demagogue 2193093 960 720 cc0Photo: johnhain/CC0Recent controversy over the role of the media in the 2016 election has re-ignited the flickering concerns about demagoguery and demagogues. That an openly xenophobic, hyper-nationalist, and authoritarian political figure could be elected President, with considerable support by some media, and profitable attention by almost all of the rest, has again raised the question of how demagogues come to power, and what role the media has in that ascension. The question tends to be framed in terms of whether and how media should fact-check rhetors, as though the problem is that there are demagogues, and the media has to decide how to report about them. That’s the wrong framing for two reasons. First, that way of thinking about demagoguery reinforces the narrative of a snake oil salesmen who can seduce the ignorant public, thereby confirming the assumption that good versus bad public discourse is about good versus bad actors. Second, that narrative splits the responsibility between the bad actor (the demagogue) and the ignorant masses who follow him.[1] It makes demagoguery a problem of democracy and/or populism. Deeply entangled in that false narrative about demagoguery is the false hope that it only works with the masses; that demagoguery is a problem of populism, implying that the elite don’t engage in demagoguery.

Demagoguery is a discourse that shifts the public argumentation from policy issues to questions of motive and identity—to in-group and out-group. Thus, instead of arguing about whether there is a need, it is inherent, the proposed plan solves it, is feasible, doesn’t have consequences worse than the original problem, public discourse is about the identities and motives of the people involved in the debate. This tendency in media is well-documented: normal media rely on the horse race frame, psychologizing, and motivism. Less discussed is that such a tendency—to emphasize the identities and motives rather than policies of rhetors—enables demagoguery. Even if media try to be “fair,” by reporting on what “both” sides are doing, the issue has still been personalized, psychologized, depoliticized, and bifurcated. A public that has every issue broken into two sides isn’t far from a public likely to see those two sides as “us” and “them.” That “us vs. them” narrative (the central characteristic of demagoguery) doesn’t originate with a charismatic leader who tricks the public into binary thinking about public policy; it is pervasive in normal media coverage.

The second problem with the assumption that demagoguery is discourse by an individual who seduces the masses is itself at least mildly demagogic in that it turns the issue of public discourse into an “us” (the wise people who see through the demagogue) and “them” (the gullible masses). The masses and their leader are out-group.[2] Were that the problem, then the solution would be the intervention of better rhetors (the in-group media) who would break the spell, and thereby free the masses. But what if the problem isn’t an individual? What if ignorant masses aren’t the only people suckered by demagoguery? What if demagoguery is way of arguing not restricted to how you sucker the masses? If demagoguery isn’t a subset of populist discourse, then the media telling the masses that they’re wrong will have no impact.

Assuming that demagoguery is necessarily a subset of populism makes three criteria crucial to the identifying discourse as demagogic:

  1. Audience (non-elite)
  2. Style (rhetoric with particular characteristics, especially recurrent topoi)
  3. Political consequences (sometimes simply policies with which they disagree, sometimes ones that are agreed to have been harmful)

For Plato, Plutarch, Thomas Hobbes, and Gustav LeBon, the study of demagoguery is part of a project to discredit democracy. For them demagoguery epitomizes the unreliability of the “masses” and their profound lack of fitness for power. It’s a circular argument: democracy is bad because it gives power to people who are susceptible to demagoguery, and demagoguery is defined in such a way that only the masses’ supposed susceptibility to it is noted. That circular argument wasn’t shared with all classical writers on demagoguery, let alone more recent critics, and, in fact, the classical use is fairly complicated.

Many classical authors use the term in the same way that we would use a term like “Libertarian politician” or “Republican Whip”: to mean a leader of a specific political faction. Athens had, in general, two parties: the oligarchic and the democratic. For someone like Rachel Maddow, “Libertarian politician” is probably (perhaps exclusively) a negative term; for others, it might be an accurate and neutral term; for others, it might be praise. For Plato and Plutarch, who disliked democracy, “demagogue” was always negative; for other classical authors, though, it was neutral (e.g., Andocides, Against Alcibiades 4.27; Hyperides,Against Demosthenes 5.4; DemosthenesAgainst Aristogeiton II 26.4). Isocrates uses it as praise (e.g., Antidosis 15.234, To Nicocles 2.16, On the Peace 8.122, Helen 10.37).[3]

Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides makes him an elitist who hates demagogues, personified in Cleon. Certainly, Cleon was a demagogue, as Thucydides says, and Thucydides does condemn Cleon’s rhetoric. But Thucydides doesn’t condemn Cleon for being a demagogue (that is, a populist), nor does Thucydides insist on a necessary connection between being a demagogue, being non-elite, and damaging rhetorical strategies. Cleon’s rhetoric is harmful because it demonizes deliberation, emphasizes honor/dishonor (topoi appropriate to epideictic rhetoric, not deliberative), and reward/punishment (again, not appropriate topoi for a deliberative assembly), and for rousing his audience to rage (“the most violent of the citizens”). Pericles, the hero of the piece, was a demagogue (that is, a leader of the democrats) and a member of the elites, whose leadership and rhetoric Thucydides praises. Thucydides is highly critical of Alcibiades’ (a demagogue) and Nicias’ (an elitist) rhetorical strategies, and their actions as political leaders. The good and bad rhetors of Thucydides’ history do not neatly line up as populist versus anti-populist.

Melissa Lane takes this argument even further than I would, arguing that “None of the historians, playwrights, and orators of classical Athens relied upon a pejorative term for demagogue in developing their analyses of bad political leadership” (180). That equation of populist leader and inherently bad rhetoric is Plutarch’s she argues (I would say it’s in Plato as well). The most interesting writer on classical notions of demagoguery is Aristotle, who sometimes uses the term demagogue to mean a leader of the democratic party (as when he is discussing how demagogues frighten oligarchs into supporting a coup, Politics Bk V), but also discusses oligarchic demagoguery (Politics 1305b). He says there are two kinds of oligarchic demagoguery: one is within an oligarchic group (that is, oligarchs practice demagoguery on other oligarchs); the second is when oligarchs use demagogic tactics on the general public. Thus, for Aristotle, demagoguery is a set of rhetorical strategies, and not necessarily on the part of or directed at the populace.

And that brings us to the question of whether demagoguery directed at a non-elite audience is rhetorically different from demagoguery directed at an elite audience. I argue it isn’t. I’ve argued that we should think of demagoguery as:

Demagoguery is a polarizing discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric through framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and means by which (not whether) the out-group should be punished/scapegoated for the current problems of the in-group. Public debate largely concerns three stases: group identity (who is in the in-group, what signifies out-group membership, and how loyal rhetors are to the in-group); need (usually framed in terms of how evil the out-group is); what level of punishment to enact against the out-group (restriction of rights to extermination). (Demagoguery and Democracy 33; see also Rhetoric and Demagoguery, forthcoming)

Testing whether elite and non-elite demagoguery are different is tricky because “the elite” is a far from stable category in public discourse. Do we mean elite in terms of economic class, political power, education, or culture? Those aren’t the same, after all. University professors might be considered cultural and/or educational elite, but we generally aren’t politically or economically elite.

Proslavery demagoguery often had an audience of political and/or economic elites (such as Congressional debate over the gag rule, pro-secessionist rhetoric in the secession assemblies, various state and federal court decisions, and very learned books on Scriptural defenses of slavery, legal and philosophical apologia for slavery, the Dred Scott decision); eugenics was predominantly an elite and even expert discourse and generally demagogic; I’ve sat in deliberative assemblies for highly specialized academic groups and listened to demagoguery; the US Supreme Court decision Hirabayashi v. US is demagogic; Alfred Rosenberg, Carl Schmitt, and Ludwig Muller were all elite Nazis writing to other elites; they were building on elite demagogues like Houston Chamberlain, Madison Grant, and Arthur de Gobineau.[4] So, regardless of how “elite” is defined—cultural, political, economic, educational—there are instances of demagoguery within an elite audience.

