You wouldn’t know it by watching cable TV news, but the debate about demagogues—and their dangers—did not begin with Donald Trump.
Demagogues have been a problem for democracy for 25 centuries, at least since the populist Cleon persuaded his fellow Athenians to slaughter every man in the city of Mytilene as punishment for a failed revolt. Of that particular demagogue, Aristotle wrote: “He was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language, and who spoke with his cloak girt around him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner.”
Today, as social and mass media feast on over-the-top statements, the incentives for demagoguery—and accusing others of being demagogues—are many. And with populist politicians of the left and right gaining voters’ favor around the world, very old questions about democracy are being raised again.
In advance of a Zócalo Public Square event at the Getty Villa, “How Does Democracy Survive Demagoguery?” we asked scholars and practitioners of democracy from Germany to Uruguay: what can democracies do to guard against demagoguery?
The greatest danger to democracy is a struggling population in search of easy answers.
By the first century B.C., the Roman Republic had endured for four centuries and ruled over millions of people around the shores of the Mediterranean. It was far from a perfect democracy, but the citizens of Rome had a real voice in their government in contrast to the kingdoms and autocratic empires elsewhere in the ancient world.
But times were hard. Decades of economic downslide, threats from the Middle East, and political infighting had left the Roman people weary of the plodding nature of their government. They were ripe for someone to take the reins of power and shake up the business-as-usual attitude of their senate.
Julius Caesar was a charismatic and unconventional politician who knew what the masses wanted to hear. He used his immense wealth to fight his way to the highest ranks of political power. The old guard politicians of Rome were horrified at his rise and did everything they could to stop him, but nothing worked. The more the establishment spoke against him, the more the common people loved him.
And so the masses cheered when Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in 49 B.C. and swept away the career politicians. He promised to shake things up and he did, but it wasn’t long before he proclaimed himself dictator for life. He was killed on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. But by then it was too late. The structures of republican government had been laid waste and the voice of the people was silenced for the rest of the Roman Empire.
Democracies breed demagogues.
Demagoguery emerged in Athens concurrently with the rise of democracy. One might argue that the Greek “tyrant”—a strong man with popular support who often circumvented or dominated the normal avenues of power in an ancient Greek city-state—offers a kind of precursor to the demagogue of democratic Athens. Except the Greek tyrant often relied on brute force as much as rhetoric. And it is the use of persuasive speech and the dependence on an electorate willing to be persuaded that marks the primary tool of the demagogue.
As such, in a democratic environment demagogues simply cannot be avoided. They are one of the natural products of a form of government that depends on elections. The most one can rationally hope for is that a majority of the (participating) electorate will identify the demagogue AND reject his or her message. But history, again, teaches us that such a reaction is unlikely.
In fact, the identification of a “demagogue” turns out, as often as not, to be an act of demagoguery itself, with those occupying each end of the political spectrum leveling the term against leaders springing from, or appealing to, the other side.
I would suggest that there remains one simple test that will allow voters to identify a demagogue: If the would-be leader promises to give, restore, provide, insure, or enhance a country but never asks the citizens to sacrifice, pay, serve, or simply work, then this leader is a potential demagogue.
By this standard, most national American politicians of the last 30 years qualify as practicing demagogues. John F. Kennedy’s sacrificial challenge— “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”—stands in ever starker contrast to the endless promises made by both parties today. Of course, Kennedy made that challenge in his inaugural address: that is, after his election.
In the end, demagoguery works when the electorate lacks the integrity and cultural imperative necessary to reject tangible and immediate gain in favor of principles that require sacrifice, effort, and personal responsibility. Democracy, therefore, provides a fecund environment for the reproduction of demagogues. As Shakespeare’s Cassius noted, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. …”
A demagogue is first and foremost just a talented popular speaker.
In Goethe’s time, the word had a thoroughly positive connotation. After the failed revolution of 1848, Prince Metternich heavily attacked the famous revolution speakers, in what was known as the “persecution of demagogues.” In the subsequent restoration period, free public speech was vilified.
Amongst the middle classes, a self-serving demagogic paranoia prevailed. In public, political topics were discussed briefly, factually, soldierly, so as not to arouse suspicion of incitement of the people.
In contrast, in the theaters and on the stage, an extremely eccentric style was developing. The German late romanticism and early modernism came into fashion. It can still be heard today in the recordings of the Mephisto performer Gustav Gründgens. The music of Richard Wagner belongs to this (Incidentally, as a young man he was involved in republican activities and uprisings.) We also know that Adolf Hitler was an enthusiastic visitor to the opera and theater. He spent years practicing theatrical poses in front of the mirror.
The German experience can be summarized as follows: If problems of the citizens are enduringly hidden in politics, if a political idiom creeps in that no longer means anything to the people, then the time has come for the actor to take to the stage. But not just any actors, actors who are prepared to step down from their personal stage and turn the real life of a nation into a stage. The audience is at first astonished, uneasy about the chutzpah, then charmed and fascinated. Then comes the final step, the transformation of the intoxicated audience into an intoxicated nation.
