Demagoguery across Time and Borders

By fostering a political culture grounded in tolerance, inclusivity, and respect for diverse perspectives, societies can build resilience against the pitfalls of demagoguery.

Demagoguery refers to a politi­cal strategy injected with manip­ulative and emotional rhetoric that appeals to popular prejudices, often to gain or consolidate power. The term, per se, is often associated with leaders who seek populism in order to exploit the emotions and fears of the general public rather than relying on rational discourse. Although Demagogu­ery is subjective and frequently op­erates from behind a curtain, it is pos­sible to recognize it through political cues and indicators. The whole notion of Dem­agoguery is distinguished from responsi­ble governance by a fine boundary. The moment this nexus shifts from the latter is the time of birth of a demagogue in yet another part of the world. And this is the way demagoguery continues to persist in contemporary times, even in the most democratic nations.

The notion of populism and demagogu­ery is neither a dilemma of the pres­ent nor is it of the past; instead, it can be born out of nothing in any region in any time zone. Historical parallels are evident when we look at the examples of Cleon of Athens, an admirer of sycophancy, Louis XIV of France who called himself Sun King – with famous words of “L Etat c’estmoi” or “I am the state”, Mussolini’s idea of “New Man” to refashion humankind and Imran Khan’s presumption of “Riyasat-e-Madina”. This entire timely emergence of the populist quagmire has ended favoring a climate of impunity and intolerance.

Not only demagoguery transcends time zones, but also regions. A common per­ception is that most of populist leaders belong to the Global South, but this is not entirely true. The biggest and longest-liv­ing democracy in the world, the USA, also saw a rise of populists such as Donald Trump. Hence the miasma of populism is also knitted in the fabric of renowned democratic states. Moreover, India’s cur­rent Prime Minister Narendra Modi also is a preordained personalist politician who commits to his Hindutva ideology in his political and social policies.

The question remains intact about how this transition occurs in such grand de­mocracies let alone it has pushed undem­ocratic and semi-democratic countries into the abyss for a long time. This can be answered from Francis Fakuyama’s work “Identity” which reveals how ‘wan-tok’ commonly used as “one-talk” or people of one language trust, rely and adhere to each other. If among those people appears someone who is fearless, and carries the flag of a whole community, adhering to nationalism, there happens a transition from the people’s representative to a demagogue. Such is the rot that a populist can even convince people to bear blood on their hands. The way Hitler’s ideol­ogy of Aryan superiority misled people into killing each other is just another ex­ample from this vast jar of history. While considering oneself as a sole representa­tive of a group ethnicity may not inher­ently be detrimental, but history reveals that this transition occurs when people consciously and subconsciously make an angel out of one person and stick to a sin­gle ideology with intolerance. Dr Namra Naseer, a policy researcher from Pakistan, points out that populism becomes peril­ous when it binds its followers to a sin­gular narrative, obscuring any truth oth­er than their perceived “truth.” Herein lies the genesis of how a few states end up be­ing ruled by demagogues. People in those countries, although civilized and educat­ed, still have an indigenous affinity and loyalty to their past. And this gets stron­ger when the mighty force of democra­cy either brings in a force people already reckon with or disappoints people .

In the first case, as Lord Acton is often quoted to have said, “Power tends to cor­rupt, and absolute power corrupts ab­solutely.” These words speak volumes of the whole notion of modern demagogues who instead of practicing legitimate au­thority, tend to project themselves as a Messiah and Savior. There are a few in­dicators to identify whether a person is a demagogue or not as indicated by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their work, “Why Nations Fail”

Firstly, a weak commitment to demo­cratic rules manifests in the erosion of fundamental values such as the rule of law, and respect for the constitution. Alli­ances with powerful state and non-state actors, that do not project democratic val­ues, can compromise democratic norms. In the past, a great number of fascists and demagogues have been seen to bring in paramilitary forces to protect their eth­nic nationalism. Secondly, the denial of op­ponents’ legitimacy is another prevailing cause, where political rivals are tried to be delegitimized through derogatory lan­guage and efforts to employ accountabili­ty measures selectively against them. This needs no further explanation as it is a daily deity of Pakistani politicians. Thirdly, en­couragement of violence through inflam­matory rhetoric leads to a potential dete­rioration, and it is another cue to identify a demagogue and undemocratic force. How­ever, this does not come directly from the demagogue himself/herself, rather it is the aftermath of invoked nationalism. The attack on the US Capitol in 2021 by the fol­lowers of the former President of the US, Donald Trump is a recent example. Last­ly, curtailing the liberties of media comes under the same radar of demagoguery. Jo­seph Goebbels, the chief propagandist of Nazis, implemented strict restrictions on media to manipulate public opinion.

In addressing the challenges posed by demagogues, it is crucial to foster a vig­ilant and informed citizenry that values critical thinking over blind allegiance. Encouraging open dialogue, media lit­eracy, and promoting an independent judiciary can also act as safeguards. Moreover, Rather than disregarding any leaders, including the figure of Imran Khan, it is essential to engage in con­structive discourse that holds leaders ac­countable for their illegitimate actions and decisions. Also, by fostering a po­litical culture grounded in tolerance, in­clusivity, and respect for diverse per­spectives, societies can build resilience against the pitfalls of demagoguery. In conclusion, the fight against demagogu­ery is not about demeaning any particu­lar individual but rather about fortifying democratic institutions and nurturing a civic spirit that values the principles of justice, equality, and accountability. By collectively embracing these ideals, we can be on a route to a better nation.

Danish Bhutto
The writer is a researcher and columnist based in Lahore. He can be reached at

Danish Bhutto
The writer is a researcher and columnist based in Lahore. He can be reached at

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