Churchill did warn us, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Plato warned us, too: “So tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.”
Something I take away from these thoughts is that necessarily democracies have a non-zero chance of producing a demagogue. Any democracy, given a long enough time will produce a leader that rises to power by whipping up the base fears and prejudices of the mob. It will eventually happen.
There are, therefore, two tests of a democracy: (1) How often does any particular democracy allow such a demagogue to rise to the heights of power? (2) How does the state/society respond when (1) occurs? Together, these questions ask how well a democracy does at preserving itself, at prevent itself from devolving into any of “those other forms” of government.
Beginning with the first question regarding frequency, it is obvious that any democracy that begins with a demagogue and is succeeded exclusively by demagogues is not much of a democracy, if it ever truly was one. Going slightly longer doesn’t help. If a democratic state produces a demagogue once every generation, it is likely in grave peril.
But what’s the high end, i.e., what is a sufficiently long frequency between demagogues that speaks to an underlying strength of the democracy that only occasionally produces them? Unfortunately, that is a question we can’t yet answer. The current American experiment with representative democracy is the longest one available, and is still young at only 240 years. In that time, we have arguably produced at least 1 demagogue in President Andrew Jackson, and we may be on the cusp of another in President-Elect Donald Trump. How the latter’s presidency will play out remains to be seen. Many, however, are already worried, given his campaign based largely on nativism, populism, racism, and sexism, as well as a disregard for the 1st, 4th, 6th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. (If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already read others articulating their fears regarding Trump’s presidency, and I leave it to them to make their cases.)
The second question considers how long it takes a state to repudiate the demagogue, or at least his message and platform. How quickly is the damage limited or reversed? The test of the strength of a democracy here is how swiftly and strongly does a state respond to preserve itself as a democratic state. A demagogue poses an existential threat to the continued existence of the state as a democracy. The norms, practices, traditions, and laws that are the basis of that democracy can be cast aside by the demagogue to accomplish his fear- or -hate-based mandate (often claiming his actions to be in defense of or for the benefit of the state). The less resistance is mounted against the dissolution of those norms, practices, traditions, and laws, or the longer they go without being reinstated, the weaker the democracy. And by weak, I mean a democracy not well-equipped to preserve itself.
The example of Andrew Jackson is a long and complicated one, and I won’t belabor a history lesson here. Arguably, however, the United States responded slowly. The Trail of Tears still happened. Jackson won a second and even de facto third term (via his Vice President, Van Buren). In the case of the feared demagogic Trump presidency, it is of course far too soon to say. As I write this (less than 24 hours after it became clear he’d won the election), protests are already mounting. The future remains to be seen. But if he turns out to be the demagogue that some fear, then the way forward for those in opposition (for those who wish to preserve American democracy) is clear: resist as much as possible and reinstate as quickly as possible.