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Vol 12|No4|April |2016

Who is the demagogue?

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)


When we hear a candidate appealing to fears, emotions and rage, an alarm should go off. Classic examples of demagogues would include Mussolini and Hitler. Some would add the American - Huey Long - to the list. The purpose of this article is to clarify definitions and suggest ways for teachers to engage students in thoughtful analysis of the techniques and strategies used by demagogues to win support.

demagogue - noun
a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. Mac Dictionary

The demagogue is often charismatic and appealing to some citizens, while repulsive, crude and offensive to others. He or she thrives (and plays) upon the discontent and alienation of the downtrodden, the disaffected and the alienated — those who have pretty much given up on the political system and have decided that normal politics are corrupt and hopeless. They are so tired and disillusioned, they are willing to embrace whatever fantasy suggests a way out of their misery.

In classic political science, the demagogue is said to "mobilize the masses." By this the political scientists mean that a demagogue will wake up, energize and enlist those who have been sleeping and disengaged, those who are especially vulnerable to emotional appeals.

It should be noted that a politician might sometimes stoop to demagogic tactics without fully deserving the "demagogue" label. In order to win that designation, the leader must exhibit many of the traits listed in the check list below on a consistent, ongoing, intense basis.
The Demagogue Check List
Does he/she inflame passions?
Does he/she set group against group?
Does he/she have simple answers to complex problems?
Does he/she encourage violence against opponents?
Does he/she suggest torture and illegal warfare?
Does he/she propose mass murder and genocide?
Does he/she promise an end to problems?
Does he/she scapegoat certain groups, religions or nations as the cause of problems?
Does he/she have a grandiose personality style?
Does he/she have an authoritarian personality style?
Does he/she like to bully?
Does he/she ignore basic rules of common curtesy?
Does he/she use private security forces like Hitler used the brown shirts?
Does he/she show impatience with rules and laws?
Does he/she often lie, make things up and exaggerate?
Does he/she often insult critics and opponents with crude attacks?
Does he/she do things "behind the scenes" that are in contrast with the public image and professed values?
Does he/she speak in a theatrical manner designed to incite anger, arouse passions and win allegiance?

The best article I found on this subject is "The characteristics of Demagoguery" by Trish Roberts-Miller, which I read after creating the above checklist.

Demagoguery is a 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 outgroup should be punished for the current problems of the ingroup. Public debate largely concerns three stases: group identity (who is in the ingroup, what signifies outgroup membership, and how loyal rhetors are to the ingroup); need (usually framed in terms of how evil the outgroup is); what level of punishment to enact against the outgroup (restriction of rights to extermination).

Was Huey Long a demagogue?

In order to apply the checklist to a real figure from the past, this article recommends the excellent study guide available at PBS. Huey Long— "Every Man a King" In addition to the readings and other resources made available by PBS, there is a Ken Burns documentary on Huey Long that will bring the man to life. Credit must go to the author of this excellent study guide — Rachel Thompson is a curriculum specialist and writer, and is currently the Educational Outreach Director at the George C. Marshall International Center.

There is also a documentary about Huey Long's career on YouTube.

Once the class has completed the background materials and activities in the PBS study guide, they may return to the above checklist and apply it to Huey Long. Some claim he was a demagogue. Others say he was a populist. Who is right?

They might then apply the checklist to other leaders from history such as Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. Turning to current affairs, perhaps they will find modern politicians in the USA, Australia, France, Poland, New Zealand, Germany, Buenos Aires, North Korea or China whose strategies are demagogic.

A Sampling of Strategies

Quoting from the PBS study guide:

Raymond Gram Swing, in a January 1935 issue of Nation said of Huey Long:

Huey Long is the best stump speaker in America. He is the best political radio speaker, better even than President Roosevelt. Give him time on the air and let him have a week to campaign in each state, and he can sweep the country. He is one of the most persuasive men living.

Schools are fortunate today to have archival film footage available for a range of 20th and 21st Century politicians, tyrants, and demagogues.

Charismatic and demagogic speakers employ a number of techniques to "whip their followers into a frenzy." Challenge your students to ask when these techniques cross over the line into demagogic.

  • Dramatics and theatrics - Speakers with a charismatic speaking style keep everybody in the room on the edge of their seats. They sparkle and shine, albeit sometimes they do so darkly. At the heart of their charisma is a kind of personal magnetism. Your students will find good articles online outlining the elements that make for charisma, such as "Charisma: What Is It? Do You Have It?" by Ronald E. Riggio. Watching the best speakers, you will see them make use of their hands, their expressions and their tone of voice to win the audience's attention and, ultimately, their loyalty. Sometimes they may slam their fists on the podium or engage in even more dramatic actions.

  • Story-telling - In order to convince members of the audience that the speaker understands them, he or she will often employ personal stories to show empathy and a deep connection. Thus, Huey Long would tell of growing up in a log cabin, even though his family house was actually quite nice. Story-telling appeals to the heart and awakens feelings. It contrasts with intellectual and rational speaking strategies that are aimed at the mind. The message is, "I understand your pain."

  • Crescendo - Many speakers may start off mildly, win over the audience and then build the tempo and the level of passion until it is thundering and tumultuous. Hitler was especially talented at heating up the audience with techniques that were much like throwing gasoline on a fire. Students might enjoy listening to Ravel's Bolero.

The above list is a brief introduction to the topic of dramatic speaking techniques. Your students will find many more lists online and can make use of them while watching speeches of political leaders and candidates to see how many are being employed with success.

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