Take, for instance, Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race (1916)—sometimes called “Hitler’s Bible” (because of Hitler’s praise of it), and profoundly influential among the elite, but not a particularly big seller (see Spiro). This passage, picked at random, is typical:

We find few traces of Nordic characters outside of Europe. When Egypt was invaded by the Libyans from the west in 1230 B. C. they were accompanied by "sea peoples," probably the Achaean Greeks. There is some evidence of blondness among the people of the south shore of the Mediterranean down to Greek times and the Tamahu or fair Libyans are constantly mentioned in Egyptian records. The reddish blond or partly blond Berbers found to-day on the northern slopes of the Atlas Mountains may well be their descendants. That this blondness of the Berbers, though small in amount, is of Nordic origin we may with safety assume, but through what channels it came we have no means of knowing. There is no historic invasion of north Africa by Nordics except the Vandal conquests but there seems to be little probability that this small Teutonic tribe left behind any physical trace in the native population. (emphasis added, 223)

Notice the hedging, also the uncited references to knowledge that is vaguely out there—Grant presents himself as someone announcing facts that are well known, and his hedging makes him seem to be a nuanced and careful researcher. He isn’t—he isn’t presenting an anthropological consensus, and his argument is circular (all good things come from Nordics because any sign of civilization is taken as a sign of Nordic presence).

Dimitra Koutsantoni notes that expert discourse often relies on what she calls "common knowledge markers:" "words and expressions that exclusively underscore authors' beliefs by presenting them as given, as knowledge shared by all members of the community" (166). Koutsantoni argues that "By emphasizing certainty in and attitude toward claims, and by presenting them as given and shared, authors control readers' inferences and demand their agreement and sharing of their views (power entailing solidarity)" (170). Grant’s use of hedging and common knowledge markers gives him an air of precision and expertise—he seems to be doing little more than stacking data.

Racist demagoguery surprisingly often claims to be doing little more than stacking data and citing expert consensus, even if, in the cases of David Duke’s My Awakening (1998), Charles Murray’sThe Bell Curve (1994), or Theodore Bilbo’s Take Your Choice (1947), they are oriented toward a broader audience. Demagoguery of the elite can mean demagogic texts and arguments circulated within a political elite (such as Henry Laughlin’s technical and very demagogic testimony in favor of the 1924 Immigration Act racist restrictions), in which he was speaking as an expert (disciplinary elite) to members of the political elite; pro-eugenics demagoguery such as his might also be purely within the disciplinary elite (communications within the Galton Society); and there might also be an attempt to translate disciplinary elite consenses to a less elite audience (Lothrop Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color).

In many of those situations, rhetors used the same rhetorical strategies typical of expert discourse—hedging, technical language, and common knowledge markers. Sometimes, such as William Workman’s surprisingly boring pro-segregation The Case for the South (1960), the texts are dispassionate (Chappell 142); sometimes hyperbolic and explicitly fear-mongering, such as Bilbo’s Take Your Choice. Emotionality, like the populist criterion, is a distinction without a difference.

Because demagoguery scapegoats an out-group for all the problems of the in-group, there is almost always an element of fear—an existential threat of some kind—but demagoguery doesn’t always have emotional markers. As with the Grant, Workman, or Laughlin, a text claiming that the in-group is about to be displaced or destroyed can have very few boosters and instead appeal to common knowledge markers to establish the existential threat—there can be an emphasis on the rhetor’s self-control in the face of the threat, so that the discourse is not about fear in the in-group, but the threat of the out-group. Earl Warren, in his demagogic testimony in favor of race-based imprisonment of Japanese Americans doesn’t say, “I am afraid;” he says, “They are threatening.”

Social psychologists call this complementary projection, “in which stereotypes serve as justifications of anxieties (e.g., I fear, therefore you must be dangerous)” (Glick 135, drawing on Allport). Earl Warren, in testifying for mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans, used the existence of racist fear on the part of himself and various peace officers as proof that Japanese Americans were dangerous, proslavery rhetors regularly used their own fear of slave insurrection as proof that abolitionists were in a conspiracy to incite such insurrections, current anti-immigration rhetoric appeals to xenophobia as evidence of Mexicans being “bad hombres” and “animals.”

Demagoguery of the elite not only regularly engages in complementary projection, particularly through such rhetorical strategies as common knowledge markers, but I would argue it legitimates complementary projection, by making it seem as though there is expert consensus that an out-group is essentially and implacably dangerous. Thus, if we restrict the concept of demagoguery to populist demagoguery, we can seem to give a free pass to the equally damaging demagoguery of the elite, and thereby protect it from criticism.

