5 Demagogues Who Disrupted Democracy

After the brutal assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords shook the nation, it was mere hours before pundits began linking the shooting and the violent rhetoric that has dominated politics of late. As usual, liberal pundits attacked conservative leaders, and conservatives leaders attacked the liberal pundits. But the Utopianist isn’t interested in wading into the drama: Both Republicans (See Sarah Palin’s suggestive ‘crosshairs’ map) and Democrats (See soon-to-be senator Jim Manchin’s gun-toting campaign ad) have contributed to the nation’s violence-laden political vernacular.

Yet one thing is undeniable: Some figures inspire more paranoia, incite more divisiveness, and even encourage more violent action than others. It’s not an issue of right or left, but an issue of bad actors — a few demagogues that may indeed have the power to disrupt the utopian ideal of democracy. In this case, many of the beliefs held by the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner — his obsession with currency and the gold standard, his paranoia of illegal immigrants, his fear that his civil rights were being taken away — appear to have been influenced by radical pundits like Glenn Beck.

There’s no denying that modern political culture has become hyper-charged, and violent imagery has been invoked to an alarming degree by certain sources. Whether or not this link between a violent attack that claimed the lives of six people and the rhetoric espoused on cable TV turns out to be valid, it is worth examining the effects of such powerful populist demagogy on a democracy.

In coming days, you’ll no doubt see plenty of headlines blaming the killings on the rhetoric of demagogues — but know that they are nothing new, have been associated with both left and right-wing politics, and can indeed be dangerous. So, let’s look at some of the most famous historical demagogues, and their impact on democracy.

Socrates tearing Alcibiades away from sensual pleasures. Image:  Wikimedia Commons


Alcibiades was an Athenian statesman and orator who was once a protege of Socrates. Far from the philosophical mind of the better-known Greek, Alcibiades is one of the earliest recognized demagogues. A skilled orator, he held few concrete positions on political matters, and his ideology was as fluid as his tongue.

The majority of Alcibiades’ political ambitions were staked on raising his profile — and though he was recognized as an egomaniac in his day, he nonetheless was able to convince Athens’ government that it should escalate its involvement in the Peloponnesian War by appealing to Athenians’ nationalism. Under his guidance, the Athenians undertook the Sicilian Expedition, which lead to major defeat, and the eventual fall of Athens — one of the earliest functioning democracies.

Throughout the war, Alcibiades used his silver tongue to switch sides, rally the support of opposing armies, and to spare his own neck a number of times. He even defected to Sparta (Athens’ enemy in the war), and was, somewhat amazingly, then able to convince Sparta that Athens was planning a far more massive campaign then it actually was, and to scare the government into giving him a post as a military commander.

In The Comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus, Plutarch calls Alcibiades “the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings.” He also documents his fellow statesman, Eupolis, calling him the “prince of talkers, but in speaking most incapable” and that Demosthenes described him as “the ablest speaker of the day”. And he used those skills to alternately stir sentiments of nationalism and fear — two trademarks of any good demagogues’ oratory.

Photo: Detroit Crane, via the Library of Congress

Father Charles Coughlin

Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who was also one of the nation’s first radio pundits. He reached an audience of millions with his broadcasts, which began as shows about religion, but later shifted focus to politics and economics. He was an early supporter of FDR’s New Deal, but later soured on it, after he deemed to it too friendly to bankers and other ‘capitalists’.

Yes, nowadays it’s hard to image an American demagogue attacking capitalism, but in the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, many were convinced it was a failed economic model. Coughlin was a fervent populist, calling for heavy taxes on the rich and the nationalization of industry. Coughlin’s broadcasts grew more and more aggressive, until they were filled with anti-semitism and endorsements for fascism — though he hated communism, he ran programs attacking Jewish bankers and supporting the policies of Mussolini and Hitler.

At the height of its popularity, it was estimated that a third of the United States regularly listened to his broadcasts — and there’s no doubt that Coughlin’s shows indirectly influenced US policy during the period.

Mishima during his attempted coup, moments before his suicide. Photo: TOQ Online, CC

Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists, and he was indeed a master of the form. But he was also a vehement supporter of nationalist politics in the face of democratization — he believed Japan was being corrupted by Western influence, and that it should retain both its imperial government and adherence to bushido, the samurai code.

Mishima wasn’t an ordinary demagogue — it’s unlikely he qualifies under a narrower definition of the word at all. But his standing as a celebrity and intellectual made him an influential force in a nation undergoing a drastic shift towards democracy. His political writings, never as famous as his fiction, were strongly nationalistic and lobbied called to protect Japanese culture. In 1968, he formed Tate No Kai, or the Shield Society, whose followers were to practice the way of the samurai, and it attracted a small army of university students.

Of course, perhaps more famous than his literary work is how Mishima died — staging a hopeless coup d’etat at a Japanese military compound, and committing seppuku, the gruesome ritual suicide of the samurai, before a crowd of thousands of soldiers.

Senator McCarthy on the cover of Time Magazine

Joseph McCarthy

No list of demagogues is complete without inclusion of the man who’s become just about synonymous with the word in American conception. McCarthyism, after all, pretty much just means ‘demagogy’. There’s probably little reason to elaborate here, but to recap:

McCarthy was a relatively unknown US senator when he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, and made the famous claim: “The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” From there, he ascended quickly to power, both stoking and playing off the public’s fear of communism.

