Demagoguery in America
Throughout Donald Trump's presidency, flurries of think pieces warning that Trump was a demagogue, or pointing to the value of upholding norms in the face of demagoguery, appeared regularly in media outlets. This prompted a narrower but no less intense genre of responses insisting that Trump's leadership was not demagogic, or that a little demagoguery now and again might be required to preserve our individual liberty.
After January 6, 2021, such essays became scarce. For people who had deemed Trump a threat to democracy from the start, the point had been proven — the attempted coup was evidence enough. Opinion pieces decrying Trump's seeming stranglehold on the Republican Party today tend to point to Trump, the man, as the problem. Talk of demagoguery as a more general phenomenon has all but ceased.
But the threat of demagoguery is bigger than Donald Trump. If we treat him as exceptional, we will learn none of the important lessons about the dangers that demagoguery poses to our democracy. Americans may well have a Trump problem, but we also have a far greater demagogue problem, which reaches beyond one person or one party. Protecting democracy from future demagogues will require us to zoom out from our focus on Trump and to re-engage with broader theories of democracy, populism, and institutionalism. The next master of the masses (and there will be another) won't look like Trump or act like Trump. To properly defend democracy against demagoguery, we need a deeper, ongoing analysis of the threat demagoguery poses to the American regime and the tools available to address it.
All of that would be easier if we had a clear, up-to-date, readily available definition of demagoguery in the American context. Unfortunately, we do not. Crafting an objective definition — or at least one that allows us to identify demagogues among our own co-partisans as easily as we identify them among the opposition — poses a further challenge.
Throwing around the term "demagogue" belittles the problem; believing America is past the point of being threatened by demagoguery is a mistake greater still. The American founders were deeply concerned with the threat demagoguery poses to democracies, and they theorized extensively about how a skilled rhetorician might gain control of American hearts and minds, and leverage that support for his own ends. Political scientists have sporadically taken up the topic in subsequent years, providing definitions and updates to our received wisdom about the threat posed by demagogic leadership and the form it is most likely to take. But compared to the scholarly literature on, say, the ways declining trust in institutions threatens the policymaking process, the study of demagoguery is woefully complacent and out of date. It's time for that to change.
When we empower the people to govern, we inevitably empower the sophists and swindlers among them. Demagoguery is thus a danger inherent to all democracies.
So what is a demagogue? And what sort of threat do demagogues pose to American democracy?
In ancient Greece, the term "demagogue" referred simply to a leader of the people. But as popular leaders rose to power in the ancient republics, the word came to mean something more pernicious. Aristotle described Cleon, perhaps democracy's first demagogue, as "the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language and who spoke with his cloak girt about him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner."
Today's American historians and political scientists have tweaked but not fundamentally departed from Aristotle's definition. Historian Reinhard Luthin, in his 1954 book American Demagogues, described demagogues as "'masters of the masses' who, in their aspirations for political place and power, pandered to the passions and prejudices, rather than the reason, of the populace, and performed all manner of crowd-captivating tricks, only to betray the people." Political scientist James Ceaser similarly describes a demagogue as one who "leads by inflammatory appeals or by flattery and who proceeds to build personal popularity without concern for promoting the public good."
Ceaser goes on to divide demagogues into two distinct camps. The first type presents himself as a kind of populist "man of the people" and wins political support through oratory. He invites the "contempt of the better sorts, which he then wears as a badge of honor" while indiscriminately breaking any and all available norms. This first type is disruptive, but we get the sense that he is eventually stymied by his lack of substance. The real harm of the first type is that, in conditioning the people to readily accept violations of norms and traditions, he paves the way for something much more pernicious.
The second, more dangerous type of demagogue comes to power on a wave of popular support, then uses that support to undermine institutions and subvert republican government. This last part is ultimately the reason why democrats must be wary of demagoguery. Inappropriate dress and name-calling may offend our sensibilities, but the true threat comes when those gimmicks propel a talented leader in his quest for unconstrained power.
Thanks in part to their deep knowledge of ancient history and in part to their own experience with Shays's rebellion in 1786, the framers of the U.S. Constitution designed our system to preclude demagogues from coming to power and to limit any damage they could inflict if they overcame those barriers. Federalist No. 10 in particular presents the culmination of James Madison's thinking on how best to limit a demagogue's ability to recruit followers.
