Classical uses of the term demagogue/ry

[I cut this from the book about demagoguery, but other academics might find it interesting.]

  1. Classical uses of the term demagogue

The term “demagogue” is originally Greek, and it’s conventional to rely on Greek sources in order to ground a definition, often with the assertion that there is a binary between demagogues and statesmen (the distinction made by Plutarch). The treatment of “demagogues” and “demagogy” (a closer translation of the Greek term) in texts prior to Plutarch is more complicated than is often granted, and in ways that point to difficulties with the project of criticizing public discourse—whether the criticism is on rhetorical grounds (that is, about the means), the content (that is, the truth, falsehood, or political agenda), or the intent, character, and/or identity of the speaker (such as whether the rhetors mean well, are good people). Since my own work emphasizes the rhetorical criteria, I should explain what’s troubling about the others, and justify my own use of a classical term.

Initially, demagogue meant a political leader of the demes (or sometimes demos); that is, the smaller landowners. Just how economically bifurcated Athens actually was is still in dispute,[1] but it was certainly seen that way by many at the time. As Ober says, “Athenians viewed their society as divided into two major classes and that the key division was between those who had to work for their living and those who did not” (Mass and Elite 195).  The history of the Athenian constitution, according to Aristotle, was one of political figures increasingly empowering the non-leisured class (demes), sometimes through what has been called income redistribution (such as increasing state pay for jury duty). Figures who argued for policies that benefited that class were often seen as leaders of the demes–that is, demagogues.

Hence, at least partially, the term “demagogue” was a political label, much like our term “populist.”[2] People for whom populism is necessarily bad use the term disparagingly (such as H.L. Mencken) . But, people for whom populism can be good condemn some kinds of populism by attaching a negative adjective; Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyon, for instance, refer to “toxic populism,” not because all kinds of populism are toxic, but because some are. It seems to me that many classical writers have been read as condemning all kinds of populists and populism, and hence as using demagogue as an inherently negative term, when a careful reading suggests they are closer to Berlet and Lyon than they are to Mencken.

Andocides, in Against Alcibiades, condemns Alcibiades not for being a demagogue, but for acting like one (4.27)–that is, pretending to be a champion of the demos, when he really is not. Hyperides, in his attack on Demosthenes, says a demagogue “worthy of the name should be the savior of his country, not a deserter” (Against Demosthenes Fragment 4, column 16b, line 26), suggesting that the term might be used as a term of praise.[3] And, indeed, it was. Isocrates, for instance, praises Theseus and calls him a demagogue (Helen 37); he regularly refers to Pericles as a demagogue (see, for instance, Antidosis 234), and even uses the term in praise (To Nicocles 16, On the Peace 122, Antidosis 234). Like many other writers, Isocrates compares current demagogues to previous ones, criticizing the current ones as worse than those before (see, for example, On the Peace 126). At one point in Aristophanes’ The Knights, one of the slaves explains, “Demagoguery is no longer a job for a man of education and good character, but for the ignorant and disgusting” (The Knights 190). Aristophanes’ “no longer” implies that demagoguery was once a job for a man of education and good character.[4]

Aristophanes may have been joking, and he may always have thought that populists were always low-born and dishonest, but that’s unlikely. Pericles was, in fact, a demagogue, as were Cleisthenes, and Alcibiades—they were leaders of the demes, and they promoted policies, such as extending the franchise and increasing jury pay, that directly benefited the demes at the expense of the wealthy.  So, to say that all classical authors univocally condemned “demagogues” is either to say that the meaning of the word changed over time (from being the term for a political orientation to a rhetorical posture) or that classical authors condemned Pericles, Cleisthenes, Themistocles, and Alcibiades, an implausible claim.

The more plausible explanation is that the term was in flux at the time that Aristophanes was writing. In The Knights, when the two demagogues argue about which is more powerful, the controversy hinges largely on the question of which one is the most passionate lover (erastes) of Demos (a pun on “demos”—the people), a relationship that depends on flattery (735) and bribery; they each boast about robbing the most people and taking the most bribes. They don’t care about what is best for Athens as a whole, nor even what is actually best for Demos, but simply what Demos finds most pleasing in the moment. The chorus says to Demos: “You’re easily led astray: you enjoy being flattered and thoroughly deceived, and every speechmaker (legont) has you gaping. You’ve a mind, but it’s out to lunch” (115-120).  “The fog of war” is particularly useful for keeping Demos “blind” to Paphlagon’s self-aggrandizing policies (800), although Demos can be persuaded even to conduct war badly: “if two politicians were making proposals, one to build long ships and the other to spend the same sum on state pay, the pay man would walk all over the trireme man” (1350).[5]