The interesting thing about McCarthy is that he wasn’t a particularly excellent speaker. It was purely the force of his claims — that the United States government had been taken over by two-faced communists — that allowed him to command such power at the height of his influence. The fear that he instigated undoubtedly interfered with productive governance, and the witch hunt that ensued was devastating to the fabric of American politics.

Glenn Beck at his ‘Restoring Honor’ rally. Photo: Luke X. Martin

Glenn Beck

He possesses an ineffable magnetism — you land on his Fox News talk show while you’re scanning the dial, and you can’t look away, at least not for a minute or two. Even if you disagree with every word he says. You can’t argue with that: Whether he’s crying or preaching or propagandizing, the man demands to be watched. You may find Keith Olbermann over-the-top or Rush Limbaugh despicable — the difference between pundit and demagogue, however, lies in the nature of the rhetoric; the calls to action.

As the unofficial spokesman for the Tea Party, Beck is at the moment enormously influential. Which is why his rhetoric is disturbing to many: He has called the president a racist, expressed his desire to personally kill his political opponents, and most importantly, specifically accused the current government of enacting a surreptitious socialist plot. He has actively inspired not only anger — that’s the province of pundits (these days, anyways) — but paranoid fear. That’s a demagogue.

He plays on people’s fears — fears that the government is going to take their freedoms, guns, and way of life away — and does so with unequaled passion. He managed to get Obama’s Green Jobs advisor Van Jones to resign, due to nonexistent socialist affiliations. The calls to arms, the violent rhetoric, the pointed agenda (remove the ‘socialists’ from office); Beck has helped usher in an era where the focus isn’t on genuine political debate, but inflamed accusations and intense obstructionism. Certainly, Beck is far from being solely responsible for cultivating such a loaded political atmosphere (and as we’ve seen, it’s far from the first time such an atmosphere has been reared) — but he may be more responsible than any other in egging it on.

Featured image of Joseph McCarthy via SMH

13 thoughts on “5 Demagogues Who Disrupted Democracy

  1. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I don’t know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

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    1. Boonton, A man of McCain’s Age , it seems one can zero in a little more calelurfy on a personal history before we note that. McCain is in good health, last summer walked in and out of the Grand Canyon with his son, I recall. He’s unlikely to have a smoking or drinking problem. I’d put it as unlikely.I have not seen any other narrative to describe her gubernatorial run from her post at the board. Oddly enough, while dismissing it you provide no alternative likely because there isn’t one.No the reference to blue collar was more to note that I have a number of blue-collar in-laws, often work with them at my job, and I find the lack of academic interest not important. As i noted above, the mediocre claim is yours and the lefts. It is not one that is repeated outside of that context. I have no idea why you bring it up.No, I’m not voting on emotion. I’m voting in fact primarily against the horde of small c communists, progressives and worse getting the thousands of patronage jobs running Washington. What I am saying with that remark, is that if she really does become a demagogue, like Mr Obama, she won’t have my vote in the primary. In the general election we shall see, but that will be a major strike against her.JA,Why is it that you and I know more about this stuff than she does? Don’t you think it’s INSANE to install someone like that in the office of Backup President?You need to get to know me better. From 1980 to 1990 I read nothing but the comics in the newspapers and watched almost zero television [note: I forgot … I also read Mike Royko’s column in the Trib, which was funny if political.] After the 2nd Reagan election, on a whim, I decided to avidly read and attempt to believe everything I read on alt.conspiracy (this was before browsers). I’m assuming you know what newsgroups were. I was the guy who thought the best reaction to the South Africa divest now movement regarding U of Chicago investments was to stencil a Divest Now t-shirt with Take off your Clothes on the back as a punch line.I’m only reading and following politics today to the degree that I am because of my exegesis of Jesus command to render unto Caesar and my interpretation of what that implies to a member of a Democracy, i.e., my participation is the chief coin I owe. I hadn’t had a conversion to Christianity 4 1/2 years ago, I’d likely be doodling with mathematics with my time instead of blogging.No, I’m telling you that (regarding the chance she’d take office), that there’s only a 2% chance that it will matter. Of the 43 Presidents only 1 has mattered in taking office, that being Mr Truman. Is there another? What experience did Kennedy have? Well, he did swimmingly in the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crises and getting us neck deep in Vietnam oh, I forgot what was your point? Are you claiming Mr Kennedy was one of the great Executives leading our nation? Actually, I’d be interested in hearing why you think Joe Biden is such a wonderful choice, he of the zillion stupid ideas, the guy who decided Anita Hill would a good idea in the Thomas confirmation, the guy who can’t get more than 3% of the Democratic vote in the Democratic primary, who in this election campaign has entirely vanished.

  3. JP Morgan have announced profits, based upon which they’re awarding themselves bonuses, apparently largely based upon the company surrendering its loss reserves, moneys held against, so to speak, a rainy day. What this means for you and me is, when that rainy day arrives as it no doubt will, in order to stop the bank going broke we’ll have to pay for another bailout. How much longer are people likely to stand for this?

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