Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
DEMAGOGISM. By demagogism we generally understand the exaggeration and the abuse of democracy. This definition, which has often caused democrats and demagogues to be subjected to the same reprobation, does not appear to us to be either just or clear; it is as far from being right as if theft were to be called an abuse of the right of property. To make the definition plain we must draw a clear distinction between use and abuse. It may be said that, by the means he employs, the tendencies he follows and the results he obtains, the demagogue is the most dangerous enemy of democracy. While democracy looks for support in the practical sense and the good feeling of the masses of the people; while it strives to make government the responsible mandatary of public interests, and the worthy protector of individual interests, and while it endeavors to improve the morality of the people by instruction, and to enlighten them by the press; demagogism addresses itself, by way of preference, to material instincts, and, by flattering the masses, it fraudulently assumes an absolute delegation of power, which it uses for its own advantage, or for the realization of its senseless utopias. In the name of the common weal, of which it styles itself the representative, it stifles individual initiative and silences the press. In a word, the ideal of the democrat is equality within the limits of liberty and civilization. The demagogue is satisfied with the equality which is found in slavery and ignorance.
—It is very certain, that, of the demagogues who have appeared in all periods of history, some were guided by personal ambition. When such was the case, as Garnier-Paget observes, the demagogue was rather an aristocrat than a democrat, since he made use of the interests of the people as of a mask, and since his real object was to lay a foundation for the rule of the few. But demagogues of this kind are far from being the most dangerous of demagogues, although history shows that they sometimes succeeded. The demagogue really dangerous to democracy is the man who is guided by political fanaticism, and whose ambition it is to see his own utopian ideas realized rather than to succeed himself. His disinterestedness frequently gives him an irresistible ascendency over the masses; and the result of this ascendency always is to prepare the way for the ambitious demagogue, of whom we spoke above. The narrow-minded demagogue always admits the sovereignty of the end, and can not understand how any one can hesitate at employing any means, provided they seem to lead to the realization of his ideal. Even when that ideal is the ideal of democracy, even when his object is equality within the limits of freedom, he accepts, as a necessary transitory measure, the régime the most contrary to his principles, and willingly opens the door to tyranny as the readiest means to the realization of his plans. Even if liberty appears to him in principle the thing most to be desired, he fears that as a matter of fact it may postpone his own success; and he grows indignant at the necessary slowness of real progress, and prefers to ask from summary proceedings the immediate success of the reforms he dreamed of. Hence the enemy he most hates is the democrat who opposes him in the name of his own principles. He accuses the democrat of being a moderate party man, a sleepy head; and he never fails to try to reduce him to impotence when he has grasped at and obtained power. Respect for legal forms seems puerile to him; and the assertion of individual rights which he pitilessly sacrifices, he looks upon as a guilty revolt against the public interest, to which he appeals, and which he thinks he serves.
—The theoretical difference between the democrat and the demagogue seems clear enough. It would be very unjust to hold the former responsible for the doctrines and proceedings of the latter. There never was a great idea in the world, which, side by side with its intelligent advocates, its enlightened propagators, did not have its intolerant sectarians. Can such an idea be justly held responsible for the excesses committed in its name and against itself? Can the gospel be held responsible for Jesuitism, or democracy for demagogism?
—In ancient Greece the word demagogue () did not always have a bad acceptation, and it frequently designated the eloquent orator or able statesman who had an influence on the people, and who in some sort led them. It is in this sense that Pericles was a demagogue. But even Aristotle, in his politics, gives the word demagogue the meaning which we attribute to it to-day.
Return to top