Aristotle’s discussion of demagogues, and their role in the destruction of democracy, is justifiably famous, but it too is not necessarily an uncomplicated condemnation of populist rhetors. Aristotle argues that unjust policies—ones that put too much power in the hands of the rich—are likely to make a particular kind of demagogue (ones lacking in self-control) let themselves get hired to rouse the demes (Politics 5.9.6, 1304b 35, and 5.8). Out of fear of having their property confiscated, the oligarchs will organize themselves into a revolution, and install a tyranny. The problem, Aristotle says, is that if there are not laws that constrain “the multitude,” then demagogues “always divide the state into two by fighting with the well-to-do” (1310a). If the rich oppress the poor, then the poor will start talking about taking the money of the rich, and the rich will install a tyrant—this narrative doesn’t entirely blame demagogues (nor the poor); as Alan Ryan says, it is a “schematic” understanding of the failure of a democracy.

And, for Aristotle, demagoguery is not restricted to the masses; Aristotle has a brief discussion of “oligarchic demagogues” who might be someone pandering to the oligarchs, or might be an oligarch pandering to the masses (Politics VI).[6] The term often associated with Aristotle’s criticism of demagogues is kalox, or flattery, so one might infer that the problem is not that a bad demagogue gets his power from the demos, but that he flatters them in order to get the power. It may be, then, that Aristotle’s criticism of bad demagogues is both political (they destabilize democracy through spending so much money on state pay) and rhetorical (they rely on flattery rather than deliberation).

There are other times in classical texts when it isn’t at all clear what the term demagogue means. For instance, scholars don’t agree just what Callicles’ accusation that Socrates is engaged in demagoguery, in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, is supposed to convey. Callicles objects to Socrates’ style (which he calls “boisterous” or “hot-headed” [neanieneothai] 482c), so perhaps it’s that Socrates has been using the sort of low-brow style for which the more populist politicians were notorious (Worman’s argument, see 194-5). The problem with this interpretation is that Callicles and Socrates are talking in a relatively small, and very elite, group, and Socrates’ rhetoric—despite Callicles’ claims—is not particularly low-brow. Or, perhaps it’s that Socrates has been “manipulating his audience (in this case young Polus) through the powerful emotion of shame” (Balot 359), except the accusation happens after the exchange with Polus has ended, and Callicles has no apparent problem with emotional appeals.  Since this exchange with Callicles is the point when the dialogue collapses into some fairly heated exchanges—in which various scurrilous accusations are made or implied—it seems to me reasonable that the accusation of demagogue is in the same category of the comparisons to catamites or shitbirds, intended to insult[7]. When Callicles accuses Socrates of being a demagogue, This is perhaps the most common way that the term demagogue is used in contemporary political debate. When Charles Krauthammer or Thomas Sowell called Barack Obama a demagogue, or Ronald Reagan used the term for Tip O’Neill, or Joan Dowlin used it for Reagan, they seem to mean nothing any more precise than a distaste for the rhetor’s political agenda coupled with irritation at the opponent’s rhetorical effectiveness; like Callicles, they’re engaged in making a vague insult.

My point in this discussion of classical uses of the terms “demagogue” and “demagoguery” is partially to show that usage was more varied than sometimes granted, but, more importantly, to note that there have always been tensions in its meaning. One can certainly say that classical authors complain of rhetors who persuaded groups into disastrous courses of action, but it isn’t simple to say just what their complaint was. Was it that the political figure swayed the masses? Or that he did so through bad appeals? That is, is populist rhetoric inherently bad, or just some kinds of rhetorical strategies? Or is the figure himself? Was the distinction between Pericles (conventionally presented as the ideal statesman) and Cleon (conventionally presented as the ur-demagogue) that they argued in different ways, or that Pericles was simply a better person than Cleon? Or, perhaps, was it that Pericles argued for better policies than Cleon?

That is, a definition of demagogue/ry might emphasize one of three points: the moral character of the rhetor (especially intent), the political agenda of the rhetor, or the rhetorical strategies. And, if the determining criterion concerns rhetorical strategies, what, exactly, makes some strategies demagogic—that they are appeals to populism, flattery, appeals to emotion, and/or appeals to greed? Or, as implied in Plato’s Gorgias, that they are untrue?

