Demagogues in American Politics

Charles U. Zug is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Colorado – Colorado Springs

Demagoguery is a concept that originated in classical antiquity, but the American constitutional system is, in its most important respects, rooted in a body of thought that rejects the core commitments of classical philosophy. The building blocks of modern constitutionalism—rights, the separation of powers, an “indirect” government of administration—assume a vision of the state and society that differs decisively from the political vision of Plato, Aristotle, and other political theorists of their milieu. Yet with few exceptions, Americans today continue to think and argue about demagoguery in its original terms, the terms of classical antiquity, even though the political ecosystem we inhabit today, that of modern constitutional democracy, requires us to understand demagoguery in wholly new terms. 

My new book, Demagogues in American Politics (Oxford University Press), is an attempt to show what this new understanding of demagoguery would consist in. It describes what demagoguery means in a specifically American context, and it proposes a new way to analyze and assess demagogic leadership in terms of the American constitutional system: the political regime that, notwithstanding profound changes in the course of our country’s history, we still live under today.

Demagoguery and Free Speech

In book five of the Politics, Aristotle asserts that “democracies revolt chiefly on account of the licentiousness of demagogues,” citing as evidence that the Ancient Greek democracy of Kos was overthrown when “depraved demagogues” arose there, which in turn provoked Kos’s elites into overthrowing the city’s democratic regime (1304b 20-21, 25-26; translation mine). Though nothing seems to be known about this event historically (see the Politics, Lord translation, 139 n.35), Aristotle makes clear through other examples in the Politics that what he means by “demagogue” is, roughly, an individual who tries to provoke the city’s poor population (“the many”) into harassing—and at the worst, directly attacking—the city’s elites (e.g., 1304b – 1305a). As classicist Melissa Lane has shown, Aristotle, following the Socratic paradigm developed by Plato, described demagogues as being by definition morally bad—as political pariahs that emerge as a consequence of democracy as a regime type. 

Crucially from the perspective of modern constitutional democracy, Aristotle fails or refuses to entertain any notion of “free speech,” or of individual liberty in general, that might justify or at least legitimate the kinds of public outbursts that he classifies as demagogic. For Aristotle, a demagogue is anyone—private citizen or political officeholder—who speaks out publicly on behalf of the many against the few. Though he does not say it in so many words, the implication of Aristotle’s argument is that the kinds of behavioral attributes we, today, might associate with legitimate political protest—e.g., demonstrations marked by impassioned and provocative speech—are not a sign of democratic vitality, and a legitimate means by which the marginalized and disadvantaged can make their needs known. Rather, they are symptoms of political distress. Perhaps a democratic government has overreached, thereby empowering irresponsible provocateurs. Or perhaps an oligarchic government has mistreated the many, who are responding by overturning the oligarchs. Either way, an emotional public outburst against the elites is emphatically not “legitimate public discourse,” as many today would assume. It’s demagoguery, and it needs to stop. 

You can detect a similar sense of skepticism towards divisive and emotional public speech in modern authoritarian regimes. Characteristically, authoritarian rulers are less than receptive towards free speech; they are even less receptive towards the kinds of institutions that make free speech possible: vibrant legislatures, competitive political parties, and independent courts. As a consequence, political protests and free speech are dangerous enterprises in countries like Russia, where they are likely to be dismissed as evidence of Western-backed subversion before being crushed

While different in most important respects, these two models of political authority—classical politics and modern authoritarianism—share a substantive commonality. The ancients viewed all politics as, at bottom, a more-or-less contained conflict between competing factions with ultimately irreconcilable claims to rule. Similarly, authoritarians as such tend to take for granted that, like it or not, their rule over the community is and will remain contested by at least some portion of the population that dislikes being excluded from rule. Further, unlike politicians and parties in a free regime, authoritarians have no institutional modes for peacefully transferring power to a competing party or ruler; they either rule or they don’t, and if they don’t, they are likely to lose their land, their financial holdings, and their very lives in the process. For these reasons, rhetoric intended to provoke the marginalized and stir up the oppressed has no space in either of these political orders.