The problem, as Madison saw it, was that "the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties." In every populace, he observed, citizens would on occasion be convinced of ideas or interests that either went against the common good or violated the rights of others. Factions of likeminded individuals would naturally form and, if a particular faction managed to gain hold of the government, it would enact harmful laws. "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs," he wrote, "may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people."
Madison argued that the size of a representative republic like ours would mitigate the problem of factions. The nation's historically massive population and geographic area, he believed, would ensure that bad ideas couldn't spread very far. Dangerous factions would be unable to gain control of government because they would never be able to gain majority status in a large, diverse country; there were simply too many interests spread across too much space for any one idea — let alone a harmful one — to take hold.
But even if much of the populace was taken with one faction's viewpoint, the founders installed another hurdle in its path to power: a republican form of government. Our representatives, Madison insisted, would "refine and enlarge the public views," and "the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people," would be "more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves."
The presidency offered the most attractive prize for a potential demagogue, so the framers designed a selection system that they hoped would screen out demagogic candidates. The Electoral College, with its carefully chosen electors who met only once, in their respective state capitals, to vote for the next executive would pose an obstacle to "cabal, intrigue, and corruption" and "afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder," as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 68. As a result, "[t]alents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union."
If a demagogue did manage to slip past the Electoral College's electors, he would soon be stymied by the Constitution's system of separated powers and checks and balances. The officeholders in each branch would jealously guard their powers, meaning power could never be concentrated in a single branch or a single man's hands. Ambition would be made to counteract ambition, pitting one potential demagogue (in, say, the House speakership) against another (who occupied the presidency), ultimately protecting the republic from widespread harm.
At the same time, the Senate would push back against the forces of demagoguery in the legislature. As Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58, "[i]n the ancient republics, where the whole body of the people assembled in person, a single orator, or an artful statesman, was generally seen to rule with as complete a sway as if a sceptre had been placed in his single hand." Such dangers could be mitigated, he contended, if the size of the assembly were reduced, and if the people's representatives in that assembly were granted longer terms and more distance from their constituents. The Senate's design reflects Madison's thinking: Its small size relative to the House, coupled with the selection process of its members (senators were initially appointed rather than elected), would help insulate the lawmaking process from the "sudden and violent passions" that tended to seduce large bodies of people into pushing for "intemperate and pernicious resolutions," as Madison put it in Federalist No. 62.
The Federalist's frequent calls for decision-making motivated by reason as opposed to passion, and for distance and filtering between the people's ideas and the laws, may sound remarkably undemocratic to modern ears. But limiting direct democracy was the whole point. Democracies, Madison and Hamilton knew, often fall prey to demagoguery. What would save America from such a fate was the republican principle, which, in Hamilton's words, "does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests." Instead, it "demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs."
The sense we get from The Federalist's depiction of the Constitution is that the people often seek to advance the public good. And of course, the framers all agreed that governance should stem from their authority. But they also understood that the people can be easily swayed by passionate appeals of conniving and charismatic men, so they designed our governing institutions to shield policymaking from the people's temporary passions. Instead, our governance would rely chiefly on the people's comparatively strong ability to choose good representatives. As a secondary safeguard, the Constitution's system of separated power and checks and balances would contain the destructive effects of unscrupulous men who nonetheless managed to attain power.
CHANGING THREATS AND WEAKENING BULWARKS
In the decades following ratification, other prominent political leaders weighed in on the question of how best to prevent demagoguery from invading America's governing institutions — the presidency in particular, but also the lawmaking process more broadly.
The first of these was George Washington, who feared demagoguery as much as, if not more than, Madison and Hamilton. Washington was particularly attuned to the ways soft forms of demagoguery might infiltrate the office of the presidency, even if the most deceitful of men were kept out of power. He thus sought to establish norms of conduct that would help mold the office of the presidency into one resistant to demagogic rhetoric.
