Demagogue: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about what a demagogue is and how they operate in a political situation. This lesson will illustrate what demagogues are through several historical examples.

What is a Demagogue?

The Demagogue by Jose Clemente Orozco; the demagogue will do anything and say anything to get and keep attention.

Demagogue is a Greek word that means 'a leader of the common people.' That seems innocent enough. When you think of that kind of person, Mahatma Gandhi, Robin Hood, and William Tell come to mind. But it has come to mean something a little different over the years. Ancient Athens had a democracy, which meant that every male who held land was eligible to engage in public discussions, vote, and even hold public office. So for them, the word started out indicating a person who wasn't a part of the aristocracy but had gained the public's respect.

To Be a Demagogue

There are a few rules that are as old as time. One is that those who have power and wealth tend to be conservative - they have what everyone wants and they want to preserve the system that achieved it for them.

Demagogues tend to exploit that tendency. When the public is frustrated with the slow and cautious approach of the aristocracy, the demagogue can accuse them of dragging their feet. They will urge action, even when prudence is the smartest thing to do. Action appeals to the public, especially if it isn't knowledgeable about what is going on. As long as the people are not well educated, a demagogue can portray himself as a 'man of the people' and the aristocrats as overbearing or irresponsible. That is the demagogue's key to gaining and keeping power; they are 'rabble-rousers.' who play on people's fears, emotions, and prejudices.

The Example of Cleon

The Athenians had to deal with their own share of demagogues. The most notorious was Cleon. According to the historian Thucydides, Cleon convinced the Athenians to murder all the men of Mytilene and sell the women and children into slavery after they revolted. It was only when they came to their senses the next day that around 1,000 rebels were executed and the rest of the city spared. Similarly, when the Athenians defeated a Spartan fleet and Sparta sued for peace, Cleon convinced the Athenians to reject peace. Finally, he accused the Athenian generals of cowardice when they took too long to conquer an island named Sphacteria. He even said that he, with no training and experience only as a leather tanner, could do it in twenty days.

Demagogues in Modern Times

An Animated Adolf Hitler in the middle of one of his famous speeches

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