A demagogue /ˈdɛməɡɒɡ/ (from Greek δημαγωγός, a popular leader, a leader of the mob, from δῆμος, people, populace, the commons + ἀγωγός leading, leader) or rabble-rouser is a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation. Demagogues have usually advocated immediate, violent action to address a national crisis while accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness or disloyalty. Demagogues violate established rules of political conduct; most who were elected to high office changed their democracy into some form of dictatorship.
The methods of demagogues
Below are described a number of recurring techniques that are reported among demagogues from many different times and places. No one demagogue uses them all, and no two demagogues use exactly the same methods to gain popularity and loyalty. Even ordinary politicians use some of these techniques from time to time; a politician who failed to stir emotions at all would have little hope of being elected. What these techniques have in common, and what distinguishes demagogues’ use of them, is their consistent use to shut down reasoned deliberation by stirring up overwhelming passion.
The most common demagogic technique is scapegoating: blaming the in-group’s troubles on an out-group, usually of a different race, religion, orsocial class. For example, Hitler famously blamed Germany’s troubles during the Great Depression on Jews. Joe McCarthy claimed that all of America’s problems resulted from “communist subversion.” Denis Kearney blamed all the problems of laborers in California on Chinese immigrants.
Many demagogues have risen to power by evoking fear in their audiences, to stir them to action and prevent deliberation. Fear of rape, for example, is easily evoked. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman‘s rhetoric was most vivid when he was describing imaginary scenes in which white women were raped by black men lurking by the side of the road. He depicted black men as having an innate “character weakness” consisting of a fondness for raping white women. Tillman was elected governor of South Carolina in 1890, and elected senator repeatedly from 1895–1918.
While any politician needs to point out dangers to the people and criticize opponents’ policies, demagogues choose their words for their effect on their audience’s emotions, usually without regard for factual truth or the real severity of the danger. Some demagogues are opportunistic, monitoring the people and saying whatever currently will generate the most “heat”. Other demagogues may themselves be so ignorant or prejudiced that they sincerely believe the falsehoods they tell.
When one lie doesn’t work, the demagogue quickly moves on to more lies. Joe McCarthy first claimed to have “here in my hand” a list of 205 members of the Communist Party working in the State Department. Soon this became 57 “card-carrying Communists”. When pressed to provide their names, McCarthy then said that while the records are not available to him, he knew “absolutely” that “approximately” 300 Communists were certified to the Secretary of State for discharge but only “approximately” 80 were actually discharged. When called on that bluff, he said that he had a list of 81, which he would use in the following weeks. McCarthy never turned up even one Communist in the State Department.
Emotional oratory and personal magnetism
Many demagogues have demonstrated remarkable skill at moving audiences to great emotional depths and heights during a speech. Sometimes this is due to exceptional verbal eloquence, sometimes personal charisma, sometimes both. Hitler demonstrated both. His eyes had a hypnotic effect on many people, seeming to immobilize and overwhelm whoever he glared at. Hitler usually began his speeches by speaking slowly, in a low, resonant voice, telling of his life in poverty after serving in World War I, suffering in the chaos and humiliation of postwar Germany, resolving to reawaken the Fatherland. Gradually he would escalate the tone and tempo of his speech, ending in a climax in which he shrieked his hatred of Bolsheviks, Jews, Czechs, Poles, or whatever group he currently perceived as standing in his way—mocking them, ridiculing them, insulting them, threatening them with destruction. Normally reasonable people became caught up in the peculiar rapport that Hitler established with his audience, believing even the most obvious lies and nonsense while under his spell. Hitler was not born with these vocal and oratorical skills; he acquired them through long and deliberate practice.
A more ordinary silver-tongued demagogue was the Negro-baiter James Kimble Vardaman (governor of Mississippi 1904–1908, senator 1913–1919), admired even by his opponents for his oratorical gifts and colorful language. An example, responding to Theodore Roosevelt’s having invited black people to a reception at the White House: “Let Teddy take coons to the White House. I should not care if the walls of the ancient edifice should become so saturated with the effluvia from the rancid carcasses that a Chinch bug would have to crawl upon the dome to avoid asphyxiation.” Vardaman’s speeches tended to have little content; he spoke in a ceremonial style even in deliberative settings. His speeches served mostly as a vehicle for his personal magnetism, charming voice, and graceful delivery.
The demagogues’ charisma and emotional oratory many times enabled them to win elections despite opposition from the press. The news mediainforms, and often the information is damaging to demagogues. Demagogic oratory distracts, entertains, and enthralls, steering followers’ attention away from the demagogue’s usual history of lies, abuses of power, and broken promises. The advent of radio enabled many 20th-century demagogues’ skill with the spoken word to drown out the written word of newspapers.
