What Is a Demagogue?

Christopher Witt —  November 24, 2015 — Leave a comment

What is a demagogue?In ancient Greece a demagogue was a leader who championed the rights of the common people.

Today we think of a demagogue as a speaker who whips up people’s fears and anger, plays to their prejudices, and makes false claims and promises.

(Unfortunately, we have too many examples of demagogues both here in the U.S. and in Europe.)

In times of crisis and turmoil demagogues play an important, although not necessarily salutary, role.

  1. Demagogues define “us,” our identity, values, and basic beliefs.

They affirm who and what “we” are, primarily by distinguishing us from “them.” Demagogues do not fault us in any way, except perhaps for doubting ourselves and our unique destiny. We are the good people, common folk who are just trying to live our lives decently and in peace. But we and our way of life are under attack.

  1. Demagogues identify “them,” the cause of all our troubles.

“They” are, first of all, not us. They don’t look like us. They don’t act like us. They don’t believe like us. They are women; ethnic, racial, or religious minorities; immigrants; and gays. They say they want equality, but what they really want is what we have—our rights, prerogatives, and privileged status—and they are taking them from us. They are evil.

  1. Demagogues personify and praise strength.

We are, they say, at war. It may be a war of ideas and values or an armed conflict. But it a war nonetheless. They started it, but we will finish it, using any means necessary. Because of our overwhelming strength and the rightness of our cause, we will be victorious as long as we remain resolute. Weakness, hesitation, uncertainty on our part play into their hands, the hands of the enemy. What we need now more than ever is a strong leader. Better to be strong and wrong than weak and right.

  1. Demagogues advocate violence.

    Their speeches are verbally violent: laced with insults and put-downs, ethnic and racial slurs, and demeaning stereotypes. They spew lies and half-truths. They shout down opponents. They assure us that it fitting and proper—sometimes even sanctioned by God—to attack those who threaten us and our way of life.
  2. Demagogues pander to their audiences.

Demagogues look and sound strong. They get credit for saying what others are too timid or “politically correct” to say. But their message lacks substance. It offers no new insights, nothing that can stand up to logic or reason. They merely voice the worst fears, the sense of loss, and the rage felt by a certain segment of society. They repeat, reinforce, and amplify people’s established prejudices. They tell their audiences only what they want to hear.

We ignore demagogues at our own peril. Although they ultimately flame out, they can cause a great deal of damage before doing so.

And we would be wise to pay attention to their followers, to listen to their sense of alienation and loss and rage. It would be too easy, otherwise, to make them the new “them,” the cause of all society’s ills.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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