What is a demagogue?

Demagogue is a word which saw increased use during the recent presidential campaign (although it wasn’t used nearly enough in my opinion). It’s one of those political words that you can count on to be thrown around in just about any campaign, as reliably as the use of ‘liberal‘ as an insult or ‘job creator‘ as something other than fictitious résumé padding. But you’ll almost never hear anyone explain what they mean when they use the word demagogue. You’re expected to know it. Which is fine for people who have a good vocabulary or a strong political background, but I’d bet that many people, especially younger ones, don’t have a clear understanding of the word and they have to figure it out from the context (or look it up, which no one wants to do in the middle of a news report).

What does demagogue mean? Where does it come from, where’s it been, and where’s it going? Let’s take a look.

Demagogue has a very long history. The word comes down to us nearly unaltered from the classical Greek dēmagōgos, usually translated as “leader of the people” (from dēmos, “people,” and agōgos or agein, “to lead”). In its original sense — in Greek — the term was intended to give a label to someone who spoke for the people, usually with their support and acceptance. This early use viewed a demagogue as a voice of the people, the person who stood up for the collective and expressed their opinions. The word, at that time, did not have any particular ideological baggage: there was nothing negative about being a demagogue, it was simply a role certain people filled on behalf of their group.

But the concept has evolved over time. According to some sources, being a demagogue acquired negative connotations almost immediately. Even in 5th century B.C.E. Athens, demagogue could be a term of disparagement (so says the Online Etymology Dictionary, which is sometimes shaky with sourcing, but my limited research for this blog post found concurring opinions, including in this book by Michael Signer).

The word most likely existed only in Greek and possibly Latin texts for many centuries, although the concept it encompassed was no doubt well known to political leaders of every age.

Sometime around the 14th century, the word “demagoge” appeared in contemporary French. The OED documents the first use in English in 1649, and while OED points to the word’s Greek origins, it leaves the door open to the possibility that the word migrated into English from that French use.

By the time of that first English citation — the mid 17th century — the meaning of the word was already in transition. Many of the earliest OED citations show the word used in the neutral sense (“a popular leader”) but just as many, in the same time period, had already picked up a negative implication. In fact, the first neutral citation is noted two years after (1651) the first negative citation (1649). The OED also draws a clear distinction here and offers two definitions: when the word is neutral, it is from or referencing “ancient times”; in contemporary use, it carries a “bad sense: A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.”

A demagogue, then is not someone who serves as a true voice of the people. He (or she) is someone who manipulates the people for his own ends. These “people,” in many instances, are not a rational and well-informed body but are, as the definitions repeatedly point out, better described as a prejudiced mob. This is one of those occasional cases where the meaning of a word has almost completely reversed: a demagogue went from being one who spoke for the people to being one who manipulated the people to his own ends.

This is essentially where the word stands today and has remained for the past couple of centuries. Outside of historical descriptions, I suspect you’ll be hard pressed to find the word used with a neutral or positive intent.

The other major dictionaries agree with OED. Merriam-Webster notes it being used in both neutral and negative senses in the 17th and 18th centuries. American Heritage concurs and also provides an interesting aside about the use of the word as a verb. When last surveyed (1997) their usage panel firmly rejected using it as a verb. Garner said the same thing more recently (2009, p. 235). Their ruling was that as an intransitive verb (“he demagogued on the issue of taxes”) it was acceptable to most, but as a transitive verb (“he demagogued the issue”) it was still rejected overwhelmingly.

It’s purely speculative on my part, but I want to point out a connection I’ve made about the way people today view demagogues. It seems to me that the pronunciation lends itself to a mental parallel with demons and the demonic. Demons are creatures that have strong negative associations to most people, and whether or not a person knows the current or original meaning of this word I suspect it subconsciously conjures negative perceptions. I’m far from the first to make this connection: “Demons and Demagogues” was the title of a political science text in 1985, and I doubt the wordplay was original.

Keeping in the vein of political science, Patricia Roberts-Miller, at the University of Texas at Austin, has done a tremendous amount of work analyzing what demagoguery (a 19th century expansion of the word and concept) really is and what it means for all of us. You could spend hours, if not days, reading all of her thoughts on the subject, but a clear and simple place to start is this recent blog post (it’s the one from September 6th, 2016, if the link doesn’t work correctly). I find it extremely interesting how she unfolds modern demagoguery to show that it is, in essence, not an integral part of an inclusive and fair democracy but a dangerous threat to it. Her example of the bunnies and squirrels in that particular post puts it in terms that anyone should be able to understand almost instantly.

I hope that clears things up for you: demons, bad; demagogues, worse. If not, I at least hope the links this post includes will give you the tools you need to figure this one out yourself. The best defense against demagoguery, after all, is the ability to discover knowledge on your own and question what you’ve been fed. In that sense, the ability to dig deeper into this as an individual is an important skill that will serve you well in many situations.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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