Continuing the discussion from The Godmakers:
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. 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—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.
Use and abuse of the term
Throughout its history, people have often used the word demagogue carelessly, as an “attack word” to disparage any leader whom the speaker thinks manipulative, pernicious, or bigoted. 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. 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. James Fenimore Cooper in 1838 identified four fundamental characteristics of demagogues:
- They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, opposed to the elites.
- Their politics depends on a visceral connection with the people, which greatly exceeds ordinary political popularity.
- They manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition.
- They threaten or outright break established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law.
The central feature of the practice of demagoguery is persuasion by means of passion, shutting down reasoned deliberation and consideration of alternatives. 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. Demagogues “pander to passion, prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance, rather than reason.” See below for a survey of the methods of persuasion used by most demagogues throughout history.