Presidents, Washington believed, should exhibit the highest forms of republican virtue and dignity. The office of the presidency, meanwhile, should be imbued with a restrained sort of pomp and circumstance so that its occupants feel appropriately constrained by it. Washington held that presidents should derive their power from their constitutional office, and not from public support. He never made direct appeals to the public, and rarely engaged in public discussions of policy. He saw the president's role as calming public passions and ameliorating sources of fear and intrigue. He hoped that the norms he set as president would channel future presidents toward the kind of relationship with the public that would make Americans less likely to resort to demagoguery.
Thomas Jefferson presented his own, somewhat contrary theory of how best to prevent demagoguery: His answer was to trust the American people. The people, Jefferson asserted, were the source of the demagogue's power; as such, they were the only realistic means of constraining that power. As the ultimate safeguards of the Constitution, the people would need to be well versed in matters of public concern, meaning education would have to be a priority. (A degree from the University of Virginia, the school he founded for this purpose, would be a good start.) Once properly educated, the people would suss out designing men who sought to advance their own interests against those of the public. If the people failed to keep such men out of office, they would enforce the Constitution's limits on their power.
Jefferson's trust in the people to defend democracy led him to weaken some of his predecessors' guardrails. He embraced a far more populist orientation toward the office of the presidency, and his defense of the 12th Amendment, which stipulated that electors cast separate votes for president and vice president, began the Electoral College's long and winding path toward irrelevance in the fight against demagoguery.
In the wake of the messy presidential election of 1824 (in which no candidate secured an Electoral College majority and the House of Representatives ultimately chose the president), Martin Van Buren advanced a new theory of how best to protect American democracy from the specter of popular and designing men.
Van Buren was an Andrew Jackson supporter through and through — a disciple of the leader many modern commentators deem America's first demagogic president and Trump's closest point of comparison. But Van Buren recognized the dangers of personality-driven campaigns; he knew full well they would encourage candidates to drum up popular support by stoking fears and stirring sectional divisions. He saw the construction of a national party system, tasked with screening and nominating candidates for office, as a means of controlling and channeling popular leadership. If candidates had to first win the support of a formal political party, they would be constrained by that party's platform and the demands of coalitional leadership. In parties, Van Buren found something akin to Madison's "republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government." He managed to mold Jacksonian populism into a tool to distinguish good candidates from dangerous ones and restrain the personality-driven politics that demagogues rely on to rise to power.
Perhaps the single greatest articulation of the threat that demagoguery poses to American democracy came from Abraham Lincoln. In his 1838 address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln spoke of the rash of lynching, mob violence, and vigilante justice that had seized the American public. Such lawlessness signaled to Lincoln that the people no longer respected their laws or the institutions that upheld them. He acknowledged that listeners might be skeptical of the risk such lawlessness posed to democracy — after all, America's institutions had held up remarkably well for decades. But the real threat, Lincoln declared, lay not in these specific tumultuous incidents, unjust though they were, but in the ambitious leader who would recognize the people's indifference toward their political institutions and take advantage of their desire for justice at any cost.
Lincoln argued that the founding had presented a momentous opportunity for ambitious leaders: It offered glory in the construction of just institutions grounded in the common good. "But the game is caught," he continued,
and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them.
Ambition and talent, Lincoln understood, will always require an outlet. The great challenge of republican institutional design is to channel that ambition into and then through democratic institutions so that the ambitious don't undermine those institutions. The solution Lincoln landed on was to let "reverence for the laws...become the political religion of the nation." If we are all populists, the most ambitious and talented among us may well become demagogues. But if we are all institutionalists, our aspiring leaders will become statesmen.
It is one thing to claim, as a young orator, that institutionalism, moderation, and reverence for the law should be the cornerstones of democratic politics; it's quite another to turn down the opportunity to pander to public passions while in office. But as president, Lincoln managed to exemplify the statesmanship he prescribed. As Stephen Knott observes in his recent book on demagoguery and the presidency, "Lincoln's principles led him to inevitably conclude that leadership, that statesmanship, required acknowledging that majority rule presented a threat to liberty and had its limits." He thus relied on reason as a prominent tool in his rhetoric against the passionate appeals of his opponents, and sought moderation and compromise wherever possible.
