chapter  2
42 Pages

Demagoguery, Statesmanship, and the American Presidency

WithJames W. Ceaser

Worries about “the rhetorical presidency” ultimately concern the danger of presidential demagoguery. As such, they echo an important theme of the Founders, who erected several barriers to the emergence of the president as demagogue in chief. In the ancient sources on which the Founders partly drew, the worry was the popular or pseudo-popular leader who seizes on widespread envies, fears, or hopes in the service of his political career-in contrast to the statesman, who pursues the public good and is, therefore, less interested in how to gain office than in how to use it. Later iterations emphasized the “superstitious,” “prejudiced,” or ideological nature of demagogic appeals. When Woodrow Wilson proposed that the president should seize the public-policy initiative in the name of the people, he sought to insulate the presidency from charges of demagoguery by arguing that no leader who spoke falsely on behalf of the people could expect to win the office. True adepts of the “progress” of public opinion, hence of the public good, are non-demagogic by definition. Although one is hard pressed to find an American president who can unambiguously be called demagogic, one does find demagoguery among presidential candidates, especially during their campaigns for party nomination.