The Good Demagogue?
My first year of graduate school I took a couple of courses on American politics, including “Voting and Elections.” Both courses began by noting that the framers of our Constitution feared, perhaps more than anything, the appearance of demagogues in our republican system. This point was repeated so often throughout the semester that I accepted it as democratic dogma. I never questioned the claim—and there is plenty of evidence in the Founding documents to back it up—and often repeated it to my own students. Who could doubt that our Constitution’s architects feared anyone who could stir up a mob? Lincoln in his Lyceum Address identified mob rule not only as the great danger of the day, but also as the rejection of the Constitution. Weren’t demagogues the great enemies of constitutional order?
In the thirty-plus years I’ve held to this view I’ve never had occasion to question it until I read Charles Zug’s Demagogues in American Politics, a book by turns audacious, well-researched, well-written, and deeply engaging not only on points with which the reader might agree, but especially where the reader disagrees. In some ways, the mark of a truly interesting book is that the reader’s reactions start with “that can’t be right” and end with “maybe everything I thought was wrong.” The book is challenging in all the best ways—one can’t help but be intrigued by the argument that “we have become a community of demagogues because we claim to hate demagoguery.” The challenge for someone with my own political views is intensified by the fact that Zug’s analysis draws upon his commitment to a centralized administrative state as an operative principle for defending demagoguery.
Zug’s presentation hinges on clarifying our understanding of demagoguery. We typically take the term to refer to self-evidently destructive rhetoric, but Zug seeks to rescue the word from such tendentious references. Eschewing the usual “inflaming of passions” approach, Zug defines demagoguery as “a form of public rhetoric, employed by governing officials, that attempts to induce one’s audience to see the political universe through a distinct interpretive lens,” and thus attempts to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate demagoguery, and consequently between good and bad demagogues. Evidence of the former would be Winston Churchill, who understood that galvanizing the public was necessary when trying to get people to do hard things, and Donald Trump, whose demagoguery was (according to Zug) self-aggrandizing at best.
Zug stipulates the question-begging condition for the distinction: demagoguery when employed in the service of the common good is legitimate, and when it is self-serving or serving only a portion of the community, it is illegitimate. Since a system of popular government is tethered to the whole of the people all at once, political rhetoric can never properly serve only a part of it. This is both the novel and the troubling part of Zug’s argument. When employed rightly, he argues, demagoguery is “compatible with” and “can improve” both liberal pluralism and constitutional democracy, but a lot is assumed concerning how it can be employed rightly.
Much of this argument hinges on the differences between the ancient view of demagoguery and the modern one. According to Zug, the ancients tended to view demagoguery “moralistically,” that is, they took it as representative either of a character flaw or of weakness in the regime itself. The solution to “bad speech” was rigorous civic education that would effect the moral improvement of the citizenry, and a system of selection that would result in “the best men” governing the regime. The linchpin was the idea of rhetoric, the subordination of political speech to philosophical reflection. In other words, only speech that maintained its connection to the truth was worthy of inclusion in public deliberations. Since the truth proved elusive, however, dialogue and dialectic would become the central mechanisms for creating a just regime. Any speech which ran contrary to or subverted dialogue and dialectic was out of bounds tout court. In other words, political speech could only be considered legitimate if it served the general purpose of getting the audience closer to the truth, and in the process morally perfecting it.
The American framers had different ideas. They realized, in Madison’s words, that “enlightened statesmen [would] not always be at the helm.” And as Madison famously observed, even if every Athenian were a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still be a mob. The writers of The Federalist, having a sober view of human nature, a skeptical view of truth, and a realistic view of the role passion and interest would always play in human affairs, coupled these convictions with the fundamental premise of American political order: that a government could only legitimately derive its powers from the consent of the governed. Since, as Zug argues, the demagogic beast will roam in any system of popular government, it couldn’t be eliminated according to the “moralistic” machinations of the ancients, but had to be defanged by the pincer effect of office-holding and the separation of powers. The framers, according to Zug, believed that “individual virtue … is too fragile to function as a foundation for public order and good government.”
