democratic demagoguery

The Road to Democratic Demagoguery

Anti-party reforms welcome demagogues

Our Constitution’s intricate separation of power, its checks and balances both between governing branches and between the government and the people, and republican emphasis emerged from the Founding Fathers’ fear of direct democracy and majoritarian temptations.  They purposefully designed a Republic and left its maintaining to posterity (“a Republic, if you can keep it”).  On that front, we have largely failed – democratizing reforms, including the direct election of senators and primary elections to choose party nominees, redistributed political power to the masses, leaving government susceptible to flaring passions and fleeting factions.  That, by nature, encourages demagoguery.  Political aspirants need only appeal to emotions to rile and form a majority which they can ride to party nominations and, thanks to strong partisanship, general election contention.  Democratic demagoguery, then, once attained will be as dangerous as its right-winged counterpart.

The Republican Party has succumbed to demagogic temptations by nominating Donald Trump.  Democrats, though behind many of the democratization initiatives, have thus far avoided descending into the irrational throes of a malevolent actor.  But that might not always be the case.  The recent assault on DNC and party legitimacy, launched by Bernie Sanders’ quixotic 2016 presidential bid and carried on by the frothing mass of his most die-hard supporters, threatens to further democratize the party and leave it vulnerable to a presidential hopeful who stokes the redistributive and vindictive passions lit by Sanders himself.  In other words, by working to delegitimize the national party and build class-based animosity and distrust, Bernie Sanders has set the Democratic Party – an entity with which he doesn’t even affiliate – down the road to Democratic demagoguery.

That democratization invariable increases the risk of demagoguery is readily evident for as Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 1, “paying an obsequious court to the people commenc[es] demagogues and end[s in] tyrants.”  This is not surprising: Few in a fully democratic electorate have the time, will, ability, or interest to learn, in depth, about all political issues a district faces.  True following the American Revolution, such a statement is even truer today as politics competes with a near-infinite supply of other time-consumers, ranging from sports and movies to bars and books.  Add to that a seemingly ever-increasing number of issues on the ballot in the form of initiatives, referendums, candidates for offices many don’t know exist and it becomes incredibly difficult for the entire electorate to master politics.  And so they don’t, relying instead on cues from those who specialize in the field.  Unfortunately for those who eschew demagogues and the temptations of passion, relying on authority can quickly lead voters astray should the leading figure act to manipulate interests, push falsehoods, and legitimize ignorance or bigotry.



A Well-Designed System

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats erected roadblocks – well, hurdles – that make it challenging for a demagogue to overcome the party’s interest.  Superdelegates, for one, have no obligation to vote for the delegate leader.  Fearing a demagogue or other potential nominee dangerous to the party or country, superdelegates can block a nomination, throwing it to the convention floor, or put another candidate over the top (assuming, of course, the candidate does not attain a majority of delegates).  Democratic demagoguery can thus be avoided.  There are not enough superdelegates to single-handedly decide the nominee or bolster an “establishment” candidate that simply flounders through the primary.  Supderdelegates can make a difference, but only at the end of reasonably close contests.

Secondly, Democratic caucuses and primaries are proportional.  There are no winner-take-all contests.  Plurality candidates would struggle to earn a majority of delegates – similarly, other candidates would have little incentive to drop out as an insurgent demagogue would not necessarily win the nomination prior to the convention.

Third, some states hold closed primaries or caucuses (the same is true on the Republican side).  This encourages voters to take an active political step – affiliating with a party – that increases allegiance with the organization and, through that allegiance, forms (ideally) a lasting coalition in which voters are not just mobilized by temporary arousals, but also with an eye toward the party’s long-term health, which a demagogue might endanger.  Bernie Sanders and his supporters have attacked the first and last of these procedures.



How Democratic Demagoguery Arrives

The Sanders wing of the Democratic Party hopes to further democratize presidential selection by eliminating superdelegates and opening the caucuses and primaries to the entire voting-age population.  Both ideas have the potential to imperil the Democratic Party, especially given that reform-empowered voters have already shown a willingness to embrace, with little question, far-from-center rhetoric and ideology.  Removing superdelegates vanquishes the party from its own nominating affair – no longer would party elites, workers, officeholders, and elder statesmen have a say in who represents their party atop the ballot.  Without the presumably tempering influence of such partisans, Democratic presidential nominations would be left to that which feared the Founders: Direct popular whim.  John Adams claimed that popular rule “soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”  There’s no immediate reason why this statement shouldn’t apply to parties.  The Republicans, though victorious, might have effectively killed or at least thoroughly poisoned the party with Trump’s nomination and election.  Removing superdelegates would only increase the chances that a mischievous and momentary majority within the Democratic Party could doom the entity to history’s disgraces.

Similarly, opening the primaries to those who care little about the party as whole and instead act to satisfy immediate interests without regard to the party’s long-term standing risks demagoguery.  Independents, contrary to public opinion, are not moderates; they’re closet partisans who often inhabit the ideological wings and vote for far-right or far-left candidates.  In contested open primaries, Donald Trump won 12 of 17 contests (or 71%) whereas in contested closed contests, he won ­13 of 22 contests, or 59% (data from Ballotpedia).  On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton carried self-identified Democrats by 27 points while losing independents by 31 (per FiveThirtyEight).  Open primaries allow ideological wingers – those most prone to a demagogue who legitimizes and furthers those viewpoints – to challenge and perhaps emerge victorious over the staid center.  In short, it eliminates another potential party defense against demagogues.



Don’t Encourage Demagogues

Combined, these desired changes – eliminating superdelegates and thus profound party influence in its own nominating affair as well as opening all primaries to independent voters with no attachment to the party’s long-term health and standing – erode republican institutions that, in a sense, protect voters from their primal selves.  It’s worth pointing out that these reforms arise from perceived (though non-existent) DNC corruption and unfounded belief in a “rigged” primary.  These themes themselves have been pushed by demagogues (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders)!  Clearly, it’s a self-serving cycle: Diminish the party’s standing in order to decentralize the nominating affair and open the door to demagogic victory.

To avoid following the Republicans down the path to charlatan-led extremism, to avoid Democratic demagoguery, Democrats must recognize that while republican institutions do not fully empower they electorate, the checks on popular temptations serve the party itself and the country as a whole.  For, as Alexander Hamilton so eloquently said: “We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.”  Let the parties that control our government follow those same guidelines.

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