Resisting the Demagogue
Democracy exists as a paradox: Only through unfettered democracy do the demos, or people, have absolute sovereignty, yet it is precisely through total political control that democracy invades and destroys the sovereignty of the demos, for democracy’s death is endemic unto itself. Only the birth of a Republic prevents the demos’ destruction.
The demos bring about their own subordination by falling prey to the hunting demagogue. Demagogues are ruthless predators – constantly prowling unwitting individuals through whom ambition can manifest itself in power, the demagogue can easily seize support in parties and countries with institutions ill-designed and ill-prepared to stand resolute against the fiery passions of a demos ignited by the thrill of rhetoric or the promises of a time deemed lost whose return the demagogue, and only the demagogue, can promise, either in or outside the rule of law and long-accepted norms.
This demagogue feasts on the susceptible (truly on the demos, for the word, as understood in its Greek origin, applied to the low- and middle-class rabble) and uses them simply as tools. Promises of grandeur, of a nation again made great or an empire rekindled, are made insofar as they align with power’s seizure and will be followed only to the extent that their enactment furthers the power and/or riches of the enterprising demagogue. But the demos, whose connection with a constitution – written or unwritten – and liberal political values is weak, at best, either overlook, accept, or otherwise don’t realize the dangerous ends to which the demagogue aspires. Human fallibility destroys democracy. We treat democratic politics as special, as a beloved ideal that brings responsibility to the empowered demos and requires logic, research, and commitment to age-old values. But while we herald the idea, we fail to follow through with the actions necessary for pure democracy to thrive. So a cult of personality, an aura of strength, redemption, and populist power, enthralls the demos. Emotional appeals rise above their logical counterparts. Add to emotional susceptibility the vilification of the undesired – of minorities whose threat (often imagined) the demos assume prevents national glory – and the demagogue rides a swell of devoted popular uproar to electoral strength and political victory.
Without institutions to curtail the passions of the demos, either by hindering the demagogue’s ascent or removing the demos from direct power, demagogues can easily rise to power – in fact, in poorly designed systems, the demagogue need not even acquire majority support to sweep into power. Once at the government’s helm, the demagogue can enact campaign promises that almost by nature hurt opponents, for demagogues may enjoy the love of many, but by that very virtue, encourages the hate of others. Those who hate the demagogue – the demagogue’s political enemies – are often cast as an amorphous other by the demagogue, which builds popular support for the “other’s” oppression. The demagogue, with eyes towards consolidated power backed by the passions of a large faction, then moves to silence his critics and dissidents. Such actions usually require deviance from accepted norms, but whenever a majority exists in a democracy, the rules can change to favor those currently in power. And so opponents are sidelined and the rights of some infringed. Without fear of oversight or challenges to power, the demagogue can reward supporters, enjoy centralized power, and work on self-enrichment.
As the demagogue consolidates power and steals from the state, democracy is lost. Any wise demagogue brought to power by democracy would immediately curtail democracy so it exists only in name. The people may vote in plebiscites, but the demagogue would not accept any result that doesn’t empower him. He profits from the state, skimming taxpayer dollars or simply dipping into the treasury for funds – why shouldn’t he? With no challenges to power and charisma to win the demos, the democratic demagogue has no reason not to become an authoritarian. The demagogue, “ending a tyrant,” destroys the very democracy that enabled his rise.
The birth of a Republic prevent democracy’s inevitable path to suicide. Republics remove the direct link between the demos and the leaders; it is that link – the direct connection between the demagogue and the demos – that enables democracies to self-destruct. The demagogue relies on the demos as his extralegal motivations, rhetoric, and eventual actions cannot happen in a Republic. In pure form, Republics water-down the demos’ influence by having indirect elections (or a mixture of direct and indirect elections); Republics protect minority rights and are often resistant to majoritarian whims by virtue of separating power between multiple branches of government. Well-created Republics remove from popular influence the judiciary, ensuring that those charged with interpreting and upholding the laws cannot be removed or swayed by public fervor.
Republics check the demos as well as the leaders installed by the demos or otherwise appointed. Power rests squarely with no one and all political actors are constrained by a constitution that delimits power and coordinates expected policy outcomes. A Republic fights the demagogue and protects democracy from its worst temptations.
But even a Republic can be corrupted. When the democratic elements of a Republican government – ie, parties – open themselves up to unfettered democracy with few or no institutional hurdles or power separations than define Republican institutions, the demagogue can still weasel his way into power. The likes of parties should emulate the government to which we send their standard bearers. A party that places complete faith in the demos quickly succumbs to the demagogue – whenever parties adopt simple majoritarian rules (or rules in which a candidate can emerge victorious with a simple plurality), the path reopens for a demagogue. He need only appeal to half of a party to win the nomination. Once the nominee, the demagogue can ride party ties to power. Tribal allegiance – a fundamental human behavior in all fields, including politics – ensures the demagogue a base of support; from there, he need only wield his rhetorical and emotive prowess on swing voters.
It becomes quite easy to attain power once the demagogue skates through primary funneling. However, a Republic’s beauty also rests in its ability to curtail empowered demagogues. Unlike a democracy, in which rights can be subverted and rules changed with the ease of a majority, Republican rules exist in a Constitution and other actors, put in power by appointment or the people at various points in time, can stand in a demagogue’s way. Courts especially act to preserve a Republic from the demos’ worst temptations.
Of course, the same mechanism through which the demagogue began his Republican ascent – a democratic nominating process – diminish the will of same-party lawmakers to curtail the demagogue. Primary challenges, or the potential thereof, with the winner decided by the same demos that elected the demagogue give many lawmakers pause, eroding a systemic check on demagogues and potentially eroding the separation of powers. Thus democratizing the entities that supply our Republic with elected officials empowers demagogues and weakens the Republican experiment, though its core functions and design remain.
Demagogues thrive and are inevitable creations of purely democratic processes. Democracy’s death comes in darkness – the darkness created by a demagogues arousing primal passions rather than logical behavior. And so occurs the birth of a Republic, with democratic designs at heart with institutions and rules immune from the demos, in whom ultimate power does not solely and unchecked lie. The parties and institutions that compromise a Republic should also be republican in nature; overly democratizing aspects of a Republic endangers the whole by welcoming demagogues. We must recognize that for any element of democracy to persist, the demos must be checked. Democracy destroys itself. Republics and republican institutions stave off death from the demos. The birth of a Republic saves the people from themselves.