Crucially, Lincoln also endeavored to shape the public mind and reorient it toward constitutionalism. This involved steering it away from purely morality-driven politics on the one side and an absolutist commitment to popular sovereignty on the other. Instead, Lincoln used his political actions and rhetoric to highlight the Constitution's grounding in the Declaration of Independence's commitments to life, liberty, and equality, thereby concentrating the public's attention on those values. All such efforts were hallmarks of Lincoln's leadership, which sought to bolster, rather than erode, democratic institutions.
Reverence for the laws and for the institutions that produce them is all well and good when the populace believes the laws to be just and the institutions to be sound. Such reverence, however, becomes far harder to maintain when the laws are bad or weak — and harder still when the people come to believe that their institutions have been captured by a corrupt elite.
POPULISM AND DEMAGOGUERY
Most, though not all, definitions of demagoguery suggest that demagogues appeal to the common man and seek to overturn institutions using a style of speech and approach to policy grounded in a folksy "man of the people" persona. Yet labeling all populist rhetoric demagogic isn't quite right. If we start hunting for demagogues using populism as our guide, we will almost certainly catch too many innocents. Distinguishing between them, therefore, is vital.
In his classic book The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin defines populism as "a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter." As an ideology, populism's core tenet is that the people's will, in its purest form, should be trusted, and that those who seek to refine and enlarge it are corrupt tyrants.
Populism has played a vital role in American democracy, primarily as a relief valve for grievances against unjust laws and institutions corrupted by elites. But populist rhetoric has also enabled many an upstart demagogue. Populism insists that the kinds of institutional tools the founders thought would best protect us against demagoguery are undemocratic and therefore worthy of suspicion. As George Thomas put it in these pages, "[o]bscured by the turn to populist democracy is any sense that representatives and political parties play an important role in educating and shaping the public mind, or that democracy depends on political leadership to refine, channel, and elevate popular wants." Demagoguery and populism are thus intimately connected.
Epitomized by three-time Democratic nominee for president William Jennings Bryan, American populism fundamentally re-shaped American politics — and the Democratic Party in particular — as the 19th century came to a close. These forces oriented our politics away from Lincolnian institutionalism and toward tools of direct democracy that empowered the common man.
Woodrow Wilson's views are telling in this regard. Wilson was himself a reaper, to recall Lincoln's term — one armed with academic expertise in political science. Wilson saw America's constitutional system of separated powers and checks and balances as hopelessly outdated. As he explained in his 1912 speech "What Is Progress?," the Constitution was "Newtonian" — it maintained a strict and unchanging balance of power between institutions — when what the modern era required was a "Darwinian" system that would keep up with the times. Checks and balances no longer protected the American people from their own temporary whims and passions; instead, they stymied the righteous efforts of progressives to leverage government power against the harmful forces of industrialization.
The key figure in Wilson's constitutionalism was the president. He assumed that the nation's chief executive — the sole representative of the people as a collective — was the proper source of energy and action in the political realm. As Knott observes, "Wilson believed that the fears of Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and other founders regarding the ascension of a demagogue into the presidency, were no longer a legitimate concern for twentieth-century Americans." Channeling Jefferson's faith in the people, Wilson thought it "simply unimaginable that [a demagogue could become president], in part due to the wise, moderate temperament of the citizenry."
Thanks to Wilson and the progressive movement, we have come to think of institutions that seek to create distance between the people and the laws as anti-democratic, unjust, and susceptible to corruption and elite capture. At the same time, "good government" has come to mean as much direct democracy as possible, as much accountability as possible, and as much transparency as possible.
If Wilson and Jefferson were correct in thinking that the people can be trusted to fend off the advances of a demagogue, such practices may well improve lawmaking without endangering our republic. But if, as Hamilton and Lincoln would almost certainly contend, the people are as susceptible now as they ever were to the charisma of ambitious men offering quick fixes for their troubles, we must be suspicious of reforms that more efficiently translate public opinion into law — for they also efficiently empower demagogues.
What can we learn from American political thought's long history of purposeful, if inadequate, theorizing about demagoguery?