Attacking the news media
Since information from the press can undermine a demagogue’s spell over his or her followers, modern demagogues have often attacked it intemperately, calling for violence against newspapers who opposed them, claiming that the press was secretly in the service of moneyed interests or foreign powers, or claiming that leading newspapers were simply personally out to get them. Huey Long accused the New Orleans Times–Picayune and Item of being “bought”, and had his bodyguards rough up their reporters. Oklahoma governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray (1869–1956) once called for a bomb to be dropped on the offices of the Daily Oklahoman. Joe McCarthy accused the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Post, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, the St. Louis Dispatch, and countless other leading American newspapers of being “Communist smear sheets” under the control of the Kremlin.
Violence and physical intimidation
Demagogues have often encouraged their supporters to violently intimidate opponents, both to solidify loyalty among their supporters and to discourage or physically prevent people from speaking out or voting against them. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman was repeatedly re-elected to the U.S. Senate largely through violence and intimidation. He spoke in support of lynch mobs, and he disenfranchised most black voters with the South Carolina constitution of 1895. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that physical intimidation was an effective way to move the masses. Hitler intentionally provoked hecklers at his rallies so that his supporters would become enraged by their remarks and assault them.
Personal insults and ridicule
Many demagogues have found that ridiculing or insulting opponents is a simple way to shut down reasoned deliberation of competing ideas, especially with an unsophisticated audience. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, for example, was a master of the personal insult. He got his nickname from a speech in which he called President Grover Cleveland “an old bag of beef” and resolved to bring a pitchfork to Washington to “poke him in his old fat ribs.” James Kimble Vardaman consistently referred to President Theodore Roosevelt as a “coon-flavored miscegenationist” and once posted an ad in a newspaper for “sixteen big, fat, mellow, rancid coons” to sleep with Roosevelt during a trip to Mississippi.
A common demagogic technique is to pin an insulting epithet on an opponent, by saying it repeatedly, in speech after speech, when saying the opponent’s name or in place of it. For example, James Curley referred to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., his Republican opponent for Senator, as “Little Boy Blue”. William Hale Thompson called Anton Cermak, his opponent for mayor of Chicago, “Tony Baloney”. Huey Long called Joseph E. Ransdell, his elderly opponent for Senator, “Old Feather Duster”. Joe McCarthy liked to call Secretary of State Dean Acheson “The Red Dean of Fashion”. The use of epithets and other humorous invective diverts followers’ attention from soberly considering how to address the important public issues of the time, scoring easy laughs instead.
Most demagogues have made a show of appearing to be down-to-Earth, ordinary citizens just like the people whose votes they sought. In the United States, many took folksy nicknames: William H. Murray (1869–1956) was “Alfalfa Bill”; James M. Curley (1874–1958) of Boston was “Our Jim”; Ellison D. Smith (1864–1944) was “Cotton Ed”; the husband-and-wife demagogue team of Miriam and James E. Ferguson went by “Ma and Pa”; Texas governor W. Lee O’Daniel (1890–1969) was “Pappy-Pass-the-Biscuits”.
Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge (1884–1946) put a barn and a henhouse on the Executive Mansion grounds, loudly explaining that he couldn’t sleep nights unless he heard the bellowing of livestock and the cackling of poultry. When in the presence of farmers, he chewed tobacco and faked an ignorant rural accent, though he himself was college-educated, railing against “frills” and “nigger-lovin’ furriners”. He defined “furriner” as “Anyone who attempts to impose ideas that are contrary to the established traditions of Georgia.” His grammar and vocabulary became more refined when speaking before a city audience. Talmadge was famous for wearing gaudy red galluses, which he snapped for emphasis during his speeches. On his desk, he kept three books, which he loudly proclaimed to visitors were all that a governor needed: a bible, the state financial report, and a Sears–Roebuck catalog.
Huey Long displayed his common-people roots by such methods as calling himself “The Kingfish” and gulping down pot likker when visiting northern Louisiana; he once issued a press release demanding that his name be removed from the Washington Social Register. “Alfalfa Bill” made sure to remind people of his rural background by talking in the terminology of farming: “I will plow straight furrows and blast all the stumps. The common people and I can lick the whole lousy gang.”
Scapegoating, described above, is one form of gross oversimplification: treating a complex problem, which requires patient reasoning and analysis to sort out, as if it results from one simple cause or can be solved by one simple cure. For example, Huey Long claimed that all of the U.S.’s economic problems could be solved just by “sharing the wealth“. Hitler claimed that Germany had lost World War I only because of a “Stab in the Back“.
Accusing opponents of weakness and disloyalty
Cleon, like many demagogues that came after him, constantly advocated brutality in order to demonstrate strength, and argued that compassion was a sign of weakness that would only be exploited by enemies. “It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well and look up to those who make no concessions.” At the Mytilinean Debate over whether to recall the ships he had sent the previous day to slaughter and enslave the entire population of Mytilene, he opposed the very idea of debate, characterizing it as an idle, weak, intellectual pleasure: “To feel pity, to be carried away by the pleasure of hearing a clever argument, to listen to the claims of decency are three things that are entirely against the interests of an imperial power.”
Distracting from his lack of evidence for his claims, Joe McCarthy persistently insinuated that anyone who opposed him was a communist sympathizer. G.M. Gilbert summarized this rhetoric as “I’m agin’ Communism; you’re agin’ me; therefore you must be a communist.”