• A political figure who appeals to the feelings and impulses of citizens (especially fears and biases) rather than using logical argument in order to gains supporters

  • (Archaic) A statesman or speaker who advocates and defends the ideals and interests of the commoners


  • To seek support by making emotional or irrational appeals to the people; to exhibit the behavior of a demagogue


Just as there are a myriad of motivations people might have for making the decisions that impact their lives, there are an equally wide range of motivations that our leaders and prospective leaders can appeal to in order to convince us to back them in perhaps one of the most important decisions we face: who we should vote for. Some choose to highlight their tenure in similar offices or proposed legislation while others demagogue and resonate with our gut impulses.

Demagogue is a noun for a political or other public figure who tries to win support by resonating with the emotions, desires, fears, and other (frequently irrational) drives of human nature that guide voter behavior. Though a politician of any station or level of experience can be a demagogue, the word is usually used to describe one who chooses to make populist and emotional appeals because they lack experience. Thus, a political outsider or upstart who proposes outrageous (though popular) policies is more likely to be a demagogue than an established public servant with a long record of service. What all demagogues have in common, though, is their reliance on appealing to motivations and arguments other than logic to gain a following, particularly if they prey on peoples’ prejudices and biases or promise some tremendous boon to the public. While the claims of a demagogue are not necessarily deceitful, they are very often misleading and intended to manipulate people by indulging their innermost desires.

Though it often shared the negative connotation that it has today, originally demagogue simply meant a leader who advocated for the interests of the common citizens rather than the elites who, historically, had the greatest share of influence in societies around the world. As such, a demagogue in this sense often promised tax breaks for the masses or tax increases for the wealthy, or vowed to extend freedoms formerly enjoyed only by the aristocracy to the commoners. In its modern usage, however, the negative sense of demagogue is understood almost exclusively.

Demagogue can also be used as a verb meaning to engage in the pandering or populism that is characteristic of a leader. A politician who is a demagogue might demagogue by offering to buy everyone in the country a laptop! Wherever demagogues are concerned, they’re probably trying really hard to get you to like them.

Example: The demagogue was so charismatic that she deftly diverted attention from her lack of policy.

Example: The system of ostracism was a tool by which ancient Athenian elites could nullify the power of rising demagogues. (Note: This is the archaic usage of demagogue.)

Example: He chose to demagogue in order to win over those he felt would not appreciate the finer nuances of his political platform.


The word demagogue traces its roots back to the Ancient Greek term demagogos, which meant “populist leader” or “leader of the crowd” and was comprised of the root words demos, meaning “people,” and agogos, meaning “to lead” or “to guide.” Agogos comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ag-, which means “to push or cause to move” (which is really what leading is, when you think about it). Other words in modern English that developed from agogos, which include synagogue, pedagogue, and mystagogue, all imply a sense of leadership through wisdom and knowledge.

The Ancient Greek demagogos passed into the Middle French démagogue before arriving in English in its noun form in the mid-17th century. The verb form, taken from the English noun, did not emerge until the 1960s in American English.

Derivative Words

Demagogues: This form of demagogue is employed when a he or she is pandering to fellow citizens.

Example: She demagogues a little more brazenly at each rally, promising more and more generous domestic programs.

Demagogued: This form of demagogue indicates when emotional or irrational appeals were made in the past.

Example: Though her opponent demagogued throughout the entire debate, she refused to stoop to his political theatrics and reasserted her experience.

Demagoguing: The present progressive form of demagogue notes when irrational, popular arguments are currently being made. Demagoguing can also be employed as a noun, though it is far more common to use demagoguery for this purpose.

Example: Even as he saw his opponent’s emphasis on experience resonate with the crowd, he continued demagoguing with redoubled effort.

Example: His demagoguing had attracted such a following that the political establishment began to fear that he might upend the entire system.

Demagogic: This adjective iteration of demagogue characterizes something or someone as exhibiting an appeal to gut impulses or biases.

Example: In meetings with her donors, she assured them the demagogic persona she donned for rallies and debates was not representative of her prospective policies.

Demagoguery: Demagoguery is a series of acts or arguments encouraging and emboldening popular sentiment

Example: Even after critical voices in the press bitterly lambasted his demagoguery, he did not abate, continuing to rile up the crowds at his campaign stops.

Demagogy: While also a noun, demagogy, unlike demagoguery, is more apt to describe the state or practice of habitually making populist appeals, while demagoguery specifically refers to the actual act of pandering.

Example: He essentially vowed to make his administration a demagogy, realizing even the basest whim of his constituents.

In Literature

From Jorge Luis Borges's The Book of Sand:

I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as “The Masses”. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.

In the introduction to his book, Borges notes that while public figures making emotional appeals to their supporters, or demagogues, like to divide society into the few elites or the many ordinary citizens, he writes only for his own sake and for whoever chooses to read his work, regardless of these artificial divisions.


  • The public is often agog at the prospect of a demagogue.

  • An easy way to win votes in a democracy is to demagogue.


Government, State, Democracy, Republic, Voting, Politics

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of demagogue. Did you use demagogue in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.