historic Athens to the present day.  Democracies are instituted to ensure freedom for all and popular control over government authority, but through their popular appeal, demagogues exploit the freedom secured under democracy to gain a level of power for themselves that overrides the rule of law, thereby undermining democracy. It has been suggested that democracies are inevitably undone by demagogues with every democracy eventually decaying into a government characterized by dictatorship and violence, leading to chaos, oppression, and massacres.

Throughout much of history, the word “demagogue” has been used to disparage any leader thought to be manipulative, pernicious, or bigoted. As an insult, certainly — and as an implicit invalidation of an individual’s political rhetoric — “demagogue” is a very useful word.  It’s slightly gentler than “fascist” and slightly more dignified than “buffoon.”  It is extremely opinionated, and yet carries itself with the serious weight of informed objectivity.  The word “demagogue” is not to be confused with the word “demigod” (a deified mortal), but given the high degree of narcissism among demagogues, there may be some who would like to think of themselves, or have their constituents think of them, as such.

There is a very fine line between populism and demagoguery, since both words describe rabble-rousers.  Populism can be used for good, to invoke the little guy versus big business or big government.  Demagoguery is a kind of extreme populism that preys on people’s worst fears and often hidden emotions.



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