The paradox rests in this: in a popular system of government such as ours, with its competing interests and clashing ideas, any specific claim will always present itself as being in the public interest. Any part will typically argue that it represents the whole. Were the common good readily apparent, politics would be a relatively easy enterprise. It’s because we disagree on what it is and how it might be achieved that the very idea of the common good tends to raise political rhetoric to fevered pitches. The result, as Hamilton argues, is that the more tyrannical the impulse, the more likely it is to cloak itself in the attire of the people. Zug attempts to bypass this problem thusly: “Political speech and action ought therefore to be evaluated in terms of whether it makes a plausible contribution to the public good,” and such contributions are determined by rational actors who can weigh the merits of competing arguments. These determinations will in turn manifest themselves in the representative process. Illegitimate demagoguery, therefore, is any which forecloses the hearing of contrary or competing arguments. Without such weighing of the relative merits of any position, any resulting political action requires coercion rather than consent for its acceptance.
The advantage of this position ought to be clear: no public policy or governing of the polity requires “upright” leaders, nor does the moral character of the leaders become an overriding issue of public concern. Instead, the public’s interest is served so long as a leader operates within a context of fragmented power, mutual contestation, and defined offices. If the leader can generate agreement toward an agreed-upon public good— “public” because it doesn’t represent the interests of any specific group to the detriment of others who never got a fair hearing—any rhetorical strategy is permitted toward the achievement of that end. Put another way, the problem of demagoguery is not solved by self-restraint enacted by moral leaders, but by the twin effects produced by office-holding and by public debate.
Tellingly, this rubs against a standard historical interpretation of the Constitution whereby the convention was convened precisely to address the problem of demagoguery as it manifested itself in Shays’ Rebellion. Taking this issue head-on, Zug devotes an entire chapter to the rebellion, its effect on our constitutional system, and how it has been interpreted. We have, Zug argues, “no good reason to believe” that Daniel Shays possessed any of the characteristics or actions attributed to him. Zug begins with the assumption that Shays and his compatriots had legitimate complaints that resulted from systemic failures and inequalities. If one understands that Shays was responding to structural failures in the political and economic systems of Massachusetts, then he looks more like a reformer than a rebel. But our understanding of Shays, Zug says, is shaped by immediate caricatures of him as presented by notable figures such as John Adams, who “had begun to work on his anti-Shays tract before it was discovered that Shays was the man to blame.” After all, it’s not as if Adams had no interest in defending the system as it was, and thus “slandering” Shays (Zug’s word) served Adams’ own political ends. The reaction against Shays thus amounts, says Zug, to little more than “scapegoating and demonization.” In other words, Shays’ critics were more guilty of illegitimate demagoguery than he was.
Were this all there was to the story Zug’s argument would be interesting enough. He further argues that the Constitution was not designed to avoid repeats of Shays’ Rebellion, but rather to address the underlying systemic issues. Publius doesn’t make many references to Shays’ Rebellion, except for a most pointed one in Federalist 74 where Hamilton observed that the “sedition” that had lately happened in Massachusetts confirmed the suspicion that “the representation of the people [was] tainted with the same spirit which had given birth to the offense” [my emphasis]. Hamilton’s subsequent defense of the pardoning power predicated itself on the likelihood that sensible people, having dealt with the same government failures, would have sympathy for the insurgents. Given the breadth of support for Shays and his fellows, the rebellion itself became an occasion to reframe and recommit to the public good. “In this interpretation, rather than embracing the moralistic conception of demagoguery as espoused by the elites who were responsible for Shays’ erroneous reputation, the Constitution was instead designed to address the structural factors that were deemed responsible for that very insurgency,” most notably, according to Zug, in excluding “lower-class citizens…from the political process by preventing them from voting.”
Most importantly, the Constitution required that officeholders abide by the strictures of their office, restraint on ambition and power being provided by the office itself rather than by the formation of good character. This meant there had to be real consequences for the failure to abide by such official restraints, either through the election process or through legal or quasi-legal mechanisms such as impeachment. Political speech, therefore, restricted itself to areas of influence in terms of its implementation, and to “contestation and external verification” in terms of its public expression. This process gets strained in extreme cases, where “emergency situations” or “crises” can create a sense of urgency that bypasses limits and public debate. Thus office-holders in a Constitutional democracy will always be tempted to see emergencies and declare crises. The use of emergency powers becomes the central tool in the bad demagogue’s toolbox. Zug nods at this possibility, but in my opinion doesn’t give it its due.
