A demagogue (people's manipulator/ rabble-rouser) is a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address national crises, accusing 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, they can chose to give that power to whoever they want, even if he/she is only popular with the majority of the lower classes.
The word demagogue, meaning a leader of the common people, first arose in ancient Greece with no negative connotation, but eventually came to mean a troublesome kind of leader who occasionally arose in Athenian democracy. Even though democracy gave power to the common people, in Athens elections still tended to favour the aristocratic class, which favoured deliberation and decorum. Demagogues were a new kind of leader who emerged from the lower classes. Demagogues relentlessly advocated action, usually violent, 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 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.
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. 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."
Throughout history, demagogues have existed. For example, the Athenian leader Cleon is known as a notorious demagogue mainly because of events described in the writings of Thucydides and Aristophanes. For example, 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. Another example is when Athens had completely defeated the Peloponnesian fleet and Sparta begged for peace on almost any terms, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to reject the peace offer. He also 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, but only by getting the general Demosthenes to lead the armies into battle, now treating him with respect after previously slandering him behind his back.
It is now thought that Thucydides and Aristophanes exaggerated the vileness of Cleon's character. Both had personal conflicts with Cleon and Cleon was a tradesman, so Thucydides and Aristophanes, who came from the upper classes, looked down on him. Nevertheless, their portrayals of Cleon define the archetypal example of the "low-born demagogue": lower class, hating the nobility, uneducated, despising thought and deliberation, ruthless and unprincipled, bullying, coarse and vulgar in style, rising in popularity by exploiting a national crisis, telling lies to whip up emotions and drive a mob against an opponent, deriving political support primarily from the poor and ignorant, quick to accuse any opponent of weakness or disloyalty, eager for war and violence, inciting the people to terrible acts of destruction they later regret.
Alcibiades is another example of a demagogue. He convinced the people of Athens to attempt to conquer Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, with disastrous results. He convinced the Athenian assembly to make him commander by claiming victory would come easily, appealing to Athenian vanity, and pronouncing action and courage over deliberation.
A third example of a demagogue from history is Gaius Flaminius Nepos, a Roman consul most known for being defeated by Hannibal at the Battle of Lake Trasimene during the second Punic war. Gaius Faminius understood his opponent well, yet made poor decisions, resulting in the loss of 15,000 Roman lives (including his own). Gaius Flaminius was described as a demagogue by Polybius, in his book the Rise of the Roman Empire, saying "Flaminius possesed a rare talent for the arts of demagogy"
And finally, of course, a recent example is Joseph McCarthy, a US Senator from 1947 to 1957. Though a poor speaker, 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, 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. Have a look at my last blog post if you're interested in learning more about McCarthyism!