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PSCI 255
Weaponized Leadership: Demagoguery and Populism in Contemporary Perspective Spring 2021
Division II
Cross-listed LEAD 255 / PSCI 255

Class Details

Since Donald Trump began his rhetorical assault on immigrants, the political establishment, and the free press, all in the name of “the American people,” terms like demagoguery and populism have come to dominate American political discourse. Demagogues and populists are often defined as bad leaders who manipulate the emotions of their audiences for the sake of personal ambition– leaders who turn a good thing (popular government) into something dangerous. At the same time, and as Trump has shown, many of the tactics that populists and demagogues deploy are politically effective. Protest leaders tell their audiences to get angry and to stand up and fight precisely because this kind of rhetoric can move an audience to action when rational persuasion cannot. And, many of the leaders we think of as great today were regarded as demagogues and populists during their own times. Puzzles like these point to our current political moment. How useful are terms like demagoguery and populism for understanding leadership? How have these terms been weaponized to distort politics instead of clarifying it? Should we reserve these terms for leaders who are truly bad, and if so, what counts as a “truly” bad leader (as opposed to one we just happen not to like)? Or can demagogic and populists tactics be deployed in better and worse ways? We will approach these questions through a survey of classic and contemporary writings on popular leadership, from Thucydides and Machiavelli to present-day social science. With these competing theories in view, we will read historical and biographical accounts of some of history’s most controversial leaders–including Bolivar, Lenin, FDR, and Hugo Chavez–so as to better understand the popular leaders who dominate much of our politics today.
The Class: Format: lecture
Limit: 25
Expected: 18
Class#: 4459
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: several short essays, weekly writing assignments, and a final exam
Prerequisites: None
Enrollment Preferences: Leadership Studies concentrators and Political Science majors
Distributions: Division II
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
LEAD 255 Division II PSCI 255 Division II
Attributes: LEAD American Domestic Leadership

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