Demagogues in American Politics

Most of us think that demagoguery is, by definition, bad. Relatedly, scholars almost invariably treat demagoguery as a divisive practice that appeals to what is worst in an audience at the expense of what is best for the public good. In Demagogues in American Politics, Charles U. Zug offers a historical analysis of the role of demagoguery in the American political system. Challenging the conventional wisdom, he argues that demagoguery is not an inherently bad form of leadership. Whereas classical thinkers had believed that demagoguery was always a threat to political order, the most sophisticated founders of the American Constitution-inspired by Enlightenment political philosophy-recognized that demagoguery, though dangerous, could be recruited by the Constitution to improve the political system. Through case studies drawn from the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, this book argues that demagogic leadership can be deployed by public officials to advance the aspirations of constitutional democracy.

“Reconciling democratic politics with passions and rhetoric, even with demagoguery, is an arduous and courageous task, especially at a time when, as in ours, the populist leadership proves to be very attractive to the public with unpleasant consequences to say the least. Charles U. Zug fulfills this task brilliantly and demonstrates that, as the ancients also thought, democracy is not necessarily in contrast with demagoguery, nor politics with passions.” —Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University

“Charles Zug surprises readers on every page. Demagoguery is supposed to be simply ‘bad’—at odds with the spirit of the Constitution and stable democracy. But things are not so simple, Zug argues. Demagoguery, or the skills that leaders use to be popular, can help or hurt democracy, depending on how it is used. And the Founders understood this. They sought not to eliminate it but to channel it to help make constitutional government popular. Zug works out his argument with original reinterpretations of demagogues good and bad throughout American history-including some, like Daniel Shays, who as the purported leader of Shay’s Rebellion was not, Zug shows, a demagogue at all. This will be a classic, not only for those who want to understand demagoguery, but for all those interested in political rhetoric.” —Russell Muirhead, Dartmouth College


Cambridge University Press, March 2022


Charles Zug is an Assistant Professor of Constitutional Democracy and Political Science at the University of Missouri