This same tension—whether the accusation of demagoguery is a claim about form, content, impact, character, or intent—continues in later discussions of demagoguery. Thomas Hobbes’ condemnation of demagoguery is openly anti-populist and anti-emotional; the masses are inherently emotional (and feminine), and democracies fall to demagogues because the masses are incapable of self-control. In 1838, James Fenimore Cooper identified the “peculiar office” of the demagogue as “advanc[ing] his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people” (99). The demagogue, according to Cooper, not only has bad motives, but bad arguments and strategies, relying on flattery, “appeals to passions and prejudices rather than reason, and is in all respects, a man of intrigue and deception, of sly cunning and management” (100), looking out for a small number of people while claiming to be concerned about the whole. The flatter/chide binary, so important to Socrates’ discussion of ethical versus unethical discourse in Gorgias is echoed in Cooper, who says that the good rhetor “is frank and fearless” and “oftener chides than commends” (100).  Cooper especially emphasizes that the demagogue appeals to prejudice rather than the truth.

Reinhard Luthin, in his 1954 American Demagogues, Twentieth Century, argues that a demagogue is

a politician skilled in oratory, flattery, and invective, evasive in discussing vital issues; promising everything to everybody; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices–a man whose lust for power without recourse to principle leads him to seek to become a master of the masses. (3)[8]

Charles Lomas’ discussion of demagoguery seems to shift the weight slightly more toward the kind of rhetoric in which a demagogue engages, but the determining characteristics are still in the demagogue: demagoguery is

the process by which skillful speakers and writers seek to influence public opinion by employing the traditional tools of rhetoric with complete indifference to truth. In addition, although demagoguery does not necessarily seek ends contrary to the public interest, its primary motivation is personal gain (165).

Ultimately, then, the most important axis is still the person of the demagogue: to determine if something is demagoguery, one looks to the demagogue, to see if s/he is indifferent to truth, and primarily motivated by personal gain.

  1. Justin Gustainis’ summary of scholarship on demagoguery includes rhetor, content, and strategies. He says

The work of those who have studied what is normally called demagoguery leads to the conclusion that the demagogue is a person who possess at least three characteristics: he is motivated by self-interest, he evinces little concern for the truth, and he is an opportunist. (156).

He also discusses the axis of rhetorical strategy; the demagogue, in order to develop “his own power, influence, and popular acclaim,” (157) uses recurrent rhetorical strategies: inflation of racial hatred (157), identification (especially as a “common man” 158), representation of himself as the savior willing to take “drastic action” (158), personalized appeal, oversimplification, emotional appeals, specious argumentation, ad hominem attacks, anti-intellectualism, and political pageantry (158-160).

More recently, Michael Signer’s Demagogue relies on the demagogue/statesman distinction, using Cooper’s definition in order to emphasize four characteristics:

(1) They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, as opposed to the elites; (2) their politics depends on a powerful, visceral connection with the people that dramatically transcends ordinary political popularity; (3) they manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition; and (4) they threaten or outright break the established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law. (35)

Signer’s definition, like Luthin’s, mixes consideration of motive (the third criterion), rhetoric (the first and second), and political agenda (the fourth), and explicitly makes demagoguery a populist discourse.

P.M. Carpenter’s definition, on the other hand, is almost exclusively rhetorical, arguing that the demagogue is identified by “extensive use of unidimensionality” (“simplistic solutions offered in answer to complex sociopolitical questions, one-sided expositions intended to exclude rather than expand democratic public debate “) and scapegoating. Whereas many scholars of demagoguery emphasize the person (so the determination is made largely by the motives, psychology, and strategies of the person, whose discourse is then named demagoguery), Carpenter reverses the emphasis. Instead of demagoguery being what demagogues do, demagogues are people who engage in demagoguery. The “intended to exclude” suggests, however, at least some speculation as to the motives of the rhetor; presumably, a rhetor who significantly, but sincerely, simplified a situation would not be engaged in demagoguery.