Nor does he provide the reader with satisfactory criteria for adjudicating between good and bad demagogues. To his credit, he doesn’t shrink from the challenge. His list of “good” demagogues includes John Marshall, Joseph Story, Clayton Powell, and FDR. His “bad” list includes Samuel Chase, Antonin Scalia (against whom Zug inveighs by insisting that Scalia employed “highly personal and overheated rhetoric” to protect a fictitious and pristine notion of the Constitution against a left-wing ideology that was supposedly taking over the culture but instead was merely protecting the rights of the “marginalized”), Joseph McCarthy (he sees Huey Long as occupying a space between Powell and McCarthy), and Donald Trump.
What distinguishes the two camps other than Zug himself having a clearly stated preference for the policies achieved and ends promoted by the first group? Interestingly, Zug insists that deception doesn’t matter so long as the deception is employed toward the “proper” ends. Zug claims McCarthy never provided a rationale for his demagoguery, while Powell translated his into “concrete political reform” aimed at the goal of racial justice. McCarthy’s main error, according to Zug, was that he believed the threat of communism was so consequential that it ought to have been obvious to anyone, and so anyone who disagreed with McCarthy was a de facto fellow traveler. It’s a logic that is very much apparent in much of today’s race discourse. Zug’s presentation, despite the author’s protestations, wouldn’t exempt Powell. But Zug is clearly more sympathetic to Powell’s concerns than he is to McCarthy’s.
Perhaps more tellingly, Zug’s distinction tends to result in an argument from success: good demagogues accomplish their ends, while bad demagogues fail. To his credit, Zug does regard these as “constitutionally enjoined ends,” by which he means the vague articulations of the Preamble. Those general goals require the specific means articulated in the subsequent articles, and Zug pays enough attention to those, but his overall presentation is marred by his indifference to or rejection of the federalist principle. In that sense, Zug’s list of demagogic “heroes” is revealing, for these are all figures who sought to congeal power in the centralized government.
Drawing on Justice Stevens’ decision in Term Limits v. Thornton, Zug connects centralization to office-holding, arguing that all federal officeholders serve the union and not any particular part of it. (For the record, I have in another context been very critical of the majority decision in Term Limits, siding with Thomas’s more historically informed dissent.) Even where he grudgingly acknowledges the role of the states, Zug immediately reminds the reader that “there are many more nationalizing components in the Constitution” that incentivize members of Congress and other officeholders “to think and debate from a national as opposed to a purely local perspective.” A good thing too, he continues, since “small communities breed familiarity, which in turn breeds either unreflective solidarity based on shared prejudice or resentment based on envy and other sources of fraternal enmity.”
Either? Zug’s argument is that national office-holding incentivizes language that serves the whole, while “leaders in small, homogeneous communities are incentivized to exploit the unarticulated feelings and sentiments of their fellow citizens” and “to dispense with the need for impartial, transparent articulations of justice and the common good.” Extending Madison’s famous argument in Federalist 10, Zug believes that capturing a greater variety of viewpoints necessarily brings with it “rhetorical transparency and impartiality,” the latter word being understood most literally.
One might ask a couple of questions: First, does Zug offer a fair representation of our constitutional system? Second, does he provide a good normative description for dealing with the problem of demagoguery? I’m more, though not fully, inclined to answer the former in the affirmative than I am the latter. Most students, upon reading Federalist 10 for the first time, recognize the strain placed on Madison’s argument by the reality of mass communication and transportation. As to the second point, Zug defends the idea of a national “community of free and equal human beings,” but I’d resurrect Tocqueville’s concern that such persons in a centralized administrative state are more rather than less susceptible to the dangers inherent in demagoguery. And those dangers themselves are intensified by the absence of meaningful alternatives, or a kind of pluralism that doesn’t predicate itself merely on competing arguments but on the rich panoply of the competing communal manners, habits, and customs that are a desirable feature of American localism. In other words, the institutional fix to demagoguery was best advanced by the federalist principle, not Zug’s bureaucratic principle, which confined the effects of bad speech to specific places that people always had an opportunity to leave. But Zug’s approach leaves us no out, too confident in the belief that national power can be tamed by good argumentation. This strikes me as no better than the framers’ criticism regarding counting on the virtue of political leaders.
But I would not, for that, discount the book. It contains a provocative argument that is thoughtfully constructed and rich in detail. The chapter on Shays’ Rebellion is itself worth the price. The argument that Trump’s main problem was not his incendiary rhetoric or late-night tweets but rather his inability to persuade people via argumentation is a useful corrective to the tendency to dismiss Trump’s policies because of hatred of the man. In other words, Zug invites us to bypass the ad hominem mode of argumentation that has become a standard feature of our politics. If the book can accomplish that, it will have done enough.