Demagoguery and the Dangers of “Extreme Democracy”

I recently published an academic article, “Using Democracy Against Itself: Demagogic Rhetoric as an Attack on Democratic Institutions,” where I wrote about “extreme democracy” as a form of demagoguery (The abstract is here. If you want to read the whole thing, get in touch). Specifically, I argued that a consistent—perhaps defining—characteristic of demagoguery is that it hyperextends or supercharges direct democracy in order to undermine democratic institutions.

I thought it might be worth glossing my argument here because what I wrote about in that article is on full display in the Senate impeachment hearings.

The concept of “extreme democracy” or “rampant democracy” comes from Aristotle. In The Politics, written in about 350 BCE, Aristotle produced a taxonomy of the different kinds of governance: monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies. For Aristotle, oligarchies are vastly superior to monarchies because monarchies eventually tend toward tyranny. No big surprises there.

Probably also no surprise, democracies are better than oligarchies. According to Aristotle, democracies are the best form of governance because they are “safer and more permanent” and “more relaxed and gentler” than oligarchies. Yay democracies!

Continuing with our theme of “no surprises,” however, democracies aren’t without their challenges. The major problem is that unlike tyrannies and oligarchies, democracies are susceptible to demagogues. Aristotle doesn’t provide an explicit definition of “demagogue” in The Politics, but what he does say is this:

[I]n democracies which are subject to the law the best citizens hold the first place, and there are no demagogues; but where the laws are not supreme, there demagogues spring up. … At all events this sort of democracy, which is now a monarch, and no longer under the control of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot; the flatterer is held in honour [sic]. … The decrees of the demos correspond to the edicts of the tyrant; and the demagogue is to the one what the flatterer is to the other.

There are two things I want to point out here. First, for Aristotle, the demagogue is not the same as a tyrant. Elsewhere he calls demagogues “aspirants to tyranny,” and it’s useful to think of the ways that demagogues try to move a democracy toward tyranny. Which is why the second thing worth pointing out is Aristotle’s warning that a democracy under the sway of a demagogue becomes like a tyranny.

Aristotle maintains that this form of governance is a democracy, inasmuch as the people have the power in their hands. But much to his chagrin, the people collectively act as a monarch. In this form of democracy, “not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and supersede the law by their decrees.” For Aristotle, the fundamental perversion of this form of democracy is not simply that the people rule as one, but that this form of rule inverts the popular will and the supremacy of the laws.

This is where his term “extreme democracy” comes into play. One way to read Aristotle’s description of demagogues is that they seize state power. Another way to read it, however, is that demagogues do not thwart democracy directly so much as they supercharge it. He writes, “The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, and refer all things to the popular assembly. … Further, those who have any complaint to bring against the magistrates say, ‘let the people be judges;’ the people are too happy to accept the invitation; and so the authority of every office is undermined.”

By referring all matters to the popular assembly, the demagogue makes democracy extreme, and extreme democracy eventually destroys itself.

Here’s a recent, (not so) hypothetical example. Let’s imagine a member of the Supreme Court dies. By law, the sitting President should appoint a new justice and the Senate should “advise and consent” on the appointment. But instead, the Senate majority leader declines to take up the nomination, claiming “the American people should have a say in the court’s direction.” The Senate majority leader then stalls the process for nearly a year, asserting that since it is an election year, “the American people have a particular opportunity now to make their voice heard … in the process to select their next president—as they decide who they trust to both lead the country and nominate the next Supreme Court justice.”

In this example, rather than upholding the legal, institutionally-defined process, the Senate majority leader turns the Senate’s responsibility over to the popular assembly. By supercharging democracy in this way, the Senate majority leader undermines democracy and does irreparable damage to democratic institutions (i.e., the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the executive branch). He appears to be super, extra democratic by having “the people” weigh in, but actually he’s abandoning his own responsibility and leading rhetorical attacks against democratic institutions’ legitimacy by amplifying and channeling the will of the people. In short, he’s destabilizing the institutions he’s directly responsible for safeguarding.

In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s impeachment trial has provided another good example of attempts to supercharge democracy. As David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, “The White House’s messaging throughout the impeachment process has been wildly inconsistent on nearly every count save one: Democrats are trying to overturn the 2016 election.” His legal team made that case explicitly during the Senate trial. In other words, efforts to hold the President accountable are characterized as attempts to rebuke the popular assembly. It’s a barely concealed attack on democratic institutions because it attempts to remove their legal, institutional oversight authority and place it in the hands of “the people.”

In the coming months, impeachment will undoubtedly hold center stage in campaign messages of Democrats and Republicans alike. As the campaign messages unfold, “the people” will inevitably be a common refrain. But it will be important to watch where “the people” is used as an appeal to supercharge democracy in ways that attack and undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Because the more we invest in “aspirants to tyranny,” the closer we come to losing our democracy. And the way we avoid that is by paying attention to who we elect and how they talk about what elected officials should do with their responsibility.

All Aristotle quotes were taken from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of The Politics.

ADDENDUM: Today on Meet the Press, Senator Lamar Alexander explained his decision to oppose impeachment in this way: “Now it’s up to the American people to say, ‘Okay, good economy, lower taxes, conservative judges, behavior that I might not like, call to Ukraine.’ Weigh that against Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders and pick a president.” Translation: ‘Let the people be judges.’

Initially posted at:

Published by Ryan Skinnell

Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Department of English & Comparative Literature, San José State University, San Jose, CA

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