Darryl Paulson: Why do democracies create demagogues?

(Second of three parts)

The drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did not trust unfettered democracy. The Founders wanted self-government, but they wanted a government where minorities would be heard and protected from the excesses of the majority.

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, described simple democracy as “one of the greatest evils.”

Alexander Hamilton wrote that ancient democracies “never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny.”

James Madison, one of the authors of The Federalist Papers and an early American president, argued that in a pure democracy, “There is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention.”

The Founders’ skepticism about democracy emanated from the ancient Greeks, and all of them had read Socrates, Plato and other Greek philosophers. Socrates wrote that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”

Plato was also leery of democracy. The longer democracies lasted, the more dangerous they became. Barriers to equality are removed, authority is challenged and the establishment attacked. At this point, individuals do “whatever they want.”

The Founders knew democracies were susceptible to demagogues. After all, it was democracy that called for the execution of Socrates.

To protect against direct democracy and tyranny, the Founders created a political system that had barriers between the people and the exercise of power.

Voting rights were limited and the Constitution provided for the indirect election of the president with the Electoral College. They also developed a system where powers were divided among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Each one would act as a check on the other.

The legislative branch, which they envisioned as the most important, had two chambers with specific powers. House members had two-year terms to help them reflect the will of the people.

The Senate had two unique features. Each state, regardless of population, would have two senators to protect the interests of the small states from domination by the large states. Second, the six-year term was a check on the House. The longer term was a restraint on the excess passions of the population.

Demagogues realize that hatred is a powerful tool in organizing support and creating a mass movement. As Eric Hoffer wrote in his 1951 book, “The True Believer,” hatred is “the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying forces.”

Stereotyping is linked with hatred to create an “us” versus “them” dynamic. Just as the Nazis stereotyped the Jews, the Klan did the same with blacks.

Now, Donald Trump, the GOP presumptive presidential nominee, has stereotyped his enemies.

Why else would Trump call for a ban on 1.2 billion Muslims from entering America. Are they all bad? No. Are most of them bad? No. But, it is far easier to mobilize your supporters by grouping all Muslims as evil.

Why would Trump describe Mexicans as the crime class? They bring crime, drugs and rape to America, according to Trump. Are none of the 6.5 million Mexican illegals decent people? It is so much easier to paint with a broad brush.

Trump, like most demagogues, threatens violence as a form of social control. He has encouraged his supporters to rough up demonstrators, and even promised to pay their legal bills. He has told his supporters that he would like to “punch protesters in the face.”

How do some of Trump’s fellow Republicans view him? Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, called Trump “a dishonest demagogue who plays to our worst fears.”

Mac Stipanivich, a long-time Florida Republican consultant, sent a letter to Republicans urging them to work against Trump and calling him “a boor, a bully, a carnival barker and an embarrassment. Politically, by intent or instinct, he is a neo-fascist.”

As legal scholar Christopher Kutz notes, democracy can be “at the same time both fertile and toxic: fertile as a source of humanitarian values and institutions, but toxic to the very institutions it cultivates.”

As the Founders feared, democracy has created someone toxic to the American political system. Let’s hope Americans are wise enough wise enough to recognize Trump’s tactics and strong enough to defeat him in November.

(Part III will focus on the options available to Republican voters now that Trump is the party’s presumptive nominee.)


Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Darryl Paulson

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.


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