Almost Any Politician in a Democracy Is a Bit of a Demagogue

A Classicist, a Historian, and a Rhetorician Talk Trump, Clinton, and Cleon

There’s plenty of nastiness in our democracy. But is there anything new?

For all the fear and consternation about the lies, insults, conspiracy theories, and rhetorical excesses of the 2016 presidential election, today’s political troubles have been familiar features of democracy since its invention 2,500 years ago, said a panel of scholars of classics, history, and communications during “How Does Democracy Survive Demagoguery?,” a Zócalo/Getty Villa “Open Art” event.

The wide-ranging conversation at the Getty Villa covered accused demagogues from Pericles to Cicero, Thomas Jefferson to Bernie Sanders. The panelists cautioned that “demagogue” hasn’t always had a negative connotation; in antiquity it often had the ambiguous definition of a politician who speaks for the people.

And at times, panelists suggested that there is at least a bit of demagoguery in any democracy, and in almost any democratic politician.

With perhaps one exception, …