Bernard J. Dobski, Jr. is a Professor of Political Science at Assumption University in Worcester, MA where he teaches classes on political philosophy, American foreign policy, and international relations. He has published on classical political philosophy, Shakespeare and is currently completing a book on Mark Twain’s political wisdom.
The Paradoxical Defense of Republican Demagoguery
The title of this piece suggests a paradox that, as lover of the republican political form and the liberty it affords, I am reluctant to advance. After all, how can demagoguery, which is the antithesis of republican liberty, ever serve republican ends?
According to Aristotle, whose theoretical defense of this particular form is the first of its kind in the Western world, a republican regime differs from other regimes in its ability to balance the contentious parts of the city – the aristocrats, the oligarchs, and the democrats – against each other, all of whom can make a partially just claim to political rule. By recognizing the justice of their claims and protecting their places within the political constellation of the city, republicanism proves the regime that is not only the most stable, but, of all possible regimes, the most just. Because its members must share in office, ruling and being ruled in turn, and because they must rely on reason in their common deliberations, Aristotle calls this regime “polity” suggesting that it is the most political.
Drawing on her treatment of Aristotle, Leslie Rubin helpfully defines demagoguery, by contrast, as a method of regime change in which “a single wealthy oligarch” seizes “power from an entrenched group of oligarchs by leveraging the force of the many against the few.” As such, it necessarily upsets the republican balance. By subordinating the rule of law to the authority of the people, whose political opinions they will shape by flattery and appeals to prejudice, demagogues make possible instability, injustice, and tyranny. As a result, demagogues are a threat to genuine political life.
The republican case against demagoguery is made even more forcefully by the founders of the American political experiment, Alexander Hamilton especially. As Steve Knott notes in The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, Hamilton begins and ends his contributions to the Federalist Papers with warnings about the dangers posed by demagogues to republican freedom. Arguably, Hamilton’s most famous broadside is his first. In Federalist #1, Hamilton warns that a
dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
The arguments against demagoguery advanced by the likes of Hamilton and George Washington, too numerous to repeat here, all emphasize the dangers to republican politics posed by ambitious and unscrupulous individuals flattering the people and exciting their popular passions and prejudices in an effort to dominate the community. Reason, not the passions so easily stoked among the masses, is the key to republican stability and freedom. Given the wisdom of such worthies as Aristotle, Hamilton, and Washington, how could I even suggest that demagoguery might in some way be useful to the cause of republicanism today?
The answer lies in the fact that while founders like Hamilton and Washington, among others, emphasized the priority of reason in the stewardship of a republican community, they also cautioned against any hope that political life could be purely or even mostly rational. Indeed, the threats to rational politics from the zeal for popular government are so great that reason itself is not sufficient for supplying its own defense; a sober and moderate politics such as Hamilton and Washington endorsed required the development of numerous nonrational checks to the dangers posed by passion and prejudice. That is, though they were recommended by a sustained rational reflection on politics, republican institutions like federalism, the electoral college, the Senate, especially its original mode of election, our system of checks and balances, and the solution to the problem of faction, all rely on the structured management and regulation of human passions. The “revolution of sober expectations”, in Martin Diamond’s famous locution, is not achieved by making men enlightened angels but by effectively channeling their devilish pursuits of self-interest. The reasoned ends of republican – not democratic – liberty need nonrational allies to achieve their goals.
Hamilton himself conceded the need to rely on passion in the face of the dangers posed to republican institutions by democratic populism. In an 1802 letter to Congressman James Bayard, Hamilton, decrying the impassioned efforts of the anti-Federalists to replace the constitutional executive that he advocated with a president who governed chiefly through popular consent, claims that nothing
is more fallacious than to expect to produce any valuable or permanent results, in political projects, by relying on the reason of men. Men are…for the most part governed by the impulse of passion….Unluckily for us in the competition for the passions of the people our opponents have great advantages over us; for the plain reason, that the vicious are more active than the good passions….Yet unless we can contrive to take hold of & carry along with us some strong feelings of the mind we shall in vain calculate upon any substantial or durable results…[I]n determining the propriety of the deviations, we must consider whether it be possible for us to succeed without in some degree employing the weapons which have been employed against us.
