Between Demagoguery and Populism

In recent years—particularly since Brexit, Trump’s 2016 election, and the rise of figures such as Marine Le Pen and Victor Orbán—the terms populism and demagoguery have come to be used with increased frequency in political discourse. And yet, the concepts which these terms refer to remain unclear—as testified by the emergence of books (scholarly and general-audience) purporting to clarify what it is, precisely, that makes a demagogue and a populist. Adding to, or perhaps resulting from, this general lack of clarity is the fact that demagoguery and populism tend to be used interchangeably, often to describe those now-familiar political figures whose characteristic attributes include raging against neo-liberalism and globalization in the name of ordinary people, condemning “elites” of all stripes, and advocating a return to traditional local or nationalistic values, particularly as these regard religion, gender, and race.

The temptation to group these two concepts together is understandable, and in some ways, useful. Demagogues are often populists and populists frequently use demagoguery. Yet beyond their obvious similarities, these terms stand for distinct political concepts.

Practical Difficulties

Before saying what makes them different, however, it is worth observing the way populism and demagoguery are used in the context of real life politics. Because politicians and pundits so often weaponize these terms, public figures labeled “populists” and “demagogues” have a personal stake in denying either the appropriateness of the designation as it regards them, or the tenability of the very concept itself. This makes studying the terms as they are employed in politics a fraught business. Supporters of Donald Trump, for example, often point to similar uses of political rhetoric on the part of politicians other than Trump so as to establish an equivalence: “Who in American politics today”—they mean to imply—“doesn’t appeal to the passions, dabble in ad-hominem, or flat-out lie?” Similarly, as Douglas Murray has said in a recent interview, “[populism] has come to be used as a synonym for ‘things I personally do not like’ and ‘unpalatable people.’” Their point would seem to be that either everyone is a demagogue or a populist, in which case the terms are vacuous and worth abandoning, or no one is, the terms being mere rhetorical weapons. 

For this reason, defining who counts as a genuine demagogue or populist is more difficult than applying somewhat less normatively fraught concepts, such as liberalism, republicanism, or constitutionalism. Indeed, insofar as demagoguery and populism are felt by the public to denote a kind of politics that is inherently undesirable and illegitimate, political actors truly embodying the concepts would be precisely those with the most to gain from denying this fact about themselves. Hence, studying these concepts with reference to real world politics can feel like aiming at a moving target. 

How have scholars and political thinkers navigated these difficulties in studying populism and demagoguery? Because space permits only a superficial survey of the relevant literature, I will discuss a handful of texts which illuminate the core elements of the debate.

Demagoguery as Rhetorical Style

Foundational in the demagoguery literature are James Ceaser’s Presidential Selection (1979) and Jeffrey Tulis’ The Rhetorical Presidency (1987; second edition 2017). These books maintain that certain forms of rhetoric are based more and less on reason or deliberation. In this context, “deliberation” means collective argumentation about the merits of public policy, as Joseph Bessette helpfully defines it in The Mild Voice of Reason. Ceaser and Tulis, who focus on political rhetoric in the American context, pay particularly close attention to the ways in which the American constitutional order is designed to incentivize deliberation at the national level through the proper structuring of the human passions. As Ceaser and Tulis interpret it, over the nation’s history, the American political system has generated rhetorical norms that make thoughtful debate within, and even between, governmental institutions more likely. 

By the same token, Ceaser and Tulis show that the kind of rhetorical practice these norms have tended to constrain is that which disrupts deliberation through popular appeals to non-rational passions and considerations instead of reason—in a word, demagoguery. Within this framework, political discourse in American politics can be evaluated according to the extent to which speakers rely on rhetoric designed to sway audiences through non-deliberative popular appeals. This means failing or refusing to defend proposed policy with arguments that a citizen not already committed to the leader’s policy vision might plausibly assent to. 

Demagoguery so defined can take several forms. First, there are appeals to emotion unaccompanied by evidence or logic. Indeed, such appeals usually cite the intensity of the audience’s emotions as evidence itself of the appeal’s validity—“If people are this angry, it must mean the speaker is on to something.” Then there are assertions based on information that only the speaker has access to, what we might call “private knowledge.” Consider, for example, Joseph McCarthy’s fabricated dossiers which he used to justify his famous hearings; consider also the special information which the Bush Administration claimed to possess about the Saddam Hussein regime, on the basis of which it launched the Iraq War but which subsequently turned out to be erroneous. Finally, demagoguery can take the form of arguments based on information or knowledge that the leader claims he and his supporters possess but which others, for whatever reason, do not. Victor Orbán and Donald Trump, for example, frequently claim that “we,” the “true” people, know what needs to be done for the country and do not need to give reasons to those who dissent. In fact, dissent itself testifies that the dissenter is out of touch with the true will of the people.