And another set of scholars don’t use the term “demagoguery,” but are clearly talking about a similar phenomenon. Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyon’s discussion of “right-wing populism” identifies many of the rhetors and movements often associated with demagoguery in America—Father Charles Coughlin, pro-segregationists, white nationalism. They identify several characteristics that mix rhetorical and political criteria: producerism, demonization and scapegoating, conspiracism, apocalyptic narratives, and a right-wing political agenda (see especially 6-15). Kenneth Burke’s “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” similarly discusses Hitler’s psychology to speculate on the sources of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but otherwise uses psychological concepts to explain why Hitler’s rhetorical strategies would have been so effective with the German people; Burke also has some astute points about how the Nazis strategically used violence in their meetings (which might be more the policy axis than rhetoric), but he is mostly concerned with rhetorical tactics, such as shifting materialization/spiritualization, projection, scapegoating, narratives of symbolic rebirth, unification through division, and the non-economic explanations of economic phenomena.

David Neiwert uses the term “eliminationist” rather than demagogue, and he too connects the rhetoric and the politics—the trend he studies is “the positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement” (7). Neiwert argues that this rhetoric has policy consequences, and tends toward fascism (what he calls “para-fascist”); hence, Neiwert’s primary emphasis is on the rhetoric and policy. Like Burke, Neiwert discusses psychology, but it isn’t part of the criteria for determining whether the rhetoric is eliminationist.

My argument is that this last strategy is the most useful. Trying to distinguish demagogues from statesmen on the basis of good v. bad intent is almost certainly wrong. While some rhetors notorious for demagoguery do seem to have adopted a racist and hate-mongering discourse out of a cunning estimation of the most effective route to power—Michael Mann says that “Milosevic was only opportunistically a nationalist” (Mann, Dark Side 369; see also 424)—it’s also clear that many of them were quite sincere. Cleon, for instance—one of the earlier examples of demagogues—may well have believed that the policy of genocide would genuinely benefit Athens; there’s no good reason to think he didn’t. Theodore Bilbo was sincerely committed to segregation, quite likely did believe that lynching was a useful form of social control, and was so committed to his hateful policy of repatriation that he continued to advocate it when a savvier politician would have recognized the political costs and toned it down, relied more on dog whistles, or kept the racist rhetoric for non-recorded performances.[9] Hitler was sincerely anti-Semitic, as were many of the architects and even foot-soldiers in the Holocaust; Hitler’s sincerity is most powerfully demonstrated in his actions toward the end of the war when he sacrificed military outcomes to keep the genocide as effective as possible; it’s plausible that some of his otherwise inexplicable decisions in regard to Stalingrad make sense in the context of someone who believed that Aryan forces would necessarily triumph over “inferior” races, regardless of the practical challenges. That Hitler would take time out of strategy meetings to lecture his generals on the racial makeup of troops suggests he was sincere (see, for instance, his meetings with his generals regarding Stalingrad, Hitler and His Generals). Roger Griffin says that Hitler “thus seem seriously to have seen himself as heralding a new phase of human civilization based on the racial-nationalist rebirth of the German people” (101).

It is wishful thinking to believe that people advocated repressive and eliminationist policies are only looking out for themselves. This belief suggests that people who do bad things are aware that the things they are doing are bad; we want to believe that Hitler knew that the Holocaust was cruel, and that he knew he was hurting Germany; we want to believe that McCarthy knew he was lying about the number of communists and the degree of infiltration; we’d like to think that Bilbo secretly knew that segregation and lynching were wrong.[10] However, despite what we might wish, they almost certainly believed that they were doing the right thing. Thus, if we try to identify “demagogues” as people who are motivated by self-interest rather than public interest, we are in the murky area of determining what people really believe, and we end up with a list that doesn’t include major advocates of genocide.

Saying that demagogues are people who engage in certain kinds of policies also limits the definition to the point that it is useless. While it’s hard to imagine an argument for genocide that isn’t demagoguery, some arguments for war involve scapegoating, and some don’t. Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party rhetoric, while almost always populist and vehement, do not always rely on scapegoating, nor on evasion of policy arguments (in other words, there is demagoguery in both, but also much discourse that doesn’t fit most definitions); Charles Coughlin’s arguments for New Deal policies were demagoguery, but I haven’t found any of FDR’s arguments that fit the definitions provided by Burke, Neiwert, or my own. There isn’t a necessary connection between policy and rhetoric (with the possible exception of genocide—I can’t imagine a non-demagogic argument for genocide).

