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Joseph McCarthy and Demagoguery

  • 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?

Students will be able to: 

  • Define demagoguery 
  • Recognize historical examples of demagoguery and explain their impact on the strength/stability of a republican system of government 
  • Compare and contrast virtuous citizenship and demagoguery in a democracy 
  • Identify and strategically select evidence from primary sources to establish the existence of demagoguery in American government during the McCarthy era 

Educator Resources

  • Launch Activity Teacher’s Notes
  • Joseph McCarthy and Demagoguery Answer Key

Student Handouts

  • Demagoguery: Joseph McCarthy and Demagoguery and Discussion Guide
  • Virtue in Action: Class Activity
  • Virtue Across the Curriculum
  • Excerpts from Joseph McCarthy’s Speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950 and Primary Source Discussion Questions
  • Demagoguery Worksheet writing prompt page

  • Demagoguery 
  • Fascist/fascism 
  • Puppet government 
  • Subversive 
  • Black-listed 

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.


All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren 

Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles 

Gladiator (2000), directed by Ridley Scott 

Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins 

The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer 

Reference the “Sources & Further Reading” page for a list of resources students and teachers can access for more information 

Introduce students to the concept of demagoguery using a student council elections scenario and discussionDivide the class into small groups of 4 or 5 students per group and give them 5 minutes to brainstorm how they would answer this question: What would a student candidate promise if they did not care about good student government, but just wanted to win the election and be popular? Remind students to keep all discussion school-appropriate. Encourage a few of the groups to share their list of campaign promises. Then lead a discussion based on the De-brief points in Teacher’s Notes: 

  • 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 questions such as these: 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? 

Activity 1 – Joseph McCarthy and Demagoguery Background Essay & Discussion Questions (Think/Pair/Share) 

Activity 2 – Virtue in Action Class Activity – Read the primary source document and prepare answers to the Primary Source Discussion Guide questions. 

Activity 3 – Demagoguery Writing Prompt: critical thinking – fighting demagoguery in a republic writing assignment 

Tying it all together – Analyzing Alexander Hamilton Quote (Federalist #1) at the bottom of Activity 3

“… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by… commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” 


Research one of Joseph McCarthy’s victims and analyze the events that surrounded their targeting. Determine whether the accusations were justified or inflated, and provide evidence to support your position. Be prepared to share your work with the class in the next meeting. 

Look for evidence of demagoguery in contemporary American politics. Report on your findings, focusing especially on the impact these actions might or might not have on our republican system of government. 

Student Handouts

Related Resources