Demagogy (/ˈdɛməɡɒi/[1]) or demagoguery (/ˈdɛməɡɒɡəri/[2]) (Ancient Greek: δημαγωγία, from δῆμος dēmos "people" and ἄγειν agein "to lead") is a strategy for gaining political power by appealing to the prejudices, emotions, fears, vanities and expectations of the public—typically via impassioned rhetoric and propaganda, and often using nationalist, populist or religious themes. What qualifies as demagogy has been the subject of debate and ambiguity since Aristophanes first used the term, in reference to the Athenian statesman, Cleon.[citation needed]


Uses and definitions

20th-century American social critic and humorist H. L. Mencken, defined a demagogue as "one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots."

As George Bernard Shaw said:

But though there is no difference in this respect between the best demagogue and the worst, both of them having to present their cases equally in terms of melodrama, there is all the difference in the world between the statesman who is humbugging the people into allowing him to do the will of God, in whatever disguise it may come to him, and one who is humbugging them into furthering his personal ambition and the commercial interests of the plutocrats who own the newspapers and support him on reciprocal terms.

Max Weber:

Political leadership in the form of the free 'demagogue' who grew from the soil of the city state is of greater concern to us; like the city state, the demagogue is peculiar to the Occident and especially to Mediterranean culture. Furthermore, political leadership in the form of the parliamentary "party leader" has grown on the soil of the constitutional state, which is also indigenous only to the Occident.

Though this definition emphasizes the use of lying and falsehoods, skilled demagogues often need to use only special emphasis by which an uncritical listener will be led to draw the desired conclusion themselves. Moreover, a demagogue may well believe his or her own arguments (for example, there are good reasons to assume that Adolf Hitler—certainly one of the most successful demagogues in history—sincerely believed his own anti-Jewish diatribes).

History and examples

The leaders of the Athenian democracy, who were called Demagogues, learned their rhetoric and law from the Sophists. Plato reacted against this reality:

These impractical [political] schemes reflect at once Plato's discontent with the demagogy then prevalent in Athens and in his personal predilection for the aristocratic form of government.[3]

In the 19th Century, political reactionaries branded their opponents as demagogues and directed numerous reprisals and censorship against them. Representatives of the German Confederation of German-national and liberal groups were accused of Demagogenverfolgung, subversion, and sedition. After the July Revolution of 1830, the measures against the "demagogic machinations", and especially, Fritz Reuter, were renewed.

A famous usage was by the aging Erich Ludendorff, who was for a time a strong supporter of the early rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. After learning of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, he expressed his disappointment to German President Paul von Hindenburg:[4][5]

"By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich, you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action."

Hitler indeed would become regarded as perhaps the epitome of a demagogue, having successfully risen to power through appeals to the ethnic and nationalistic prejudices and vanities of the German people.

Famous historical demagogues

The following are some classic examples of demagogues from history.


The Athenian leader Cleon is known as a notorious demagogue mainly because of three events described in the writings of Thucydides[6] and Aristophanes[7].

First, after the failed revolt by the city of Mitylene, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to slaughter not just the Mitylenaean 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, he and the opposing general Brasidas were killed in a battle, enabling peace to finally be restored.

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[7] of the "low-born demagogue" or "rabble-rouser": born into the lower classes, 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 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.[citation needed]

Father Coughlin

An American Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin was one of the first to use radio to reach a mass audience in the 1930s, and was close friends with Huey Long. While initially a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, he later became a harsh critic of Roosevelt. Coughlin's themes eventually became increasingly antisemitic and supportive of assorted aspects of the fascist policies of leaders like Benito Mussolini.[citation needed]

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler led the Nazi party to power in Germany by appeals to ethnic pride and conspiracy theories that blamed Jews for the nation's economic troubles. He instituted government control over the news media[citation needed], and used his charisma and great oratorical skills to lead Germany into a war aimed at expanding its territory.

Joseph McCarthy

Joseph McCarthy:[8][9][10] was a U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. Though a poor orator,[11] he rose to national prominence during the early 1950s by accusing a number of politicians and other individuals of being either communists or communist sympathizers. He presented himself as being above reproach while accusing anyone who questioned or opposed him of disloyalty to the United States. Ultimately his inability to substantiate his claims led him to be censured by the United States Senate[9] in 1954, and to fall from popularity.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan (1974-1977) and Chairman of the Pakistan People's Party. Bhutto rose to national politics in 1967 by criticizing Ayub Khan's dictatorial policies. Bhutto had great oratorical skills and was an extreme populist figure. He spoke at public seminars in a drastic manner to attract attention.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ The pronunciation common to[1] and the OED
  2. ^[2], OED
  3. ^ "Plato and Platonism", Catholic Encyclopedia
  4. ^ The Rise of Hitler – Jan. 30, 1933 Hitler Named Chancellor of Germany
  5. ^ The Rise – Das Dritte Reich – ThinkQuest 2004 – Team Revelation
  6. ^ Michael Grant, Ancient Historians, p. 98, pp. 110–111. Barnes & Noble Publishing (1994). ISBN 1566195993
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ Richard Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, Methuen Books (1959); reprinted by the University of California Press (1996). ISBN 0520204727
    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).
  9. ^ a b Tom Wicker, Shooting Star: the Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2006) ISBN 015101082X
    "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
  10. ^ Haynes Johnson, The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, Houghtin Mifflin Harcourt (2006). ISBN 015603039X
    "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
  11. ^ History News Network - What Qualifies as Demagoguery?
This article incorporates information from the equivalent article on the German Wikipedia.


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Demagogy — Dem a*gog y, n. [Cf. F. d[ e]magogie, Gr. dhmagwgi a leadership of the people.] Demagogism. Syn: demagoguery. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • demagogy — ☆ demagogy [dem′əgäg΄ər ēdem′ə gä΄jē, dem′əgäg΄ē, dem′əgō΄jē] n. [Gr dēmagōgia, control of the people] the methods or practices of a demagogue: also ☆ demagoguery [dem′əgäg΄ər ē] …   English World dictionary

  • demagogy — [[t]de̱məgɒʤi[/t]] also demagoguery N UNCOUNT (disapproval) You can refer to a method of political rule as demagogy if you disapprove of it because you think it involves appealing to people s emotions rather than using reasonable arguments …   English dictionary

  • demagogy — demagogue ► NOUN 1) a political leader who appeals to popular desires and prejudices. 2) (in ancient Greece and Rome) an orator who supported the cause of the common people. DERIVATIVES demagogic adjective demagoguery noun demagogy noun. ORIGIN… …   English terms dictionary

  • demagogy — noun see demagogue I …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • demagogy — /dem euh goh jee, gaw jee, goj ee/, n. 1. Chiefly Brit. demagoguery. 2. the character of a demagogue. 3. a body of demagogues. [1645 55; < Gk demagogía leadership of the people, equiv. to demagog(ós) DEMAGOGUE + ia Y3] * * * …   Universalium

  • demagogy — noun demagogism Syn: demagoguery, demagogism See Also: demagogic, demagogical, demagogue, ochlagogy …   Wiktionary

  • demagogy — dem·a·gog·y || demÉ™gÉ‘gÉ‘ / gɪ n. demagoguery, methods of a demagogue, manipulation of public emotions to gain power or popularity …   English contemporary dictionary

  • demagogy — dem·a·gogy …   English syllables

  • demagogy — dem•a•go•gy [[t]ˈdɛm əˌgoʊ dʒi, ˌgɒdʒ i[/t]] n. demagoguery • Etymology: 1645–55; < Gk …   From formal English to slang

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