Thus, while Hamilton’s defense of republicanism aimed to refine the passions and prejudices of a populace far too vulnerable to moblike rule, he also understood the need to respond to egalitarian passions with passions suited to the republican cause.
Of course, if the case for countering egalitarian passions with republican passions could be made in 1802, then surely it could be made today where the excesses of egalitarianism are on all-too-gaudy display. Whether it is the open assault on our republican institutions, like the attacks on the Electoral College, the filibuster, even the Senate itself, or the attempted federalization of elections, the campaigns for term limits, government by referenda, and court packing, and the increased use of ranked-choice or quadratic voting, the movement to give more and more political power directly to the people grows with each electoral cycle.
Those who cheer these developments do so under the misguided belief that such “reforms” give more power to “the American people.” But the truth is that they empower only one part of that people, a majority perhaps, but still one that, left unchecked, poses a risk to those whose minority views and interests republicanism was designed to protect. One sees most clearly the risks to opposing an unchecked majority’s views at the social level. There, resistance to the majority view on identity politics, critical race theory, and unchecked immigration gets met with all-too-predictable smears of “fascist” or any of growing list of “phobias” that will now disqualify one from a meaningful public existence. At every step, the demand for ever more equality seeks to homogenize the social differences so necessary to our liberty, fostering a “temperament” that, as Tocqueville writes, sets a democratic people “against forms which slow or stop them each day in some of their desires.”
As Knott points out, Hamilton wanted to check such growing populism with passionate appeals to traditional Christianity and a civil religion that would revere the Constitution. These suggestions are sensible, though to contemporary ears they are enough to make one smile. Christianity as a source of political guidance has long been mocked to the sidelines of American discourse. Meanwhile the efforts to produce a genuine civic education, one that refines and strengthens republican devotion, have been hijacked by the goals of identity politics and critical race theory. The curricula at so many of our finest institutions are now dedicated to demonstrating that our country and its laws are unworthy of obedience, to say nothing of veneration and respect. As for the appeal to reason in public affairs, when members of our political and scientific elite struggle to distinguish men from women or when they tell us that we must treat a singular entity as a plurality, well…the redoubt of reason suddenly appears very doubtful. If the nonrational instruments designed by Hamilton to preserve republican liberty have either been, or are in the process of being, eliminated, if a once creeping egalitarianism is now at full gallop, and if traditional religion, civic education, and reason itself have been corrupted, then what hope is there for American republicanism? Could demagogy be the answer? Has it ever been?
The Case for an American “Cleon”?
The charge of demagoguery has been leveled at Donald J. Trump and for good reason. Few presidents, if any, have tried to perform an “end-run” around constitutional laws and norms by appealing to the passions and prejudices of the people as much as he has. So what follows is no brief for the misdeeds of our 45th President. (And perhaps here is where I should note that I voted third party in each of the last two presidential elections and was a signatory to “Originalists Against Trump.”) But it would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss the potential virtues of a certain, qualified form of demagoguery, one employed on behalf of republican freedom, simply because Trump himself was demagogic. To begin to appreciate the potential virtues of demagoguery, let us consider the case of the ancient Athenian statesman and general, Cleon.
The nominal leader of the Athenian demos in the wake of Pericles’ passing, Cleon, as I have written elsewhere, “bullied his opponents, attacked the public use of reason for the common good, used political power to persecute his critics, and was known for his ‘towering moral indignation and its accompanying boastfulness, blood thirstiness.’ Thucydides called him the most violent man in Athens, which is something considering that Athens forcibly ruled an empire at that time. But Cleon was also a skilled rhetorician and partly responsible for a battlefield victory that could have ended the Peloponnesian war early in favor of Athens. Turning to the example of this 5th century demagogue to shed light on the Trump administration is hardly new (I made my own contributions to this effort back in 2018). For now, I want to stress two things about Cleon’s demagoguery that are useful to us in the present context.
