Populist or Demagogue?

Populist or Demagogue? June 3, 2021

Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of “the people,” who are exploited and even oppressed by “the elites”. The term became prominent in the 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, and political movements since that time.

A demagogue is a political orator or leader who gains favor by pandering to or exciting the passions and prejudices of his followers, rather than by using rational argument, in order to gain political power.

Here are a few random opinions I found on the subject:

A demagogue is a populist on steroids. Both should support the interests and concerns of ordinary people, but for current examples, the verb is not support, but rather exploit.

The word populist gets more coinage today because the word demagogue sounds draconian. But the actual difference between the two seems to be getting narrower.

The populist swims with the tide; the demagogue tries to persuade us that only he can turn the tide.

The last one brings to mind a campaign claim that Trump made repeatedly when he was running for election in 2016. From an article in Atlantic magazine:

In 2016, Donald J. Trump mounted the stage, and told America that the nation is in crisis. That attacks on police and terrorism threaten the American way of life. That the United States suffers from domestic disaster, and international humiliation. That it is full of shuttered factories and crushed communities. That it is beset by “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.”

And then, he offered them a solution. “Only I can fix it.”

The word populism has become a contested term that has been used in reference to a diverse variety of movements and beliefs. The political scientist Will Brett characterized it as “a classic example of a stretched concept, pulled out of shape by overuse and misuse.” The political scientist Paul Taggart has said of populism that it is “one of the most widely used but poorly understood political concepts of our time.

Trump is often called a populist, a leader of the “common people” fighting against the “liberal elites” There is a blurry line that separates populists from demagogues who deliberately incite hatred and confrontation to gain political power.

In an op-ed in the LA Times, Jonah Goldberg takes on the rise of so-called populist leaders in the US in recent years. Goldberg is a staunch conservative, usually critical of liberals, but in this case, he lays the blame squarely where it belongs. Conservatives, he says, deserve special criticism for fomenting populism because conservatism is supposed to be temperamentally skeptical of excessive political passion.

“The core problem afflicting the right — and to a great degree, the country — is the elite surrender to populism. Definitions of populism vary, but for our purposes it’s best understood as the politics of the mob. The defining emotion of populism and mobs alike is passion and the invincible twin convictions that “we” are right and that “we” have been wronged by “them.”

Both parties have, at various times, hitched their wagons to populism. Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long and George Wallace rode the populist tiger while Franklin Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama harnessed the beast for their purposes.”

Putting George Wallace and FDR in the same populist sack is bizarre, to say the least. Wallace was a racist demagogue. Obama didn’t reject the populist title, saying that if his push for raising the minimum wage, improved education opportunities for the poor, and enacting environmental laws defines him as a populist, then he is a populist.

Both terms have a bad odor about them, but the stench of demagoguery has become more prevalent in our politics in recent years. It is not a healthy trend for democratic government, which should be based on rationality, rather than passion.



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