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Joseph McCarthy and Demagoguery

Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2014.

Fried, Richard. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (New York:Oxford University Press, 1990)

Griffiths, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Herman, Arthur. Joseph McCarthy: Re-examining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Schrecker, Ellen, ed. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1994.


You’re running for the student government of your school. You have to plan out a campaign. The school administration will let you put up posters around the hallways, make appeals on social media, and make a speech to the student body.

You are mostly interested in getting elected and in being popular rather than in governing well. What promises will you make to your fellow students that you know will be very popular but the school administration would not accept? For example, you could run on a platform of free pizza or lattes delivered to students in every class. Another example might be to institute a no-homework policy in all classes.

Write a two-minute speech making your appeal to the student body. Students need to keep all of their material appropriate. Teachers will call on a few students to read their speeches in class.


  • Ask your students: Was your appeal to voters realistic? Why would they have supported your appeal? Did you care about the quality of the student government? What would the likely outcome have been for the student government and school culture?
  • Discuss demagoguery with the class. The Ancient Greeks had democracies in which the citizens directly voted in their assemblies. Because of the democratic form of government, they feared that a leader might became a demagogue, or a leader who wins popularity and elections by appealing to the passions and self-interest of the people rather than their reason and the common good. The demagogue makes the appeal out of self-interest and ambition for power, fame, or money. A demagogue might be wildly popular but is not ultimately healthy for a self-governing society or civil society.
  • Ask your students: What are the dangers of a demagogue for American self-government if the people lead the people astray? What are the dangers for American civil society? What other vices might be caused by demagoguery? How does the media such as television, the internet, social media, and reality shows possibly help create the environment for a demagogue to become popular? Can you think of demagogues in today’s world (not necessarily confined to politics)? Can you think of examples of characters who play demagogues in movies, television shows, or literature?

This optional introductory activity is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.