Heroes and Villains

Joseph McCarthy and Demagoguery

Students will explore the vice of demagoguery in a constitutional republic in this lesson on civic virtue.  Students will examine the anti-Communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Cold War in the early 1950s.  Students will analyze a historical narrative, discussion guide, primary sources, and other activities to weigh whether McCarthy was expressing genuine concerns about Communist subversives or just interested in his own power.  Students will examine the effects of demagoguery on a constitutional republic and civil society.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Suggested Launch Activity


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?

About Launch Activities

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.

Lesson Background

The world was a very dangerous place in 1950. The free world had combined forces to defeat the fascist war machines of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II in which tens of millions of soldiers and civilians were killed….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

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.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

The Hunger Games (2012), directed by Gary Ross
In The Hunger Games, President Snow of the fictional country, Panem, issues a propaganda speech for all citizens to hear. He is using the speech to persuade them that the “Hunger Games,” in which two youth from each of the districts fight to the death in order to keep the peace. He does not mention that the bloodletting is unnecessary, and that it is a popular entertainment for the capital and keeps the districts outside the capital under strict control.

“War, terrible war. Widows, orphans, a motherless child. This was the uprising that rocked our land. Thirteen districts rebelled against the country that fed them, loved them, protected them. Brother turned on brother until nothing remained. And then came the peace, hard fought, sorely won. A people rose up from the ashes and a new era was born. But freedom has a cost. When the traitors were defeated, we swore as a nation we would never know this treason again. And so it was decreed that, each year, the various districts of Panem would offer up, in tribute, one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice. The lone victor, bathed in riches, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness. This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.”

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

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