The first is that, under the right circumstances, demagoguery can serve as a nonrational ally of public reason—in a way that’s somewhat similar to the Federalist use of institutions to buttress public reason. This is best evidenced in Cleon’s role in the capture of Spartan troops on the island of Sphacteria, arguably the greatest Athenian triumph of the entire war. The formal and efficient cause of this victory lay with Demosthenes, whose genius was responsible for landing Athenian troops on nearby Pylos, fortifying the place, and luring the Spartans into a trap that, when properly executed, would deal a nearly fatal blow to the Spartan regime. But, without Cleon’s outrageous boast “that it would be easy, if they had men for generals, to sail with a force and take those in the island” (IV.27.5) or his insane promise to capture the Spartans within twenty days, this victory would not have occurred. The overly cautious Nicias would not have resigned his generalship. The demos would not have clamored for Cleon, who replaced Nicias, to make good his boast. And Demosthenes would have lacked the troops he needed to produce the crucial victory. While Thucydides is openly critical of Cleon’s demagoguery, his narrative here suggests that translating Demosthenes’ tactical and strategic brilliance into real power required the shameless hyperbole that Cleon was known for. Even though Cleon’s demagoguery is irrational, it is also responsible for the power Athens needed to win.
Of course, to suggest that demagoguery can be put to positive political use requires that one have the ability of a “Demosthenes” to take advantage of the shamelessness of a “Cleon,” or better yet, a statesman who can use demagogic rhetoric to lay the groundwork for the reasoned ends of republican self-government. In this case, a properly crafted demagoguery can call into question previously unquestionable pieties, like our addiction to equality in all things or our mindless valorization of the will of the individual, shake the foundations of our unreflective political commitments, rouse us from apathy, and wake a somnolent populace to the absurdity of pursuing ever more equality at the expense of equality’s republican safeguards.
Once alert to the possibility that questioning such pieties is not only permissible, but consistent with both our healthier political instincts and the natural exercise of our reason, the American public can be supplied the rational arguments for preserving the republican institutions now crumbling around us. But without that opening salvo, without that nonrational cover which the braggadocio of a populist like Cleon provides, the brilliance of a republican Demosthenes stands little chance either of gaining traction with a public limited to expressing itself in 140 characters or of budging the ideological monolith erected by our hyper-liberal academy and supported by its allies in the media, government, Hollywood, and now a military and business class that’s gone “woke.”
This brings us to the second point. Cleon was as successful as he was because he grasped, consciously or not, the angry political psychology of his populist base. That anger, as Thucydides shows us, is rooted in the disappointment of profound moral hopes for a world ordered towards justice and the belief that ever more forceful laws will produce that fervently desired, but ever elusive, end. Ultimately, Thucydides’ portrait of Cleon suggests that his angry desire to force the world to be just, as it were, is itself born from a cowardly refusal to face what he fears to be true about both justice and the world he hopes secures it. And he refuses to face these fears because he is unwilling to consider seriously the possibility that the good is not to be understood in terms of what is his own. It is this unwillingness to consider that our own is not, merely by virtue of being ours, good, that accounts for the ungenerous and shriveled nativism of Cleon’s Athenian patriotism.
While the first point offered an example worth modeling, this point provides the would-be republican demagogue a cautionary tale. The demagogic defense of republican principles must recognize the source of Cleon’s popular attraction in part so that it can address the indignation behind it and, where just, satisfy it. It must also be able to manipulate this political psychology, sometimes to redirect its anger and sometimes to simply defuse it. But most importantly, it has to appreciate the particular power of Cleon so that it can avoid falling prey to the vice endemic to so many on the American right and the left, namely of always defining the good in terms of our own, a move which renders us incapable of recognizing the merits of our opponents. Because the stewards of republican regimes necessarily appreciate the just claims to rule advanced by each part of the community, realizing the moral and material dependence of each part on the other, the republican demagoguery for which I am here advocating would expose the sheer witlessness of those social, cultural, and political movements that seek to undo the conditions necessary for their own preservation.
Any Republican Demagogues Out There?