My argument about demagoguery is that we should focus on the rhetorical strategies and recurrent characteristics, and not on the motives or identities of the rhetors engaged in it. In fact, I argue, the shift of stasis to identity and motive is one of the characteristics of demagoguery—not all such shifts are demagogic but demagoguery always has that shift. Thus, if, as scholars, we make the shift to the focus on identity, we have an inherently demagogic scholarly project. If we’re concerned about the ways that a kind of rhetoric contributes to disastrous public deliberation then I see no reason to assume that the populism of a rhetor’s political agenda or rhetoric is a distinguishing variable for demagoguery. The notion that elites are immune to demagoguery isn’t just false; it is perniciously so.

The premise of democracy is that the people should argue about policy. There are disagreements as to how that kind of argument should be conducted (whether civility matters, if it should be representative, how many people should be involved), but policy argumentation isn’t effectively replaced by argument about in- and out-groups. Democratic deliberation requires remaining in a place of disagreement, being willing to reconsider one’s own in-group commitments, admitting error, and holding all parties to the same rules. The problem is that various aspects of the conditions of media (needing to get as many viewers as possible, which is often achieved through telling the news in easily-understood narratives, especially of in- and out-group) confound the democratic premise of democratic deliberation, especially the requirements of being uncomfortable in the presence of disagreement, and needing to reconsider one’s own group commitments. Anytime the complicated array of possible policy responses to a communal problem are reduced to two sides, demagoguery has restricted the imaginative possibilities. Demagoguery isn’t something a cunning individual does to the ignorant masses; it’s a way people think about their options.

There isn’t anything disastrously bad about fact-checking; it is what media should do. But fact-checking will have little effect on demagogic rhetoric if it’s presented within a realm that reinforces the assumptions so useful to demagoguery: that there are only two sides, that public discourse should be about identity and motive. If we want policy deliberation, that’s what we need.


Aristotle. Politics. Trans. H. Rackham. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1932

Chappell, David L. “Seven Disunity and Religious Institutions in the White South.” Massive Resistance: Southern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction. Ed. Clive Webb. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 136- 150.

Glick, Peter. “Sacrificial Lambs Dressed in Wolves’ Clothing: Envious Prejudice, Ideology, and the Scapegoating of Jews.” Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust. Eds. Leonard S. Newman and Ralph Erber. Oxford U P, 2002: 113-142.

Grant, Madison. The Passing of the Great Race. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916.

Koutsantoni, Dimitra. "Attitude, certainty and allusions to common knowledge in scientific research articles," Journal of English for Academic Purposes 3(2), December 2004: 163-182.

Lane, Melissa. “The Origins of the Statesman–Demagogue Distinction in and after Ancient Athens.” Journal of the History of Ideas 73(2), April 2012: 179-200.

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. New York: The Experiment, 2017.

---. Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2009.

---. Rhetoric and Demagoguery. (forthcoming) Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2019.

Ryback, Timothy W. Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life. London: Vintage, 2009.

Sherratt, Yvonne. Hitler’s Philosophers. New Haven: Yale U P, 2013.

Spiro, Jonathan Peter. Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant. Burlington: U of Vermont P, 2009.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Steve Lattimore. Indianopolis: Hackett, 1998.


[1] In this (false) narrative, there is an odd tendency to assume that demagogues must be male, or to focus on male demagogues.

[2] Of course, if the media considers the rhetor good, then he (almost always) is an effective communicator who appealed to true Americanism (Reagan as the Great Communicator versus the demagogue).
[3] For purposes of ease of access, I’ve used the versions of these texts available through the Perseus Digital Library.
[4] See Roberts-Miller Fanatical Schemes; Rhetoric and Demagoguery; Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library; Sherratt, Hitler’s Philosophers.
  • Trish Roberts-Miller is a professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. She works on a variety of topics in the history, theory, and pedagogy of public argumentation. She received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley and has taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the director of the University Writing Center at Texas and is the author of the book, Demagoguery and Democracy. She can be reached at .