In his brilliant discussion of political parties, The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age, Russell Muirhead contends that, in classical politics, political parties were necessarily “fugitive,” in the sense that they could not be officially tolerated by any regime. Unlike in modern pluralistic democracies, where the regime is supposed to allow different parties to compete for the public’s authorization to hold public office, in classical politics, all regimes were understood to be ultimately partisan, in the sense that some faction, or party, always ruled the polity. At best, these parties could reach a negotiated settlement—Aristotle’s “mixed regime”—that allowed them to share in rule, thereby mitigating each regime’s worst tendencies and approximating (yet never fully realizing) the common good. But because open party competition threatened to expose the partisan nature of the regime itself, parties could never openly compete for office and accept each other’s electoral losses and victories as legitimate, as they do in functioning constitutional democracies today.

On account of their work in designing the American constitutional system, the American founders are often seen as playing an important role in creating the modern liberal regime of constitutional democracy. But unlike contemporary inhabitants and defenders of that regime, the founders were less than confident that many of the institutions and behaviors that are characteristic of liberal politics today—perhaps above all, freedom of expression and political parties—were unalloyed political goods. Madison in Federalist #10 famously held that the seeds of political parties are sewn into the very nature of human beings, and that parties are therefore inevitable in a democracy. But Madison’s main preoccupation in elaborating these arguments was managing the harmful effects of parties and not, as do most political scientists today, promoting parties as a positive force for the political system.

Much the same can be said regarding the American founders’ views on demagoguery and free speech. In addition to the fact that the original U.S. Constitution did not contain explicit protections for free speech—that right wouldn’t come until 1791, with the ratification of the Bill of Rights—many, perhaps most, of the founders held a negative view of demagoguery similar to Aristotle’s. At the very least, as Jeffrey Tulis shows in The Rhetorical Presidency, the founders did not want leadership acts they associated with demagoguery to become a routine part of ordinary politics. And as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 suggest, elites in the early republic were more than willing to deploy the powers of the state to suppress the kinds of political speech that Americans of today would regard as deserving strong protections under the First Amendment.

And yet, despite these similarities with Aristotle and the ancients, the American founders were in principle open to a new understanding of demagoguery, because the theoretical foundation of their politics was the product of a philosophical rejection of classical political philosophy, a rejection that had been effected by early modern philosophers including Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. While disagreeing on many points, these philosophers had agreed that the chief purpose of politics was not the formation of human character in accordance with the needs of a particular regime, as it had been in classical politics. Rather, it was the regulation of conduct for the sake of securing rights and achieving safety and material prosperity. As Herbert Storing once put it with characteristic shrewdness and clarity, from the perspective of modern political philosophy, “government was no longer seen as directing and shaping human existence but as having the much narrower (though indispensable) function of facilitating the peaceful enjoyment of the private life.” Relatedly, traditional understandings of politics were “based upon a misapprehension of political life, a failure to understand its decidedly instrumental function” (Toward a More Perfect Union, 412-413).

Because they had understood politics as “directing and shaping human existence,” the ancients had also viewed demagoguery as a kind of moral defect, rooted in a leader’s willingness to indulge any mode of speech whatsoever—even at the expense of justice and the common good—so long as it increased their own popular influence. In the Rhetoric, for example, Aristotle defines this kind of publicly irresponsible rhetoric as the “moral choice” not to say the truth insofar as one knows it, in the pursuit of power (1355b 14). In contrast, the modern philosophers tended to view demagoguery, and political rhetoric generally, from the perspective of its impact on the material state of the community and the rational autonomy of the community’s members. For some moderns, as Bryan Garsten has shown, this meant discouraging demagoguery on the grounds that it was likely to disturb the peace. (Ever aware of the threat of civil war, Thomas Hobbes was particularly critical of rhetoric for precisely this reason.) Yet because the primary concern of politics differs in such a basic way in the two schemes, their rationales for rejecting demagoguery—moral defect, or public disturbance?—change accordingly. If it turns out that demagoguery is compatible with (or is even capable of advancing) the common good, then the rationale against demagoguery loses its potency.

