Civics 101: Keep Demagogues Out of Democracy
by Eli Merritt, Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
UNIFYING THEME: To Keep the Republic: Strengthening Democratic Principles at Home and Abroad
SUMMARY: Political philosophers from the Greeks to the framers of the U.S. Constitution to Abraham Lincoln all warned of the mortal danger that demagogues pose to democracies. Vital to their understanding of that danger was their familiarity with Greek and Roman history and political philosophy. These foundational principles of democracy should not only be taught to students in Civics 101 but deserve continued emphasis to Americans of all ages.
RELATED NEWS: Eli Merritt on demagogues in democracy, as seen in:
- The Los Angeles Times (Opinion): Trump’s place in history? The supreme American demagogue (May 12, 2021)
- The New York Times (Opinion): Would the Founders convict Trump and bar him from office? (Feb. 9, 2021)
- The Los Angeles Times (Opinion): Why demagogues were the Founding Fathers’ greatest fear (Dec. 26, 2019)
The preservation of a healthy constitutional democracy in the United States in the coming decades hinges critically on whether Americans heed a golden rule of this free form of government as taught throughout the ages by democracy experts like Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Livy, Edward Gibbon, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln and especially the framers of the U.S. Constitution.1
The golden rule is that demagogues destroy democracies. In their writings and speeches, these incisive political philosophers teach us that demagogues, especially those serving as heads of state, are to the body politic of democracy what cancer is to the human body. If the cancer is not kept out, or removed, it eviscerates critical organs and eventually kills the democracy.2
The presidency of Donald J. Trump, culminating in the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, is enlightening proof of the wisdom and relevancy of these teachings. Trump is a textbook example of a demagogue, and the lesson all Americans must take from his four years in the Oval Office is that no matter how much we may like a demagogue’s disruptive style or policies, it is suicide for a democracy to elect, or reelect, this species of political actor to the highest office in the land.
The framers of the Constitution were the first Americans to understand this all-important principle of democracy, so much so that thwarting the rise of a demagogue was one of the primary motivations behind the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Less than two weeks after the start of the convention, George Washington made this fact plain in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette. In the letter, Washington explained that his crucial purpose in attending the emergency gathering of delegates in Philadelphia that summer was to prevent a demagogue from gaining power in the politically unstable young nation––and thus eroding constitutionalism and stripping Americans of their newly won rights, freedoms and liberties.
Washington described to Lafayette how he had recently been compelled out of retirement by an urgent risk to the United States. “Anarchy and confusion” were threatening the security of the American people and the rule of constitutional law. But, Washington wrote, there was a deeper risk than this. It was that the political chaos of those years created fertile ground for exploitation “by some aspiring demagogue who will not consult the interest of his country so much as his own ambitious views.”
In a letter written three weeks later to David Stuart, a political colleague from Virginia, Washington reiterated the point, lamenting that the widespread distrust in the federal government under the Articles of Confederation had rendered “the situation of this great country weak, inefficient and disgraceful.” In this letter, too, he concluded by warning about the destructive impact of “Demagogue[s]” on the United States federal government. 
Washington’s greatest fear in that summer of decision in Philadelphia was that unethical, self-serving politicians—even if fairly elected to public office—would tear down the central government and its constitutional laws for the sake of their own advancement and self-aggrandizement.
For Washington, like the other founders, the word “demagogue” was not deployed as an insult to shoot down one’s political opponents. Instead, it was a forensic term that described a well-known class of politicians who obtain power through emotional appeals to prejudice, distrust, fear and vilification. Then, once in office, demagogues, who are compulsively driven to hold power at all costs, run roughshod over everything democracies hold dear: constitutions, courts, the rule of law, truth-telling and, not least, free and fair elections followed by the peaceful transfer of power.
During the convention itself, the framers consciously built the Constitution as a bulwark against demagogues. In the surviving records of the speeches given at the Constitutional Convention, the word “demagogue” was used 21 times by the framers as they crafted the Constitution’s essential checks and balances to prevent these politicians from gaining power and then transforming democracy into despotism.
“Demagogues are the great pests of our government and have occasioned most of our distresses,” said Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts during the convention. Gerry further described demagogues as “pretended patriots,” unprincipled politicians who steer the people toward “baneful measures” through “false reports.”
James Madison of Virginia twice alluded to “the danger of demagogues.” Alexander Hamilton of New York spoke of this peril of democracy more than any other delegate, naming it seven times. Demagogues, Hamilton said on the floor of Independence Hall in late June 1787, “hate the controul of the Genl. Government.”
Later, Hamilton went on to predict an ominous decline in republics from demagoguery to tyranny. As he put it in Federalist No. 1: “History will teach us that…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.”
Other framers who raised the red flag of demagoguery during the Constitutional Convention were Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, Pierce Butler of South Carolina, and Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia. Mason declared outright that “the mischievous influence of demagogues” was one of the top two “evils” that can befall republican forms of government.