As a starting point, we can recognize that the study of demagoguery, the identification of demagogues, and the strategies to prevent demagoguery are and have always been political. The New York Times archives, stretching back to the 1850s, are littered with hundreds of references to political officeholders as demagogues. The term has served as a go-to condemnation in bitter political fights throughout American history. In some ways, that news is reassuring: Citizens seem aware that demagogues pose a threat to American democracy and, if the character attacks are working, are willing to oppose leaders who employ demagogic tactics.
Most of those labels, however, are politicized. Jackson was called a demagogue by many a Washington insider, including his predecessor John Quincy Adams. But he has also been called one of the Constitution's great defenders for his opposition to nullification and the institutionalism of his Bank Veto Message. Huey Long, by contrast, fits the definition of a demagogue to a tee. As governor of Louisiana, he ran the state legislature as a subdivision of the executive branch, thus overstepping the constitutional boundaries of his authority.
It is easy to label our friends "statesmen" and our enemies "demagogues"; it's much harder to do the opposite. Devising truly non-partisan, objective criteria for judging in advance whether leaders will harm American democracy may well be impossible. But if we recognize the need to protect our democracy from demagoguery, what does American history suggest we can do?
There are a few options available. Some of them are improbable; none of them are perfect. But they do offer a ray of hope for those despairing of our nation's future.
First, we could embrace the views of Jefferson and Wilson and rely on the people to spot demagogues and keep them out of office. Yet traditionally, as we have discussed, the people haven't done this well. Even those of us steeped in political history and theory are prejudiced by our personal political biases. But greater awareness of the history of American demagoguery, and of the threat demagogues pose in particular, would undoubtedly improve the public's chances of identifying deceitful, ambitious men before they are caught up in the passionate hype.
If we rely on the people to keep demagogues out of office, we need to be much clearer and more explicit about the specific threat they pose to American democracy. Despite being the poster child for American demagogues, Huey Long is still regarded as a hero in Louisiana because he ushered into law a series of beneficial social-welfare programs — including massive investment in roads, education, energy infrastructure, and hospitals — and oversaw a vast expansion of Louisiana State University. Many (if not most) of us are willing to fudge a little on institutional constraints to enact the policies we desire. We are even less willing to defend such constraints when demagoguery achieves the policies we believe justice demands. Prioritizing institutionalism over our personal or partisan interests is a high bar — one the public will need coaching to surmount.
As a second option, we could rely on robust institutional design to keep demagogues out of office. This was the framers' approach, and it was part of Van Buren's goal for America's two-party system. The Electoral College, selection of senators by members of the state legislatures, and a general sense that factions would rarely gain majority status in a large, diverse republic originally served as structural bulwarks against demagoguery.
The Electoral College, however, has not fared well as a defensive institutional tool. It may well have done so if the original design had survived, but the 12th Amendment, while in some ways necessary, eliminated some of the means by which the framers thought electors might buck the public will when necessary. Meanwhile, 20th-century reforms to the presidential selection process have turned the Electoral College into a formula for calculating election results rather than a mechanism for weeding out the demagogues.
The appointment of senators by state legislatures has also fallen by the wayside. Popular election of senators, enacted through the 17th Amendment in 1913, tied the Senate to the temporary whims of public passions. Senators today would like us to believe they are still members of an elite institution tasked with elevating public discourse and checking presidential abuses of power — but we've all seen the viral clips that suggest otherwise.
Reading Federalist No. 10 today is an odd experience. On the one hand, it remains a brilliant piece of practical theorizing about public opinion and the nature of representative governance. On the other hand, ideas nowadays seem to face few if any impediments in their quest to spread like wildfire. As Madison wrote in Federalist No. 49:
[T]he strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated.
Today, thanks in large part to social media, it's hard to argue that our size and diversity make majority factions less likely to form. Citizens who in 1789 might have struggled to find likeminded individuals now only need a Facebook account to fortify their views.
Parties have also evolved so that they no longer serve the filtering and constraining roles they were designed to fill. The McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms adopted after the contested Democratic convention in 1968 moved the presidential nominating process out of the hands of party leaders and into those of regular party members across the country. The primary as a nominating tool is a demagogue's dream — it allows popular candidates to win over relatively small groups of people in early primary states and build momentum that eventually carries them through larger contests slated for later in the process.