Demagoguery and the U.S. Constitution

Seen from this vantagepoint, the American founders’ seeming rejection of demagoguery is better understood not as core to their political thinking, but as the residue of an older political philosophy, one that the constitution they designed and then defended in 1787-88 failed to support. Unlike many of the State constitutions that preceded it, such as the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the U.S. Constitution purposefully fails to provide for the kinds of public education and training necessary for developing the moral character of the citizenry. Instead, as commentators going back to the authors of The Federalist have shown, the Constitution relies on institutions designed to incentivize publicly-desirable behavior on the part of political officeholders who are themselves not necessarily motivated by civic virtue.

Crucial to note at this point is that most of the men directly involved in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution had rather concrete beliefs and expectations about which kinds of behaviors were publicly desirable, and should therefore predominate in American public life. Specifically, most of these men firmly believed that the kinds of rhetorical appeals they associated with demagoguery, and with popular leadership in general, should be circumscribed to the greatest extent possible in American government and, as the Alien and Sedition Acts suggest, perhaps in the broader public sphere as well. 

Yet thinking constitutionally requires drawing a distinction that scholars of demagoguery have overlooked. As Ronald Dworkin argues in Law’s Empire, there is a crucial difference between a constitution’s foundational concepts, on the one hand, and the particular conceptions of the public good held by a constitution’s drafters, on the other. Dworkin uses the analogy of a parent disciplining their child to illustrate this difference. A parent might have a particular conception of what good parenting requires, perhaps one they have inherited from their own parents. Yet a good parent would amend that conception, and change their parenting style accordingly, if shown compelling evidence that their inherited style harmed rather than helped their child mature into a happy adult. Ultimately, a good parent is committed to the concept of good parenthood—they want to be the best possible version of a parent simply—not to their own particular conception of what good parenting demands.

Politically speaking, concepts are the general values and aspirations to which a constitution is committed. Conceptions, in contrast, are mental images of the material realities that a constitution’s framers anticipated their political regime would enact. Consider, for example, the Constitution’s republican guarantee clause (Article 4, section 4). For some of the Constitution’s framers, it appears that their particular conception of “republicanism” was fully compatible with slavery, even though the best understanding of the concept of republicanism rejects slavery. Our primary obligation as free and equal citizens under the American Constitution is therefore not to uncritically enact what we believe some or even most of the founders hoped the Constitution would lead to. Rather, it is to use our critical faculties to search for the best version of the Constitution’s concepts. What would it mean for the Constitution—its offices and the rights it envisions—to be the best version of itself? In regard to demagoguery, this means that the American founders’ expectations about the future behavior of Constitutional officers—i.e., their particular conceptions of what counts as desirable leadership—are different from the various possibilities in behavior that the concepts they laid down in their constitution are open to. 

What are the implications of this distinction for understanding demagoguery today? One implication is that the distaste that many of the founders felt toward demagoguery should be subordinate to the core objectives of the Constitution itself: securing popular consent, protecting individual rights, and administering the government with energy and stability. Indeed, as James Ceaser shows in Presidential Selection, the most sophisticated of the American founders, including the authors of The Federalist, objected to demagoguery—i.e., direct, emotion-based appeals to the public to rally support for preferred measures—not as a matter of taste or snobbishness, but because they had reasons to believe that such appeals would, in the aggregate, undermine the Constitution’s ability to realize its basic objectives. These reasons were valid. Among other things, frequent direct appeals by leaders to the public disrupt the government’s ability to deliberate on and negotiate over complex matters of public policy, incentivizing instead a policymaking process that is oriented towards emotionally satisfying but logistically confused and theoretically shallow policy outcomes. They also endanger the rights of politically vulnerable groups and minorities, who are easily crushed by tidal waves of popular rage. In the long run—so goes this rationale—both the processes and the outcomes that demagoguery tends to precipitate work to undermine public confidence in the American state

As persuasive as this particular story might be, it is only part of the whole story of demagoguery in American politics. The basic rationale for replacing the Articles of Confederation with the new Federal Constitution was that the former lacked the means to achieve its fundamental objectives. A new regime—one, to use Hamilton’s phrase in Federalist #23at least equally energetic” to the Constitution proposed in 1787—was needed to achieve these ends. Along these lines, The Federalist tries to persuade us that the particular institutional arrangements established in the proposed Constitution—and, more importantly, the kinds of behavior and conduct that those arrangements will incentivize—will animate a just, stable, and energetic American state.   