Regrettably, it is usually the narcissistically damaged actors who become political performers. Hitler, for instance, was constantly torn between delusions of grandeur and suicidal tendencies. He could have been intriguing as Hamlet. As a politician he was a catastrophe.
Is there a drug, or a vaccine? The constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany has very intentionally dispensed with the post of a directly elected president, and the government is elected by the parliament. In addition, the Federal Council is not controlled by directly elected senators but by the regional governments. We currently have a chancellor whose theatrical talent is about zero and whose plain, factual tone is virtually a cult. Touch wood!
Who is a demagogue?
While it has come to be a synonym for a certain kind of bad leader, it’s worth remembering that the word demagogue combines root Greek words that mean simply “leader of the people” (demos, or “the people”; agein, or “to lead”).
The pejorative association originated in part in a certain kind of elitism. The “demagogue” came—only gradually, in ancient Greek literary reflections more than in actual political activity—to be seen as someone rising to power with the support of the “common people,” who were looked down upon as the uneducated many by the elite few. Most often, to this opposition of class interests was added an accusation of insincerity: that the demagogue is someone who only pretends to serve the interests of the many (or does so only sometimes). Hence the thought that his or her real aim is to exploit the common people’s support to advance his or her own interests or those of a small coterie.
And to these concerns about overly partisan populist ends, and to cloaked private ends, was added the accusation that a demagogue relies on fraud or force and hides their real purposes under a cloak of populist purposes.
Thus “demagogue” can refer to either overly populist and partisan ends; or to deceptive or dangerous means; or to both. While denunciations of demagogues originated in fear of a certain kind of populism, the danger that “the people” will be invoked as a license to exclude or demonize minorities remains a real one.
To resist the unscrupulous means of fraud and force, democracies need citizens, leaders, and journalists who can articulate the expected norms of politics and expose violations of them. Especially effective are exposures of hypocrisy, pointing out when a demagogue pretends to be speaking for “the people” but can be shown to be truly committed to the advancement of the interests of a small group or simply to his or her own aggrandizement.
Finally, we should remember that simply slapping the label of “demagogue” onto someone does not clarify the specific dangers that they pose—for as we have seen, the dangers may be ones of ends, means, or both. At the same time, we should take care that in resisting those who do genuinely pose a threat to democratic norms and values, we do not fall into the trap of an elitist condemnation of those groups among the people whom demagogues seek to exploit.
In general, democracy works because it doesn’t work.
One reason why democracy tends to produce decent outcomes is that educated, elite political insiders tend to control the political parties and the bureaucracy. To a significant extent, these elites prevent the people from simply getting what they want. What we see this year, with the rise of Donald Trump, is what happens when the Republican establishment breaks down, and is forced to run a populist candidate rather than a candidate the savvy insiders prefer.
Demagogues play to popular prejudices and misinformation. There’s little democracies can do to stop them, other than grant elites significant control over the process. Education, information, and political deliberation haven’t done (and won’t do) the trick.
Democracy suffers from an inescapable, built-in flaw. Each citizen gets an equal, but tiny, share of political power. An individual voter’s ballot makes a difference only if she breaks a tie. But the probability she’ll break a tie, in most cases, is vanishingly small. Thus, most voters have no incentive to be well-informed about politics, or to correct their misinformed opinions. They have no incentive to think rationally about politics or to process information in a reasonable way. They have every incentive to indulge their biases and prejudices.
In a well-functioning democracy, elites and the people keep each other in check. To some extent, the elites keep the people from implementing dumb policies, policies the people support only because they’re badly informed. To some extent, the people keep the elites from simply running the government to their own advantage at the expense of everyone else. Many supporters of democracy decry the power of elites. They should be careful what they wish for. Donald Trump is what happens when we the people get what we want.
Demagoguery is a congenic illness of democracy. There is, though, the chance to keep it under control.
Citizens’ alienation and disenchantment with politics breed demagoguery, when parties or the institutional resources available to citizens are not capable of delivering. When politics becomes meaningless for a portion of the electorate, the opportunity for demagogues arises. Although demagogues re-engage disaffected citizens, they, and their political organizations, cannot fulfill their promises. Therefore, demagogues are simply political agents taking advantage of citizens´ frustration with democratic representation.
Keeping parties and politicians in line with the preferences of the citizens is the best possible protection against demagogues. Under democracy, it is essentially up to citizens to make established parties and governments accountable. Institutional instruments like mechanisms of direct democracy, in conjunction with other resources, facilitate collective action and the expression of citizens´ interests.
When democracy fulfills its promises, citizens do not need to turn to demagogues for solutions. Demagogues are not the bad politicians; they are just the product of the really bad ones.