Thirteen years later, in the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton’s convictions about the perils of a demagogue ascending to the presidency were put to the test. That year, a fellow New Yorker, Aaron Burr, tied Thomas Jefferson 73-73 in the electoral college vote for president. This standoff was unprecedented, driving the selection of the third president into the House of Representatives as laid out in Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution.
Hamilton was a federalist, and Jefferson and Burr were Democratic-Republicans. Initially, most Federalists in the House wanted to put Burr in the White House because he was a shaky and capricious adherent to the Democratic-Republican Party when compared with Jefferson, who staunchly opposed the Federalist platform of expansive federal powers, broad national taxes, the funded debt, a central bank and a standing army and navy.
The Federalists in the House considered Jefferson to be their worst nightmare. They deplored his principles and policies on almost every political issue that had emerged since he had become secretary of state in 1790. Burr, they felt sure, would bend to their will far more easily, enabling them to advance their party’s agenda despite his formal affiliation with the Democratic-Republicans.
Hamilton, an acknowledged leader of the Federalist Party, had a radically different view of the impending vote. Burr, a man he knew well from New York political and legal circles, he said, was “deficient in honesty” and “one of the most unprincipled men in the UStates.”
If Burr gained the White House, Hamilton believed, he would “disturb our institutions” and “disgrace our Country abroad.” He would “listen to no monitor but his ambition” and be governed by a singular principle—“to get power by any means and to keep it by all means.”
Consequently, when Hamilton heard reports of the Jefferson-Burr electoral tie, he barraged his fellow Federalists in Washington with more than a dozen letters imploring them to “preserve the Country!”
He told them repeatedly that their party must vote for Jefferson, who, though their political enemy and the champion of policies abhorrent to them, was nevertheless a man devoted to the Constitution and rule of law.
As Hamilton wrote in one letter: “[If] there be [a man] in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson.” But Burr, he said, would drive the country toward chaos and tyranny, “content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.”
The historical consensus is that Hamilton’s efforts that winter to avert a Burr presidency proved decisive. In February 1801, the House cast 35 consecutive ballots for president, none of which achieved the nine-state majority necessary to declare a victor. Only on the 36th ballot, thanks to the votes and abstentions of the Federalists, did Jefferson win with a 10-state majority.
Nearly four decades later, Abraham Lincoln echoed the framers, cautioning his countrymen about these “men of ambition.” In 1838 in an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln warned that Americans might one day become disaffected from their government, and, out of desperation, they might turn to “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon.”
Lincoln counseled Americans to avoid this temptation at all costs and instead to unite fiercely to block such self-serving, power-hungry individuals from assuming power––always. When such a person gains traction in politics, Lincoln said, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent to successfully frustrate his designs.”
The founders and Lincoln did not derive this wisdom about demagogues from their lived political experiences alone. Vital to their understanding of the danger demagogues pose to democracy was their familiarity with Greek and Roman history and political philosophy. One example of the tomes they read was Aristotle’s “Politics.” So concerned was Aristotle about this destabilizing political personality type that he employed the term “demagogue” 29 times in this treatise, sounding the alarm repeatedly on the baleful impact of “the intemperance of demagogues” on rational government.
Acutely aware of this Achilles’ heel of democracy, the framers imbued the Constitution with two safeguards to prevent demagogues from wreaking havoc on the American republic from the post of the presidency—one to block their ascension to the office and the other to remove them if they proved “obnoxious,” as Benjamin Franklin put it.
The first safeguard against presidential demagogues was the Electoral College system. The framers considered the elections of president and vice president to be the most sensitive and potentially treacherous of all federal elections. Therefore, they instituted a multilayered system of “successive filtrations,” as Madison described it at the Convention, whereby the people or the people’s representatives in each state selected “electors” as their representatives to vote for these high-powered offices in closed-door, dispassionate state conventions.
The overriding intention of the framers in creating this system was to keep demagogues out of the executive branch. In the state conventions, vigilant, politically experienced electors would recognize demagogues and vote them down.
Today, as most Americans know, presidential elections have been entirely stripped of the buffers against demagogues originally intended by the founders in their creation of the Electoral College. In modern elections, the presidential electors of old are little more than ceremonial stand-ins for popular votes cast in each state. They serve no gatekeeper or filtering function at all.
The second constitutional safeguard against president-demagogues crafted by the framers is the power of impeachment, conviction and removal. There is no ambiguity in the historical records of the Convention that the primary purpose of this constitutional power, by original intent, was the removal of demagogues and other unfit presidents.
According to Gerry, as he stated at the Convention, the power of impeachment was necessary to keep “corrupt & unworthy men,” “designing men” and “demagogues” out of federal office. Alexander Hamilton, too, fought hard to endow the new government with checks and balances to preclude “men of little character,” those who “love power” and “demagogues.”
George Mason of Virginia was the strongest advocate of all for the Constitution’s impeachment powers. On the seventh day of debates, he declared that “some mode of displacing an unfit magistrate” must be incorporated into the national charter for two crucial reasons. One was the “fallibility” of electors, or voters—that is, they might elect a demagogue—and the other “the corruptibility of the man chosen.”
