“…of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1)
In the original Greek the word from which demagogue comes is a compound formed from the word for people and a word derived from the verb meaning “to lead”. A demagogue was a leader of the people. In the words quoted above Hamilton shares the view, taken for granted by many of the founding generation, that the pure and direct democracies established in ancient times perished because ambitious leaders purposefully fanned the fires of public passion. They encouraged the people to act like tyrants, approving laws and policies that sated their passions at the expense of right and justice. Having turned the government into an instrument of the people’s tyrannical will, they roused the anger of the people against any who, by opposing the government, opposed their will. When such opponents showed signs of resisting or defending themselves, the demagogues exaggerated or fabricated violent incidents to rouse public fear and outrage. Then, using the excuse of public security, they gathered armed forces under their control. These they employed first to attack those they identified as enemies of the people, and then to identify and attack the people themselves as the enemy.
Those familiar with the tactics employed by the left or right wing socialists of the 20th Century (the Communists in Russia before their takeover, the Maoists in China, the Fascists and Nazis in Italy and Germany before WWII, and the Communists again in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of that war) cannot help being impressed by the prescience with which America’s founders read the lessons of ancient history. But beyond being impressed, they will be instructed to look beyond the supposed differences between this and that “-ist” or “-ism” to see in the tactics of demagoguery evidence of a recurrent strategy for dominating the people that is common to every age of human history.
By pandering to the interests and passions some people have in common, the demagogue becomes the focus of their ambition. The key to the demagogue’s success lies in the rhetoric with which he appeals to some overt or sub-rosa standard of righteousness in order to validate the justice of this ambition. This standard is always partially true, which is to say true in some respect or from some point of view. Deploying the power of this partial truth the skillful demagogue pretends wholly to satisfy the requirements of conscience, thereby weakening its constraining influence upon the passions of his followers. Thus more fully unleashed, their flaring passions blind them to the partiality of their view, so that they are easily persuaded to mistake their partial good for the whole or common good. On account of this partiality they mistake the enemies of their good for the enemies of all goodness, who must be subdued or annihilated, else hope itself will be destroyed.
The demagogue draws people into a whirlpool of political activity fueled by righteous passion but beyond the influence of right reason. In the context of civil society people thus drawn together by the influence of unbridled passion constitute what James Madison called a faction, i.e., “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” (Federalist # 10)
It is on account of “the mischiefs of faction” that direct rule by the people themselves seems inevitably inclined to develop into some extreme of tyranny. This caused democracy to be universally despised and rejected by political philosophers who cared for right, for justice and for peace. For tyranny, once established, achieves order by ignoring right, maintains control by subverting justice and enforces the peace of terrified submission by fomenting a perpetual state of war (against the bodies, or the minds, or the spirit of the people subject to it.)
However, Madison suggests in Federalist #10 that the U.S. Constitution, “varies from pure democracy” by implementing a “scheme of representation” which aims to thwart the effects of demagoguery and save government of, by and for the people from falling into the ambit of tyranny. Madison’s discussion in the Federalist describes the mechanisms the U.S. Constitution relies upon to achieve this result, (e.g., elections, separation of powers, federalism). In all these mechanisms representatives deliberately elected by the people replace the demagogues who were previously the focus of public action in democratically governed communities. Madison describes the representatives as “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their county, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
Madison assumes that, unlike the demagogues who are the focal points of faction, the elected representatives of the people will care more for the common good than for their own ambition. But this in turn assumes that they are not elected by people caught up in the mischief of faction. Such people are likely to elect the demagogue they follow, who will simply represent their factional partiality in the councils that decide the fate of the whole community. This will simply reproduce, in that context, the mischiefs of faction the scheme of representation is supposed to cure.
For representation to be the remedy Madison says it is, there must be an important difference between representatives and demagogues. At first glance, both appear to be leaders. But in one case the leader promotes himself, serving his own ambition by skillfully manipulating the passions of the people. In the other, the people promote someone to represent them, someone who is expected to reflect what they were before he became their leader, not what they become on account of his leadership.
Representation assumes the prior existence of that which is represented. The representative acts as the agent of the represented, presenting in a second place what they already are in the first place. The representative takes his cue from those he represents. He reflects their character, their intention, their will. Seen from this perspective, the representative is not in the lead. Rather he follows the lead of the people who elected him. The character, intention and will of the people do not reflect his leadership. Rather, in order to represent them with integrity, his actions must reflect their leadership.
This leads to a conclusion that contradicts much of the political blather of our time. Where representative government is concerned, elections are not about choosing those who lead us. They are about choosing those who will, with integrity, do their best to follow our lead, reflecting in their tenure of office the character, will and intention of the people who elected them.
But can people with no character choose another to represent their character? Can people unclear in their intentions choose another to carry them out? Can people who refuse to be responsible for their own will, demand that another respect what they do not? Representation is not just about choice. It is also about deliberation and responsibility. When people let their passions choose for them, demagogues lead them to tyranny. When instead they choose for themselves- conscientiously, deliberately, responsibly- their representatives will be led to preserve the good they choose to cherish. If American liberty is to survive Americans must reject the politics of demagoguery and faction; the politics of elitist leadership without representation. We must reclaim the politics of true representation. And we must begin to do so now, in this election year, or it will be too late.