Demagoguery and Populism

In the wake of recent elections, both at a local level in Britain and, more generally, for the European Parliament, there was a lot of talk about the (continued) rise of demagogues and populism, often with a backwards nationalist or even racist agenda.

Demagoguery is a label quickly handed out by mainstream media and established parties, as shorthand, designed to insult those players on the political stage who manage to mobilise (and potentially even sway) those parts of a disenfranchised populace that feel as though they have a bone to pick with the establishment.

Definitions of demagoguery typically include references to a demagogue’s studiously targeted appeal to the electorate’s desires and prejudices, adding out that this brand of politics operates in irrationality rather than rationality.

This is a rather patronising view, as it were, as all political parties, in democratic systems everywhere, appeal to rational as well as irrational concerns – and there is, of course, nothing wrong per se with irrational worries shared by a large(r) group: they may be indicative of an actual problem.

Populism, in that regard, acts no more rationally or irrationally than any other kind of politics: in fact, populist tactics are as rational and carefully construed as it gets, especially when ‘sold’ by someone who has a higher-than-average level of charisma.

Politicians and parties that tend to attract (and reject) the label ‘populism’ typically provide a mixture of two main strategies that lead to their success: an appeal to the only true, unacquired human emotion – fear (in its various manifestations) –, combined with a simple rhetorical device: a claim to represent ‘merely’ the will of the ‘normal people’, to form a ‘people’s army‘ even, while devoid of institutional power or authority.

This claim, on average, is demonstrably false – on both counts: populist parties have the same institutional standing as any other political party, and they, too, in their views represent but a segment of any given society.

Still the rhetorical trick manages to create the illusion of an underappreciated underdog who, if there were any justice, should be loved by all. Rhetoric is a dangerous weapon:

On my authority, therefore, deride and despise all those who imagine that from the precepts of such as are now called rhetoricians they have gained all the powers of oratory, and have not yet been able to understand what character they hold, or what they profess; for indeed, by an orator everything that relates to human life, since that is the field on which his abilities are displayed, and is the subject for his eloquence, should be examined, heard, read, discussed, handled, and considered; since eloquence is one of the most eminent virtues; and though all the virtues are in their nature equal and alike, yet one species is more beautiful and noble than another; as is this power, which, comprehending a knowledge of things, expresses the thoughts and purposes of the mind in such a manner, that it can impel the audience whithersoever it inclines its force; and, the greater is its influence, the more necessary it is that it should be united with probity and eminent judgment; for if we bestow the faculty of eloquence upon persons destitute of these virtues, we shall not make them orators, but give arms to madmen.

(Cicero, De oratore 3.54–55, transl. J. S. Watson).

What is more, the rhetoric trick tacitly introduces a divide between ‘the state’ (sometimes replaced with the imagery of a ‘ruling class’) and ‘the common people’, that – at least in a democracy – should not actually exist. Finally, it dissociates the populist from currently ruling politicians and their failures, thus making them better than everyone else.

The idea of ‘the normal people‘, down-to-earth and inhabiting ‘the heartland’ (as opposed to some kind of elite, usual qualified by terms such as ‘urban’, ‘metropolitan’, ‘media’, or ‘intellectual’), too, of course, is a rhetorical trick.

Obviously, the rhetorical trick is designed to suggest that certain segments of a society are more authentic and representative of the society as a whole than others – others, that are typically described as ‘detached’ from reality.