If Madison was right about how factious leaders gain power, the current nominating process is the worst of both worlds. It puts decision-making power in the hands of the public rather than an informed party elite who are incentivized to hold candidates accountable to vetted party platforms and filter out those without broad appeal. At the same time, the gradual rollout of state primary contests from February through August prevents us from having the kind of national debate that Madison suggested would eliminate factious candidates and elevate men of good character.
We often think of partisanship as a contributor to demagoguery in that it encourages divisiveness and incivility. This is likely true of polarization and extreme versions of negative partisanship. But parties as organizations intended to select candidates, constrain them with a vetted platform, and build support behind leaders willing to uphold existing institutions are valuable structural tools in the fight against demagoguery. If we are to rely on institutions to keep demagogues out of office, we will need to rally behind reforms that strengthen parties as organizations and empower party leaders to carry out their intended functions.
As a third option, we could accept that demagogues will inevitably be elected to office. Indeed, modern sensibilities may not allow for the kind of centralized control that would be required to filter out dangerous candidates and constrain voters' choices. If we accept that demagogues will occupy public office on occasion, we need to either bolster the institutions designed to lessen the damage they can inflict or bolster the norms designed to do the same.
Separated powers and checks and balances are the primary means by which institutions can prevent demagogues from overstepping legal boundaries and abusing their power. Our founders eschewed mere "parchment barriers" in favor of a balanced system that would pit officeholder against officeholder, maintaining boundaries of authority by aligning the interests of those in power with the defense of those boundaries. If a demagogic president enacted an unconstitutional executive order, the courts would step in to check that abuse. If he manipulated executive actors into adopting policies that don't comply with congressional intent, Congress would defend the bounds of its authority and push back against executive encroachment.
The proper functioning of that system requires that ambition "be made to counteract ambition," as Madison famously put it. In other words, officeholders have to be willing and able to defend their institutions, even against encroachment from friendly co-partisans. That last part is especially tricky. Congress has long delegated authority to the executive, and modern polarization and heightened partisanship have resulted in congressional leaders who seem eager to invite presidential transgression as long as it suits their policy goals. Our system of checks and balances depends on man's innate desire for more personal power, but the party system laid a new source of power over that constitutional design such that many members of Congress are now better off supporting a co-partisan president than defending the power of an institution that is now, or may soon be, controlled by their political foes.
Federal courts also have a vital role to play in policing the boundaries of congressional and presidential authority. But courts possess the power of neither the purse nor the sword, and are dependent on public legitimacy to ensure their opinions are enforced. The Supreme Court routinely commands approval ratings far higher than those of either the president or Congress, but the public is notoriously fickle.
A robust political-science literature has shown how federal courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, pay careful attention to their status in the public mind and seek out opportunities to bolster their legitimacy. Using the Court to mitigate the damage a demagogue could do would require far better public education about the judiciary's role in America's constitutional process, as well as greater effort to bolster public understandings of the legal and constitutional reasoning behind Court decisions, than we have now. If the public comes to accept the judiciary as a partisan political actor, the Court will almost certainly lose its ability to command their support when constraining demagogic policies that the public ultimately favors.
Violating norms and rules of civility is often the demagogue's first "tell." Cleon spoke with his cloak girt around him. Huey Long wore pajamas to formal meetings. Jackson's inauguration party famously involved broken glassware, unceremonious exits through White House windows, and the president's own rushed escape from the swarms of revelers. If we accept that demagogues will find their way into office and are pessimistic about the chances that institutions will effectively constrain behavior in a polarized age, we could rely on strict enforcement of norms as a final line of defense.
We tend to think of norms as anachronistic and monarchist — stodgy constraints on behavior that are out of step with modern notions of authenticity and democracy. But Washington recognized that norms and rules of decorum would in fact be our best defense against demagoguery. He saw norms of civility as a vital tool in constraining the behavior of popular leaders apt to abuse their positions. Like party platforms, which were intended to constrain candidates' agendas and bring them in line with broader public opinion, behavioral norms of democratic civility channel leaders' charisma and engagement with the public in ways that bolster rather than degrade democratic institutions. Dignity in the White House, Washington argued, bestows legitimacy on the presidency as an institution.