We know of Cleon primarily by the works of fellow Athenians, men like Thucydides, Aristotle and Aristophanes, all of whom reject the vulgar and violent example set by this demagogue. We would be wise to heed their warnings. But for a political order that wants to preserve a shred of republican sensibility against the masses who have come to see their president as another “tribune of the people,” Cleon’s example offers some lessons worth preserving. To this end, we might recall President Trump’s most widely recognized slogan: “Make America Great Again.” To some this promoted the kind of shriveled nativism decried above. Fair enough. But the brashness and authenticity with which it was shouted reminded others that national self-respect is critical to one’s community, that a people who lacked confidence in itself, its culture, faith, values, traditions, and borders could not reasonably be called “a people” at all.
Those for whom the chanting of “MAGA! MAGA!” awakened their slumbering, but otherwise healthy, political instincts, found their “Demosthenean” moment in the speech Pres. Trump delivered in Warsaw, Poland on July 6, 2017. This was the moment where reason capitalized on the republican passions resurrected by Trump’s demagoguery. In this speech, Pres. Trump articulated a powerful and moving reminder of the importance of nationhood and national identity in the heart of a Europe that had fecklessly sacrificed national sovereignty on the altar of an insipid global humanitarianism. His speech thus provided reasons for why nations matter and why national borders matter and thus why countries must remain centrally concerned with who they do and do not admit into their political partnerships.
The “MAGA” motto may be brash and prone to jingoistic abuse (by himself and others), but it secured Trump an opportunity to rehabilitate for a broader public the dignity of a patriotic sentiment that many of America’s public intellectuals had long mocked into disrepute. And in his formal and informal remarks to the European members of NATO delivered earlier that year, Trump defended American national interests with a bullishness and a candor that surely surprised his counterparts. As the remarks by Secretary General Stoltenberg at the NATO breakfast indicated, the voluntary decision by some NATO members to dramatically increase defense spending was largely in response to the effectiveness of Trump’s campaign messages which were, if anyone recalls, loud, brash, at times vulgar or, in a word, demagogic. It bears emphasizing that Trump’s argument to our NATO allies was not simply a case of putting “America first” at the expense of our friends. It was rather a forceful defense of the principle of fairness without which all alliances between countries must fail. That Trump’s forcefulness proved necessary here, one need only consider that these points had long been made by others in more diplomatic tones that ultimately proved ineffective.
Pres. Trump’s “America first” approach yielded its share of dividends, especially in our foreign policy. But since my interest here is in the almost lost cause of American republicanism, I will close by noting another of Trump’s more demagogic promises, namely to “drain the swamp.” A staple of his campaign rallies and a theme developed in his inaugural address, “draining the swamp” provided a particularly rich image for reclaiming the controls of government for the American people and away from an establishment run by Ivy-educated, coastal elites who insulate themselves from the deplorable, gun-toting, religious zealots clogging the vast wasteland of middle America known as “flyover country.” As Aristotle shows us, this particular strategy, used by one oligarch to overthrow other oligarchs, is a classic example of regime change by demagogy. “Draining the swamp” is thus critical to the populist flames that Trump liked to stoke and which are anathema to the cause of republicanism.
But the fate of republican liberty also requires that the roots of our unelected federal bureaucracies and their political commitments be exposed. And it turns out the very crudeness of Trump’s demagoguery provoked responses from elements of this “swamp” that brought to our attention in a way that little else could the existence of political, commercial, and cultural forces that are happy to ignore or dismiss our republican heritage so long as they can enrich themselves or expand the frontiers of democracy. In the case of “Russiagate” especially, Trump’s demagogic “sledgehammering” excited the reaction of an opposition whose deep pockets and widespread institutional support pose threats to our republican order that are every bit as real and as shameful as the insurrection of January 6th, 2021.
I could provide other examples where Trump’s demagoguery provided an opportunity to educate America towards greater republican responsibility. But for every good example of republican demagoguery I could find, Trump provided many bad ones, instances too numerous to list here but all of which suggest that he is in fact more of a “Cleon” than he is a “Demosthenes.” This is a sobering reminder that the republican rhetoric I advance tentatively here is like playing with fire. And yet advance it I do in the hopes that a “republican Demosthenes” might be able to use it. For the cause is great and it is late in the day and I fear that we will not be able to keep our republic much longer.
 For translations of Thucydides’ Greek, see The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler (Free Press: New York), 1994.