The rhetorical trick behind this movement, behind the notion of ‘the normal people, cunningly binds together rather diverse groups of people with the promise of forming an authentic, genuine, and honest expression of the will of the people as a whole. Or as Catiline put it, according to Sallust‘s historical monograph on the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 B.C. (Sall. Catil. 20.3-9, transl. J. C. Rolfe):

But because I have learned in many and great emergencies that you are brave and faithful to me, my mind has had the courage to set on foot a mighty and glorious enterprise, and also because I perceive that you and I hold the same view of what is good and evil, for agreement in likes and dislikes — this, and this only, is what constitutes true friendship. As to the designs which I have formed, they have already been explained to you all individually. But my resolution is fired more and more every day, when I consider under what conditions we shall live if we do not take steps to emancipate ourselves. For ever since the state fell under the jurisdiction and sway of a few powerful men, it is always to them that kings and potentates are tributary and peoples and nations pay taxes. All the rest of us, energetic, able, nobles and commons, have made up the mob, without influence, without weight, and subservient to those to whom in a free state we should be an object of fear. Because of this, all influence, power, rank, and wealth are in their hands, or wherever they wish them to be; to us they have left danger, defeat, prosecutions, and poverty. How long, pray, will you endure this, brave hearts?

Of course, Catiline’s followers – brought together by this movement – could not have been any more diverse (Sall. Catil. 14.1–6):

In a city so great and so corrupt Catiline found it a very easy matter to surround himself, as by a bodyguard, with troops of criminals and reprobates of every kind. For whatever wanton, glutton, or gamester had wasted his patrimony in play, feasting, or debauchery; anyone who had contracted an immense debt that he might buy immunity from disgrace or crime; all, furthermore, from every side who had been convicted of murder or sacrilege, or feared prosecution for their crimes; those, too, whom hand and tongue supported by perjury or the blood of their fellow citizens; finally, all who were hounded by disgrace, poverty, or an evil conscience — all these were nearest and dearest to Catiline. And if any guiltless man did chance to become his friend, daily intercourse and the allurements of vice soon made him as bad or almost as bad as the rest. But most of all Catiline sought the intimacy of the young; their minds, still pliable as they were and easily moulded, were without difficulty ensnared by his wiles. For carefully noting the passion which burned in each, according to his time of life, he found harlots for some or bought dogs and horses for others; in fine, he spared neither expense nor his own decency, provided he could make them submissive and loyal to himself.

Catiline – traditionally seen overly negative: he may well have tried to address an actual social problem of the Late Republic – promised anything to anyone, and in doing so he displayed a distinct lack of principle: increasing the number of followers for one’s own cause, at any cost, is represented as more important to him than taking a firm, principled stance.

This is what makes him both dangerous and a demagogue – a model followed by many self-proclaimed leaders of the people since.

Cicero, in his fourth Catilinarian Oration, in a speech that discusses the option at hand with regard to the punishment of the conspirators, introduces a remarkable distinction between the demagogue (contionator, literally ‘someone who addresses a contio‘) and a politician who genuinely cares for the people, when he refers to Caesar and his proposal to spare the conspirators’ lives (Cic. Catil. 4.9, transl. C. D. Yonge [adapted]):

Habemus enim a Caesare, sicut ipsius dignitas et maiorum eius amplitudo postulabat, sententiam tamquam obsidem perpetuae in rem publicam voluntatis. Intellectum est, quid interesset inter levitatem contionatorum et animum vere popularem saluti populi consulentem.

For we have from Caesar, as his own dignity and as the illustrious character of his ancestors demanded, a vote as a hostage of his lasting good-will to the republic; it has been clearly seen how great is the difference between the levity of demagogues, and a disposition really attached to the interests of the people.

The levitas contionatorum, the ‘levity of demagogues’, according to Cicero, is the opposite of a long-standing, principled stance that invites discussion and disagreement, but remains reliable in its substance.

But who represents the principled stance, without populism?

Those who, for the longest time, have characterised the European Union as the demonic bogeyman (but not done anything about it – in fact: the contrary, as they of course know of the immense benefits of their membership, even when it comes at a great cost)? Those who have subscribed to the anti-immigration rhetoric in a claptrap sensationalist move, while in power, and not achieved anything (as it would be a predictable economic disaster).


If the levitas contionatorum succeeded, it may just mean that those who decided to sow wind now get to reap whirlwind: for if the actual choice is between populism and populism, one might as well pick the original.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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