Washington embodied democratic virtues of dignity, civility, and morality in his daily life and interactions, but he also used them as guides in establishing norms for presidential behavior. Everything from the white horses he rode to the way fellow citizens addressed him was intended to build the executive into an office that would lend dignity and democratic respect to the man who assumed the office — even an Andrew Jackson type.
Norms, of course, are not self-executing; they only work if officeholders abide by them, and if the people demand compliance with them. Americans are generally happy to uphold norms when it's convenient to do so and it helps their side; it's another thing entirely to expect them to enforce norms of civility on their fellow partisans.
That sentiment encapsulates the problem of preventing demagoguery fairly well. We all believe that what ultimately matters is justice. If we see the institutions of government as merely a means of achieving just results, shouldn't we cast aside the cumbersome constraints of process when they get in the way of good policy? Wilson and his fellow progressives made something close to that argument at the turn of the last century.
UPHOLDING DEMOCRATIC STANDARDS
My students today hate being forced to re-read Federalist No. 10. Many of them encountered it in high school and see it as an out-of-date analysis of interest-group politics. But I assign it each year because it grounds our study of American government in a key lesson about the purposes of our constitutional system.
In Federalist No. 10, Madison writes that "[a]s long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed." That is of course the key problem of republican governance. Even if every man had the same interests, and even if every man genuinely pursued the common good at all times, we would still come to different conclusions about what is right and what is wrong.
Our diverse faculties and imperfect reasoning guarantee that there will always be a variety of views and interests, even when we are all presented with the same evidence and all want to "do the right thing." It's easy to say we should pursue just policies by any means necessary and overturn or ignore unjust policies whenever we see them. But in a world where reason is fallible, this is a recipe for chaos. Recognizing human fallibility means acknowledging that we might be the ones in the wrong.
The framers' solution was to create a governing process that is deliberative, focused on preserving individual liberty, and in accordance with human nature. Beyond our common commitments to the Declaration's principles of equality, dignity, and liberty, we cannot hope to ever agree on a shared ideology or set of policies. What we can all agree on and commit to is a process — a way of doing things. We can agree to abide by the outcomes of that process, win or lose, because we believe it is the best available means to govern our large, diverse population. Following ratification, the framers recognized that cultivating a willingness to support the process regardless of outcome would be the statesman's greatest challenge.
Americans have never been adept at recognizing demagoguery in their friends and aren't likely to improve those skills in the future. If we recognize that demagogic leaders who overrun institutions in pursuit of their own personal interests pose a threat to democracy, our best chance at deterring and constraining them lies in ruthlessly upholding our institutional and cultural bulwarks against demagoguery. I don't have easy answers as to how we get there. Broadcasting the January 6th Committee hearings in prime time is perhaps a good start — it puts a (nominally) bipartisan defense of process front and center.
We should also find ways to reinvigorate the Tocquevillian use of formal democratic procedures in our civic organizations. No one wants to watch one person lead a caucus or hold a formal vote on every minor decision, as any faculty member forced to sit through tedious meetings governed by Robert's Rules of Order will confirm. But Alexis de Tocqueville was right: Upholding and working through institutional mechanisms in our civil and home lives makes us better citizens. It allows us to see the value in the process and the ways in which it ultimately balances interests and ensures greater justice.
Political scientists and commentators who are particularly concerned about the dangers of demagoguery need to be much clearer about why we should oppose demagogues — even when they are our demagogues. The problem is bigger than Donald Trump, and America's history with demagoguery goes back much further than 2016 — we should say so plainly. Whether we rely on institutional constraints or norms to defend our system of demagoguery, the people will ultimately have to back up those defenses.
Coached by decades of promises and an ever-expanding administrative state, the people on both ends of the political spectrum have come to expect populist rhetoric and policies as the reward for their support. It will take a lot to convince them to forgo their favored policies and critique beloved candidates in the name of upholding institutional constraints and old-fashioned rules of civility. But demagoguery is democracy's greatest threat, and preserving our democracy is worth the effort.