7 Questions with Charles Zug, author of “Demagogues in American Politics”

Charles Zug is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at UCCS.

Julius Caesar. Benito Mussolini. Mao Zedong. Donald Trump. History is rife with examples of demagogues — charismatic leaders who know what the masses want to hear, and who use popular prejudices and false promises to sweep the “common people” into revolt against society’s elites.

At least, that’s how we define demagogues today. But Charles Zug, Assistant Professor of Political Science, sees them differently.

Zug’s new book, “Demagogues in American Politics,” which will be published by the Oxford University Press this year, makes the case that while demagogues have traditionally been seen as destabilizing and dangerous, they can also be used to advance the common good.

“Most of us think of demagoguery as something that is, by definition, bad — as a divisive practice that appeals to what is worst in an audience at the expense of what is best for the public good,” Zug said.

“The problem with defining demagoguery as emotional or divisive rhetoric is that that definition alone fails to distinguish truly evil demagogues — the Adolph Hitlers and Joe McCarthys of the world — from good leaders who have had to use emotional rhetoric to take on entrenched interests and deeply held societal prejudices,” he continued.

“In order to make a political impact, the latter, too, must appeal to the passions and potentially divide society, albeit to advance the true common good. Think of Franklin Roosevelt confronting the financial interests responsible for the Great Depression, or the suffragettes who staged provocative protests during the early 20th century. I would argue that these leaders used demagoguery as part of a broader strategy for reform, a strategy that did justice to what is best in America.”

To share more, Zug answered seven questions about the book and his findings below.

1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

“Demagogues in American Politics” is Zug’s newest book, which offers an alternative viewpoint on demagogues: that paired with virtuous and reasoned arguments, they can be used to advance the common good.

Most of us think of demagoguery as something that is by definition bad — as a divisive practice that appeals to what is worst in an audience at the expense of what is best for the public good. My book suggests an alternative, arguing that demagoguery, while certainly subject to abuse, is not an inherently bad form of leadership. Whereas classical thinkers had believed that demagoguery was always a threat to political order, the most sophisticated founders of the American Constitution — inspired by Enlightenment political philosophy — recognized that demagoguery, though dangerous, could be recruited by the Constitution to improve the political system.

Through case studies drawn from the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court, I argue that demagogic leadership can be abused, but that it can also be deployed by public officials to advance the aspirations of constitutional democracy.

2. How did you get the idea for your project?

During the 2016 presidential election, I tried to find a way to grasp what made Donald Trump’s rhetorical tactics distinctive. I wanted a non-subjective, non-impressionistic way to understand why his leadership style differed from almost everything else we had seen, not just in presidential elections, but in American electoral politics generally.

What I came to realize was that it’s easier to understand what makes demagoguery bad and damaging for a democracy if you can also recognize what makes it potentially good for democracy as well — why it can be virtuous if deployed in tandem with a reasoned argument to advance the common good.

3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process? 

As I began writing, I starting to pay more attention to the range of meanings demagoguery, and political speech in general, take on in different institutional settings.

We all intuitively realize that speech that might be appropriate for members of Congress on the campaign trail is inappropriate for Supreme Court justices on the bench — the same way that we know not to use the same kind of speech at a funeral or a court proceeding that we might use at a rally or a football game. What’s behind these intuitions? For constitutional democracy to succeed, political speech must be tailored to the institution that it is a part of. So, for example, courts and legislatures perform very different functions, and the modes of speech employed by those who inhabit such different institutions must be adjusted and modified accordingly. More broadly, speech that’s perfectly appropriate for a private citizen to use could well be off-limits for an officeholder sworn to uphold the Constitution.

4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?      

These days, I’m most preoccupied with the question of how to assess whether political institutions, and the broader political regime they constitute, are functioning in a healthy way. This is a difficult and important question because easy measurements don’t tell you much about institutional health. Congress can pass a million bills a year, but if they are all bad bills, hastily debated and voted on, would we actually say Congress is healthy? Clearly no.

Democratic institutions are supposed to do more than simply churn out low-quality policies and legislation. A deeper, more wholistic set of assessments must therefore be looked to if we really want to understand the quality of our politics. Delineating those assessments in detail as regards the American political system is my goal in the years to come.

5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?           

I write in my office at UCCS every day I’m on campus, which is usually Monday–Friday. I don’t really have any tricks or routines. All I can say is that writing is excruciatingly difficult, and the only way to improve (as far as I’m aware) is hard work — forcing yourself to write every day and working through all the bad writing that invariably comes out. You have to break the cycle of freezing and self-doubting in response to a blank page and a blinking cursor. Just write something! It probably won’t be good or even relevant to your subject at first, but it will give you material to work with and build upon.

Relatedly, I’ve never found shortcuts or life hacks to be of any use when it comes to writing — they might work for some, but not me. You have to teach your brain to become accustomed to writing the same way you learn to perform an instrument or play a sport.

6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?

“The Constitution invites those who are ambitious, who seek power and fame, to become leaders. But to succeed, to gratify their ambition, they need to please the Constitution, and the modes that an ambitious power-seeker employs to do this — to become and successfully wield power as a member of Congress, a senator, a president, a Supreme Court jurist — are not the same as those employed by the demagogues of classical democracy. One does not lead the Constitution by inspiring people to come together in a crowd and then investing the crowd with turbulent and powerful passions. Attaining power in a constitutional mode requires a different set of skills.”

7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?

My next project, which grows out of this book, is to understand how authoritative opinions about Constitutional meaning achieve a consensus among non-judicial elites and the broader public.

UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.