delineating democracy and demagoguery

In 2014, Martin Gilens (Professor of Politics at Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern) published a controversial article arguing that while America “enjoys many features central to democratic governance,” it is still largely dominated by business interests and the economic elite. The study conducted a quantitative analysis of 1,779 cases measuring individual policy preferences, income, and national policy outcomes within a four-year period. It found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

In 2016, the Economic Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy,” placing the United States at a lower ranking on the index than countries like Mauritius, Uruguay, and Spain. As causes, the Index cited declining public trust in political institutions and the rise of marginalized voters against the political and economic elites. Combined, these factors have allowed populists, who claim to speak for the people, to gain power.

But, if both democracy and demagoguery both supposedly represent the will of the people...

where do we draw the line?


Proto-Indo European
"to divide"


Proto-Indo European


Ancient Greek
"common people, district"



"Rule of the people"


"Leader of the people"

I don’t know what


means, but I know

we need more of it.

-Supposed sign of student at 1989 Tiananmen democracy rally

Democracy Through The Ages

Definitions of Democracy

So is the United States a democracy?


Out of the top five most common elements present in definitions of democracy, only freedom of expression seems to fully exist in the United States in 2017. As such, the U.S. does not even meet the most reductive idea of democracy—a government by the people. Findings seem to confirm the Economic Intelligence Unit's 2016 assessment:

at best, the United States is a flawed democracy.

One person's


is another's

populist hero.

-Megan Garber, the Atlantic

populism or demagoguery?

A popular refrain is that "demagoguery just populism that you don't like." Yet, even populism is a contested concept. Robust debate exists on whether to define populism from a economic, ideological, organizational, or strategic perspective. However, policy-based definitions are unnecessarily restrictive and fail to account for the commonalities that exist between different strains of populism regardless of political or economic ideology and geographic and temporal location. Instead, I argue for an organizational and strategic definition of populism that focuses on the modes of interaction between leaders using populism and the people they purport to represent. This approach used Kurt Weyland's work on the political organization of populism as a starting point, but includes a rhetorical dimension of analysis as well since rhetoric represents the medium of interaction and signaling between the leaders and the people.

The interactive knowledge map (left) shows the frequency of concepts in definitions of populism drawn from 40 seminal works in the on the subject from diverse fields like rhetoric, political science, and international relations. Since the survey uses the analytical approach described above, purely policy-based definitions have been excluded. Categorization of concepts are my own.

Though both populism and demagoguery both claim to be politics that give voice to the people, I argue that demagoguery is a particular subset of populism. Thus, it includes features of non-demagogic populism like us vs. them rhetoric and unmediated appeals; but it is based more on a cult of personality than ideological issues. This proposed distinction (shown in red) follows in the footsteps of previous scholars like Amy E. Mendes, J. Justin Gustainis, and James W. Ceasar.

Twitterocracy? Sad!

Trump has received both praise and condemnation for his frequent usage of Twitter both during his campaign and, now, in his official function as president. In his first 100 days in office, Trump has tweeted an astounding 628 times, almost twice many tweets as Obama composed during his last two years as president. However, it is not the frequency of his tweets, but rather the messages they contain and the purpose they serve that reveal Trump's demagogic leanings.

At right is the complete collection of tweets sent from the @POTUS account during Trump's first 100 days, coded based on content and number of retweets. Red bubbles utilize demagogic populist rhetoric, light blue ones utilize non-demagogic populist rhetoric, and dark blue one utilize non-populist rhetoric. non-populist To zoom in or out, use the mousewheel or pinch/release fingers on trackpad. To pan, drag the image.

Overall, 44.4% of Trump's tweets demonstrated populist overtones, especially with his continued use of us vs. them language, which was present in 15.5% of the tweets. 8.6% of tweets showed a strong demagogic leaning, demonstrating a strong cult of personality based on two main images: Trump as the savior of the people with "special abilities" and Trump's opponents as "losers" and "the WORST." In fact, 8% of Trump's tweets in the first 100 days have been ad hominem attacks directed at his opponents. If the media—which Trump sees as not his enemy, but rather "the enemy of the American people"—is included in this category, the number rises to 22.4%. Inclusion of the courts and intelligence community, brings the number to an impressive 27.1%.