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A demagogue // or rabble-rouser is a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis; they accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness. Demagogues have appeared in democracies since ancient Athens. They exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, nothing stops the people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population.
The word demagogue, meaning a leader of the common people, first arose in ancient Greece, originally with no negative connotation, but eventually came to mean a troublesome kind of leader who occasionally arose in Athenian democracy. Even though democracy gave power to the common people, elections still tended to favor the aristocratic class, which favored deliberation and decorum. Demagogues were a new kind of leader who emerged from the lower classes. Demagogues relentlessly advocated action, usually violent—immediately and without deliberation. Demagogues appealed directly to the emotions of the poor and uninformed, pursuing power, telling lies to stir up hysteria, exploiting crises to intensify popular support for their calls to immediate action and increased authority, and accusing moderate opponents of weakness or disloyalty to the nation. While all politicians in a democracy must make occasional small sacrifices of truth, subtlety, or long-term concerns to maintain popular support, demagogues do these things relentlessly and without self-restraint.
Demagogues have been found in democracies from Athens to the present day. Democracies are instituted to ensure freedom for all and popular control over government authority; through their popular appeal, demagogues exploit the freedom secured under democracy to gain a level of power for themselves that overrides the rule of law, thereby undermining democracy. The Greek historian Polybius thought that democracies are inevitably undone by demagogues. He said that every democracy eventually decays into "a government of violence and the strong hand," leading to "tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments."
Throughout its history, the word demagogue has been used to disparage any leader thought to be manipulative, pernicious, or bigoted.
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First, after the failed revolt by the city of Mytilene, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to slaughter not just the Mytilenean prisoners, but every man in the city, and to sell their wives and children as slaves. The Athenians rescinded the resolution the following day when they came to their senses.
Second, after Athens had completely defeated the Peloponnesian fleet and Sparta could only beg for peace on almost any terms, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to reject the peace offer.
Third, he taunted the Athenian generals over their failure to bring the war in Sphacteria to a rapid close, accusing them of cowardice, and declared that he could finish the job himself in twenty days, despite having no military knowledge. They gave him the job, expecting him to fail. Cleon shrank at being called to make good on his boast, and tried to get out of it, but he was forced to take the command. In fact, he succeeded—by getting the general Demosthenes to do it, now treating him with respect after previously slandering him behind his back. Three years later, Cleon and his Spartan counterpart Brasidas were killed at the Battle of Amphipolis, enabling a restoration of peace that lasted until the outbreak of the Second Peloponnesian War.
Modern commentators suspect that Thucydides and Aristophanes exaggerated the vileness of Cleon's real character. Both had personal conflicts with Cleon, and The Knights is a satirical, allegorical comedy that doesn't even mention Cleon by name. Cleon was a tradesman—a leather-tanner; Thucydides and Aristophanes came from the upper classes, predisposed to look down on the commercial classes. Nevertheless, their portrayals define the archetypal example of the "low-born demagogue" or "rabble-rouser": born into the lower classes, hating the nobility, uneducated, despising thought and deliberation, ruthless and unprincipled, bullying, coarse and vulgar in style, rising in popularity by exploiting a national crisis, telling lies to whip up emotions and drive a mob against an opponent, deriving political support primarily from the poor and ignorant, quick to accuse any opponent of weakness or disloyalty, eager for war and violence, inciting the people to terrible acts of destruction they later regret.
Alcibiades convinced the people of Athens to attempt to conquer Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, with disastrous results. He led the Athenian assembly to support making him commander by claiming victory would come easily, appealing to Athenian vanity, and appealing to action and courage over deliberation. It should be noted, however, that Alcibiades's expedition could have succeeded if he was not denied from command due to the political manoeuvers of his rivals.
Gaius Flaminius was a Roman consul most known for being defeated by Hannibal in the battle of Lake Tresimene during the second Punic war. Hannibal was able to make pivotal decisions during this battle because he understood his opponent. Gaius Flaminius was described as a demagogue by Polybius, in his book the Rise of the Roman Empire. "...Flaminius possesed a rare talent for the arts of demagogy..." Because Flaminius was thus ill suited, he lost 15,000 Roman lives, his included, in the battle.
An American Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin was one of the first to use radio to reach a mass audience in the 1930s, and was close friends with Huey Long. While initially a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, he later became a harsh critic of Roosevelt. Coughlin's themes eventually became increasingly antisemitic and supportive of assorted aspects of the fascist policies of leaders like Benito Mussolini.
Adolf Hitler led the Nazi party to power in Germany by appeals to ethnic pride and conspiracy theories that blamed Jews for the nation's economic troubles. He instituted government control over the news media, and used his charisma and great oratorical skills to lead Germany into a war aimed at expanding its territory.
Joseph McCarthy was a U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. Though a poor orator, McCarthy rose to national prominence during the early 1950s by proclaiming that high places in the United States federal government and military were "infested" with communists, contributing to the second "Red Scare". Ultimately his inability to provide proof for his claims led him to be censured by the United States Senate in 1954, and to fall from popularity.