Populism as Ideology

How does demagoguery so defined differ from populism? Three recent books on the subject—What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Muller, Anti-Pluralism by William Galston, and Populism: A Very Short Introduction by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser—contend that “populism” refers to a particular way of interpreting the political world, one that can therefore be distinguished from alternative interpretations. Muller defines populism as a “moralistic imagination” of politics that divides the regime between treacherous elites and a reified virtuous “people.” Galston sees it as a loose political doctrine unified by a disdain for pluralism and everything pluralism entails, such as courts, globalism, and elite-dominated government. And Mudde and Kaltwasser define populism as a “thin-centered ideology” which separates society into “homogenous and antagonistic camps” composed of “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” 

Though all of these authors emphasize the unsystematic character of populist ideology, they agree that it is, above all, a kind of ideology. This in turn can help us understand why the two concepts tend to be used in subtly though nonetheless importantly different ways. Demagoguery is best thought of as a kind of rhetoric because it both presupposes, and refers to a distinctive kind of interaction between, a speaker and an audience. Populism, in contrast, refers to a way of thinking about politics or, as Muller dubs it, a “political imagination.” Accordingly, like any other ideology, populism can be maintained by individuals in private as well as groups in public. One need not harangue an audience in order to be a populist. Similarly, one might advance populist doctrines in a non-demagogic way—say, through reasoned written arguments. In this respect, intellectual defenders of Trump such as Victor David Hanson, and defenders of Brexit and its advocates such as Douglas Murray, present refined, articulated, and elaborated versions of positions taken by their preferred politicians. In so doing, public intellectuals like these present populist ideas in a rhetorical style that is less overtly demagogic than that of the politicians themselves.

In short, whereas populism refers to the content of a certain loose yet definable political program, demagoguery denotes a specific discursive form, i.e., a specific way in which any number of positions might be advocated in a public context. So while populists might tend to advance their ideas in a demagogic manner, there is no necessary connection between the form and content of their ideas. Non- (or even anti-) populist positions can be litigated demagogically in the public sphere. For example, John Adams in his “Review of the Propositions for Amending the Constitution” (1808) called Alexander Hamilton (of all people!) a demagogue, insisting that “[t]here are as many and as dangerous aristocratical demagogues as there are democratical.” By the same token, populist ideas can, as I have suggested above, be argued in a non- (or at least a relatively non-) demagogic manner.

Why Are Populists So Often Demagogues, and Vice-versa?

All of this being said, it is still worth considering why certain substantive positions or ideologies, like populism or fascism, might lend themselves to demagogic rhetoric in ways that other ideologies, such as elite-oriented pluralism and constitutionalism, tend not to. 

For understanding why demagoguery and populism so often accompany one another, the American experience is particularly informative—though by no means exhaustive. The founders of the American political system recognized that the structure of a large polity housing a multiplicity of interests would incentivize discrete interest groups to assemble coalitions. This in turn would induce interest groups to deliberate among each other in ways they would otherwise not, so as to find the broadest and most stable bases of mutual support and therewith assurance of effective and enduring governance. 

The founders also chose to lodge the regime’s ultimate (thought not its only) political authority, not in State and local governments as the Anti-Federalists would have done, but rather in national constitutional offices far removed from local constituents. Consequently, national office-holders were insulated from the pressures to which the leaders of small democracies had been notoriously subject. More importantly, the goals and priorities of national officeholders were reoriented away from the narrow and parochial concerns of their own communities towards the broader and more enduring concerns of the Union. To this end, James Madison in Federalist 10 anticipated that the effect of these national offices on public policy would be “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” 

As a result of these decisions on the part of the founders, the thrust of American constitutional pluralism is constructive rather than destructive: It is in the personal interest of competing groups, none of which is large enough to constitute as a stable majority on its own, to discover shared ground on which to build reliable governance and effective administration. The politics of pluralism is therefore one of bartering and deal making rather than one of purity and coherence. For these reasons, it tends to foster an ideology—i.e., a body of substantive political thought—that is hostile to what today’s scholars and political actors would define as populism. Whereas populism seeks to draw clean lines between the pure and the decadent, and to act quickly lest the true people be stifled in their sovereign authority, pluralism begins with the acknowledgement that many competing voices will have to be heard in order for a deliberative, and therefore legitimate, decision to be made. In this respect, pluralism is unapologetically impure because it is necessarily suspicious of claims by any one group to constitute the “true” people; it stands for the conviction that any truly representative communal judgement can only be formed on the basis of procedures and collective argumentation.

With these considerations in mind, we can see how demagoguery understood as a rhetorical style would be a natural ally of populism understood as an anti-pluralistic popular ideology. Demagoguery justifies silencing pluralistic debate (i.e., arguments advanced on behalf of the interests and rights of competing parties) on the grounds that the demagogue’s followers have a grievance or goal, known by themselves and the demagogue, which outweighs the grievances or goals that any other group in the community could possibly have. Thus, Hugo Chavez was a populist using demagogic rhetoric when he declared: “This is not about pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez…but…the patriots against the enemies of the homeland.” So too is President Trump whenever he dismisses a contradictory claim as “fake news” promulgated by the “enemies of the people”—as if “the people” were a coherent entity who understood amongst themselves what true news is, and whose claims to truth required no external confirmation in order to be validated.  

As a rhetorical style, then, demagoguery is the ideal tool for leaders endeavoring to gather support, not through principles and policies that are open to critique, emendation, and improvement from a range of views, but through assertions on behalf of an alleged “true people” who have been wronged by elites, who know what needs to be done, and who are under no obligation to render an account of themselves to dissenting elements in the polity. 

To be sure, there are cases in American history when populists have advanced compelling critiques of the establishment: Consider Sen. Bob La Follette, Sr.’s sophisticated diagnosis of American inequality during the Progressive Era. There are also cases when politicians have used demagoguery to expose injustices that would not otherwise have been addressed, such as Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive campaign against the railroads during passage of the Hepburn Act (1906). Accordingly, what is needed today is a more robust and nuanced framework that would enable us to evaluate the plausibility of—rather than to simply dismiss or endorse—populist ideologies and demagogic rhetoric.