PSC/CLS Senior Thesis
In its original usage, “demagogue” did not carry any pejorative meaning. It was a term used to describe the tactics of a leader, not his character. The original definition was corrupted by Plutarch who, in his Athenian lives, created a distinction between demagogues (bad leaders), and statesmen (good leaders). But Plutarch’s distinction was not based on the actions or character of the leader, but simply on whether the historian Thucydides portrayed the politician in a positive or negative light.
This creates a problem for modern analysis of demagogues since it is difficult to define the characteristics of a demagogue. The most common practice today is to classify anyone who is aggressive in nature as a demagogue, which ultimately leads to an overly broad and amorphous category. But study of the traits and actions of ancient Athenian politicians, can discern the true nature and identifiers of destructive political leadership. My analysis of ancient Athenian politicians covers Pericles, Cleon, and Alcibiades. After determining the true nature of demagogic action in Athens, I applied my findings to the American system. This analysis identifies the Constitutional barriers that were designed to prevent the rise of demagogues, as well as the processes by which these barriers were dismantled. I then applied my findings of what constitutes true demagogic action to modern America in order to determine which institutions I found to be most emblematic of demagoguery. I discovered that the best example of demagoguery in modern America is the Drug Enforcement Administration since their parochial interests and manipulative popular tactics closely parallel those that were most destructive to the democracy of ancient Athens.