[1] Scholars continue to debate just how poor everyone else was; see especially Chapter Five as well as 127-131 in Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. J.K. Davies explains, the material conditions (especially poor soil) meant that a “middle” class was nowhere a power force (24; see also Aristotle Politics 1295b 23); instead, there was a leisured class (plousioi or ploutos) and everyone else, and there was considerable pressure to abolish or to render more widely accessible formal political or cultic privileges and to extend downwards, to the rest of the descent-group, the applicability and appropriateness of aristocratic life-styles and values. The form of government which such pressure created when successful was  being called ‘democracy’ by the 440s if not earlier, while its converse, the preservation or re-establishment of control of the state by an aristocratic or wealthy minority, came to be called ‘rule by the few’, ‘oligarchy’.” (Democracy and Classical Greece 25)

[2] Demosthenes uses it simply to mean a leader of the people (see, for instance, Against Aristogeiton II 4).

[3] Lane’s claim that “None of the historians, playwrights, and orators of classical Athens relied upon a perjorative term for demagogue in developing their analyses of bad political leadership” (180) seems to me slightly overstated—they seem aware that there is a perjorative connotation possible. It seems to me similar to how writers might currently use words like feminist, liberal, or progressive. But, certainly, I agree with Lane that they do not use the term in an exclusively perjorative way. Lane credits Plutarch with the demagogue/statesman distinction as we have inherited it—that is, thinking it was present in earlier writers (192).

[4] Although several scholars share this reading (Dover 69, note 1; Lane 185) it’s possible, of course, that Aristophanes is making fun of the tendency that demagogues have to accuse one another of demagoguery, and we’re not to take this comment seriously at all. Still, his criticism of demagogues is their tendency to rely on flattery—that is, not who they are, but their rhetorical strategies.

[5] Aristotle mentions a specific instance of this kind of situation in Rhodes: “the demagogues used to provide pay for public services, and also to hinder the payment of money owed to the naval captains” (Politics 1304b 30).

[6] That Aristotle could refer to “oligarchic demagogues” suggests that the term had shifted meanings between the time of Isocrates and Aristotle, and it no longer signified a leader of the demes.

[7] Lane argues that Plato invented the statesman/demagogue dichotomy, and, in Thaetetus, coined the term demagogue as an entirely perjorative one (190). “The Origins of the Statesman/Demagogue Distinction in and after Ancient Athens.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 73(2), April 2012: 179-200.

[8] Luthin comes up with his set of characteristics through a series of case studies of famous demagogues (James M. Curley, Theodore Bilbo, William Hale Thompson, William Murray, Frank Hague, Mr. and Mrs. James Ferguson, Vito Marcantonio, Huey Long), inferring their shared characteristics or, as he says, “marks.” Luthin, like Gustainis, emphasizes the motives of the demagogue, but also the political agenda (the demagogue often tries to control media, interferes with education), and rhetorical strategies (anti-intellectualism, emotional appeals, race- or religion-baiting). So, while more toward the rhetor (demagogue) axis, there is also considerable discussion of policy, and rhetorical strategy.

Cal Logue and Howard Dorgan’s 1981 collection of essays on southern demagogues doesn’t rely on a single definition of “demagogue,” although the editors infer a set of characteristics emphasized in the various chapters: personal arrogance, reliance on vague promises, use of a “domineering discourse” that “tended to stifle any constructive exchange of ideas, often clogging communicative channels with emotional platitudes and dictatorial directives, and frequently intimidating persons who possessed alternative views” (10-11).

There are, of course, other ways of using the term “demagogue,” to mean simply, “a political figure whose popularity upsets me.” This is perhaps the most common way that the term demagogue is used in contemporary political debate. When Charles Krauthammer or Thomas Sowell called Barack Obama a demagogue, or Ronald Reagan used the term for Tip O’Neill, or Joan Dowlin used it for Reagan, they seem to mean nothing any more precise than a distaste for the rhetor’s political agenda coupled with irritation at their rhetorical effectiveness. While scholars of rhetoric rarely use the term this way, scholars in other fields sometimes do.

[9] In fact, his biographer Chester Morgan argues that Bilbo did not engage in deliberate race-baiting until the very end of his life and career, and was therefore not a demagogue, because his racism was perfectly sincere (234-6).

[10] Ultimately, I’m not sure what any of the people traditionally identified as demagogues did or did not believe–they tend to be fairly adept at speaking to a particular audience, and have a highly malleable sense of reality. There is reasonably good evidence to suggest that some of the most famous ones had personality disorders and/or health conditions closely connected to delusional thinking; it’s distinctly possible, if they had narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, that they were perfectly capable of sincerely believing contradictory propositions.

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