Twice during the Trump presidency, the United States Senate failed to exercise its constitutional power to convict, remove and bar him from future office. This was not solely due to the hyperpartisanship afflicting our political parties. The Senate did not muster the two-thirds majority required to convict and remove Trump because today’s senators do not understand a vital first principle of democracy: demagogues poison and destroy this robust form of government.
Is our constitutional democracy infinitely resilient? Will it survive repeated cycles over the next several decades of demagogues like Trump occupying the presidential chair?
We cannot predict the future, but we can respect the lessons of history. And, with history as our guide, we know with confidence that if we do not take action to stem the rise of demagogues, especially to the most powerful office in the nation, we can easily lose our democracy.
At the hands of more demagogues, our present American government will likely descend first into a state of worsening demagogic democracy, inevitably beset by violence and the erosion of free and fair elections. Then, in later stages, with constitutional norms exhausted, authoritarian rulers will suppress the demagoguery and the democracy, oppressing the people and exacting conformity through coercion, intimidation and imprisonment. Like so many other countries, we will end up as a democracy in name only—a sham democracy with sham elections and sham liberties.
The alternative is for Americans to unite vigorously as one people, across party lines, to exclude demagogues from elected office. At this moment of national reckoning after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, all Americans, including most essentially elected officials like U.S. senators, must understand that one of their highest duties is to protect our constitutional democracy from the corrupting influence of demagogues, no matter the personal and political sacrifices required.
Unity of purpose in this mission begins with education. We must not be blinded by American optimism or exceptionalism or by party affiliation. Ethical leadership is the glue that holds a democracy together. Demagogues are the cancer that sickens and enfeebles it, sometimes irreparably. These are principles of democracy that deserve to be taught not only to high school and college students in Civics 101 but also broadly to all American citizens by every means of communication possible.
Michael Signer, Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018).
Eric A. Posner, The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020).
Dr. Eli Merritt is a visiting scholar at Vanderbilt University, where he researches the interface of demagogues and democracy. He is writing a political history of the American Revolution entitled Disunion Among Ourselves scheduled for publication in 2022. Merritt completed his B.A. in history at Yale, M.A. in ethics at Yale, M.D. at Case Western Reserve, internal medicine internship at the Lahey Clinic and psychiatry residency at Stanford.
1 Portions of this article are adapted from my previous writings on demagogues and democracy, including Eli Merritt, “Would the Founders Convict Trump and Bar Him from Office?” New York Times, Feb. 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/09/opinion/trump-impeachment-founders.html; “Why America Must Not Reelect a Demagogue: That’s What Trump Is, and It Matters,” New York Daily News, October 15, 2020, https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-america-demagogue-trump-20201015-r7r42jdtpja7dkhxqr3nomkegu-story.html; “Alexander Hamilton Would Have Led the Charge to Oust Donald Trump,” Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-01-25/alexander-hamilton-donald-trump-impeachment-senate; “Why Demagogues Were the Founding Fathers’ Greatest Fear,” Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-12-26/demagogues-constitution-impeachment-washington-hamilton.
2 The most insightful contemporary books on the perilous intersection of demagogues and democracy are Michael Signer, Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009); Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018); and Eric A. Posner, The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020).
3 George Washington to Lafayette, 6 June 1787, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0200.
4 George Washington to David Stuart, 1 July 1787, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0225.
5 The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 3 vols, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-3#lf0544-03_head_041.
6 Elbridge Gerry, Constitutional Convention, 1787, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-1#Farrand_0544-01_2980.
7 James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Constitutional Convention, 1787, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-1#Farrand_0544-01_2980.
8 Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed01.asp.
9 George Mason, Constitutional Convention, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-2#Farrand_0544-02_1887.
10 Alexander Hamilton to James Ross, 29 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=20; Alexander Hamilton to James McHenry, 4 January 1801, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=23.
11 Alexander Hamilton to Oliver Wolcott, Junior, 16 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=3; Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Sedgwick, 22 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=11; Alexander Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris, 24 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=13; Alexander Hamilton to James Ross, 29 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=20.
12 Alexander Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris, 24 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=13.
13 Alexander Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris, 24 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=13; Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Gray Otis, 23 December 1800, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Hamilton%20Papers%22%20Dates-From%3A1800-12-15%20Dates-To%3A1801-03-30&s=1511311111&r=12.
14 Abraham Lincoln, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm.
15 Abraham Lincoln, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm.
16 Aristotle, The Politics, vol 1, translation and introduction by B. Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885), https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/jowett-the-politics-vol-1#Aristotle_0033-01_605.
17 Benjamin Franklin, Constitutional Convention, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_720.asp.
18 James Madison, Constitutional Convention, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_531.asp.
19 Elbridge Gerry, Constitutional Convention, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-1#Farrand_0544-01_2139.
20 George Mason, Constitutional Convention, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-2.
21 See especially Chapter 4, “Subverting Democracy,” of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018), pp. 72-96.