By John Crascall-Kennedy
Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece and views expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Beehive or The Beehive’s associated writers.
James Fennimore Cooper on Demagogues:
“True demagogues met four criteria: they posture as men of the common people; they trigger waves of powerful emotion; they manipulate this emotion for political benefit; and they threaten or break established principles of governance.”
Since the Progressive Era of US politics between the 1890s and 1920s, the progressive left has been fixated on political reform aimed to make democracies more democratic. Whilst this may seem a worthy objective, history has proven that this political reform, taken to excess, endangers a democracy rather than benefits it. We did not learn our lesson when the very democratic German policy of proportional representation allowed Hitler to sweep the nation with demagoguery and create a totalitarian state. We did not learn our lesson when Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Juan Perón in Argentina transformed their democracies into oppressive dictatorships. And we still have not learnt our lesson, having elected Trump, Duterte and Erdogan, all of whom have demagogic and authoritarian impulses.
These breakdowns of democracy have occurred all because of the political reform which led them to become overly democratic. For example, Trump would not have been elected had the delegates of the Electoral College provided the safeguard against demagogues they were appointed to provide. Instead, they voted him in, pressured by the misguided yearning for a more direct democracy in the American right and even left. This paradigm shift in politics from the despot-wary founding fathers to its current state is a cycle which has occurred before.
Ancient Athens, now considered a model democracy, suffered its fair share of demagogues and their devastating consequences. Through years of prosperity under the prominent statesman and general Pericles, Athenians grew complacent and so made their democracy more democratic. From this tragic error was born Cleon. Cleon posed as a man of the people, a champion of the democracy. He possessed a natural gift for public speaking and used this to arouse the fears and prejudices of the Athenians. After Pericles died, his demagoguery won him leadership of Athens and the power to wage resource-draining wars and conflicts with neighbouring city-states. On more than one occasion, he was an obstacle to peace and unity in the region. The hateful prejudices he championed reached a peak when he ordered that all the men of a nearby town, Mytilene, be executed and the women and children enslaved. Luckily this slaughter was stopped by other Athenian commanders, but not before 100 were killed. Athens descended into chaos following his tumultuous rule, transitioning from a failed democracy to an oppressive oligarchy where worse atrocities were committed – on the Athenian people. Eventually, Athens restored its democracy, but with a renewed caution: the form of government was designed to be a mixed democracy. The remaining Athenians recognised that whilst too little democracy caused the rise of an elite dictatorship, too much democracy caused the rise of demagogue dictatorships. Therefore the ‘mixed democracy’ gave power to the people, whilst providing safeguards against populists in the constitution.
The Founding Fathers read their ancient Greek. From Plato’s Republic they learnt the importance of this fine balance. That is why the US constitution was designed to protect against both dictators and demagogues. The Electoral College system (as opposed to proportional representation) meant that extremist candidates struggled to get a foothold in the election. You could argue, however, that this is too undemocratic, as many in the US now do following the 2016 election. It also serves the purpose of blocking candidates elected by the people but deemed unsuitable by experienced politicians. Again, you could argue that this is too undemocratic. Another safeguard forbids presidents to serve more than two terms (added to the constitution 1947). This was a reaction to the four-term president, Franklin D Roosevelt, who many believed had become too comfortable with his power and too loose with the constitution. Another safeguard is the essential separation of powers in the government between the Judiciary, Presidency and Congress. This should mean that absolute power is impossible since no one person can control all three branches, although the creation of parties meant party loyalty often undermines this disassociation. Finally, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, beliefs, speech and the press, rights vital to effectively obstructing the will of authoritarians. However these protections, in the US and the rest of the democratic world, are in great danger of being overrun. The US constitution is only strong because the American people believe it is strong.
Democracy is the least worst form of government. It may be slow, inefficient and sometimes weak, but it must be preserved at all costs. This means defence against those intending to dismantle democracy from either direction. The blatantly racist voter suppression efforts and Trump’s assaults on the Constitution are examples of anti-democratic actions, but so too are the uncomfortable correspondences between branches of government and the Electoral College’s unwillingness to disobey the election results. We citizens of democracy must be vigilant against both enemies, those who demand too little democracy and those who demand too much.