Demagoguery and the Dangers of “Extreme Democracy”

Ryan Skinnell
5 min readFeb 25, 2023


Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

In 2019, I published an academic article, “Using Democracy Against Itself: Demagogic Rhetoric as an Attack on Democratic Institutions,” where I wrote about “extreme democracy” as a form of demagoguery (The abstract is here. If you want to read the whole thing, let me know). Specifically, I argued that a consistent — perhaps defining — characteristic of demagoguery is that it hyperextends or supercharges direct democracy in order to undermine democratic institutions.

I thought it might be worth glossing my argument here because what I was talking about in that article on full display at the moment in the Senate impeachment hearings.

The concept of “extreme democracy” or “rampant democracy” comes from Aristotle’s description of demagoguery. In The Politics, written in about 350 BCE, Aristotle produced a taxonomy of the different kinds of governance: monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies. For Aristotle, oligarchies are vastly superior to monarchies because monarchies eventually tend toward tyranny. No big surprises there.

Probably also no surprise, democracies are better than oligarchies. According to Aristotle, democracies are the best form of governance because they are “safer and more permanent” and “more relaxed and gentler” than oligarchies. Yay democracies!

Continuing with our theme of “no surprises,” however, democracies aren’t without their challenges. The major problem is that unlike tyrannies and oligarchies, democracies are susceptible to demagogues. Aristotle doesn’t provide an explicit definition of “demagogue” in The Politics, but what he does say is this:

[I]n democracies which are subject to the law the best citizens hold the first place, and there are no demagogues; but where the laws are not supreme, there demagogues spring up. … At all events this sort of democracy, which is now a monarch, and no longer under the control of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot; the flatterer is held in honour [sic]. … The decrees of the demos correspond to the edicts of the tyrant; and the demagogue is to the one what the flatterer is to the other.

There are two things I want to point out here. First, for Aristotle, the demagogue is not the same as a tyrant. Elsewhere he calls demagogues “aspirants to tyranny,” and I think it’s useful to think of the ways that demagogues try to move a democracy toward tyranny. Which is why the second thing worth point out is Aristotle’s warning that a democracy under the sway of a demagogue becomes like a tyranny.

Aristotle maintains that this form of governance is a democracy, inasmuch as the people have the power in their hands. But much to his chagrin, the people collectively act as a monarch. In this form of democracy, “not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and supersede the law by their decrees.” Crucially for Aristotle, the fundamental perversion of this form of democracy is not simply that the people rule as one, but that this form of rule relies on an inversion of the popular will and the supremacy of the laws.

This is where his term “extreme democracy” comes into play. One way to read Aristotle’s description of demagogues is that they seize state power. Another way to read it, however, is that demagogues do not thwart democracy directly so much as they supercharge it. He writes for instance, “The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, and refer all things to the popular assembly. … Further, those who have any complaint to bring against the magistrates say, ‘let the people be judges;’ the people are too happy to accept the invitation; and so the authority of every office is undermined.”

By referring all matters to the popular assembly, the demagogue makes democracy extreme, and extreme democracy eventually destroys itself.

Here’s a (not so) hypothetical example. Let’s imagine a member of the Supreme Court dies. By law, the sitting President should appoint a new justice and the Senate should “advise and consent” on the appointment. But instead, the Senate majority leader declines to take up the nomination, claiming “the American people should have a say in the court’s direction.” The Senate majority leader then stalls the process for nearly a year, asserting that since it is an election year, “the American people have a particular opportunity now to make their voice heard … in the process to select their next president — as they decide who they trust to both lead the country and nominate the next Supreme Court justice.”

In this example, rather than upholding the legal, institutionally-defined process, the Senate majority leader turns the Senate’s responsibility over to the popular assembly. By supercharging democracy in this way, the Senate majority leader undermines democracy by doing irreparable damage to democratic institutions. He appears to be super, extra democratic by having “the people” weigh in, but actually he’s leading rhetorical attacks against democratic institutions’ legitimacy by amplifying and channeling the will of the people. He’s destabilizing the institution he’s directly responsible for safeguarding.

Donald Trump’s 2019 impeachment trial provided another good example of attempts to supercharge democracy. As David A. Graham wrote in the Atlantic, “The White House’s messaging throughout the impeachment process has been wildly inconsistent on nearly every count save one: Democrats are trying to overturn the 2016 election.” His legal team made that case explicitly during the Senate trial. In other words, efforts to hold the President accountable were characterized as attempts to rebuke the popular assembly. It was a barely concealed attack on democratic institutions because it attempted to remove their legal, institutional oversight authority and place it in the hands of “the people.”

In the past few years, Trump’s first impeachment took a back seat to more violent efforts to overthrown American democracy (and a second impeachment trial), but the drumbeat of “the people” remains at the center of efforts to downplay and legitimize attacks on the election process. As battles over American democracy continue to play out over the next several years, it will be important to watch where “the people” is used as an appeal to supercharge democracy in ways that attack and undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions.

All Aristotle quotes were taken from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of The Politics.



Ryan Skinnell

I know stuff about rhetoric and Nazis. Writer, speaker, professor, burrito aficionado. Public Voices Fellow w/TheOpEdProject ~views mine~