But what if the modes of political behavior envisioned and favored by many of the American founders—a formal, taciturn presidency; an aristocratic Senate; elite-dominated parties, or no parties at all—turn out not to be particularly useful for American politics, either? What if provocative, outspoken leadership sometimes turns out to be necessary to make the Constitution work, even though many of the Constitution’s framers believed that such leadership was incompatible with the political regime they had designed?

Seen through this lens, leaders from American politics past and present can take on an entirely new meaning; and in the second part of my book, I give detailed examples of how to rethink officeholders from each of the Constitution’s three branches in these new terms. In the American context, demagoguery is better understood not as a morally-repugnant form of leadership, but as a morally-neutral leadership technique that can be deployed in Constitutionally better and worse ways. To be sure, demagoguery can undermine deliberation and introduce excessive vitriol and polarization into the political process. But officeholders can also use demagogic tactics to amplify a strong argument that would otherwise go unheard. They can deploy demagoguery to spotlight societal problems that tend to get lost in the humdrum and hurly-burly of ordinary political discourse. Demagoguery used this way does not undermine the Constitution, I argue, but rather helps the project of constitutional democracy succeed.

Demagogues in Constitutional Office

To illustrate these points, my book draws examples from all three branches of American government to illustrate a second, but no less important, aspect of demagoguery understood in American terms. As I have written before in The Constitutionalist, demagoguery takes on different meanings in each branch because, as The Federalist shows and as scholars drawing on those essays have elaborated, each Constitutional branch is designed to perform different functions and to pursue different ends. And as common sense and experience testifies, “different jobs require different kinds of speech. Words that are appropriate at an athletic event or a political protest, for example, would be disruptive or even damaging at a legal proceeding or a funeral, because these different shared activities exist for the sake of different social ends. More broadly, the ways in which we communicate our thoughts affect the ability of ourselves and others to perform the tasks and honor the responsibilities that make up our daily lives.” 

These rhetorical responsibilities are on display in the intuitions we all have about what counts as appropriate speech in different institutional settings. As I recently wrote in RealClear Public Affairs, “unelected judges should avoid impassioned or divisive rhetoric, because the successful execution of their office does not require it. Federal judges have lifetime appointments and therefore do not need to deploy the kind of rhetoric that is necessary for winning elections. Additionally, unlike legislators who need to assemble majorities to pass legislation, justices do not necessarily have to persuade their colleagues on the court in order to succeed at their job. They are institutionally empowered to rule in accord with their own best understanding of the law, regardless of whether they are in the majority or minority.” 

In contrast, as I have written here in The Constitutionalist, “we expect elected officials to weigh in on ordinary political matters and to take partisan stands because part of what it means to be a good elected representative is to advocate for one’s constituents. By constitutional design, members of Congress represent a part of the whole community, and they are supposed to communicate the needs of that part to the whole—as well as the needs of the whole to their respective part—in a way that conduces to harmony between the two.”

“Presidents, too, are elected officials, and they play a fundamental role in national policymaking; so it makes sense for them to be permitted to weigh in on matters of political discussion, defending the views that they and their party support and criticizing alternatives. At the same time, because presidents are elected to a constitutional office that represents the entire country (and not just one electoral constituency), they have rhetorical responsibilities that members of Congress do not. Constitutionally, presidents play a significant role in the legislative process, which inevitably makes them partisans of particular measures and policy positions. But they are also in charge of enforcing the law, which means there is a limit to how much political discretion they can ultimately exercise: they are administrators as well as legislators. What is more, presidents have the solemn duty to command the nation’s armed forces, a duty that should temper their speech and conduct.”

My book concludes that the Constitution creates offices that require different kinds of speech on the part of officeholders in order to function properly and accomplish their ends. More broadly, the aim of my book is to provide us with a lens that enriches our view of demagoguery, and that equips us with the means to make better judgments about those we have chosen to lead our country.

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