Recently Peter Wehner, a veteran of several Republican administrations, called presidential candidate Donald Trump “precisely the kind of man our system of government was designed to avoid, the type of leader our founders feared — a demagogic figure who does not view himself as part of our constitutional system but rather as an alternative to it.”
Is Wehner right to claim that the U.S. constitutional system was designed to rule out a certain kind of politician?
The answer is yes. But the system has evolved in ways that directly thwart this design. For better or worse, we now have — and value — a system likely to yield as president precisely the kind of populist figure the framers most feared.
Right at the beginning of the Federalist Papers (the defense of the Constitution written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay), Hamilton warned against populists who endangered constitutional structures. Those who have overthrown republics, he wrote, have usually “begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people . . . commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
We tend to remember the Constitution, and the Federalist’s defense of it, as being all about checks and balances. Because “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” the system should be set up to prevent even dubious leaders from abusing power. However, the framers did not rely solely on checks and balances. Even if they doubted that any system could guarantee the best or wisest leaders, they did count on the U.S. system to weed out the worst.
Conventional wisdom had it that stable republics must be small and face-to-face, like Geneva or Athens. Madison’s famous Federalist Paper No. 10 defended large republics like the United States partly on the grounds that large polities were more likely to select “proper guardians of the public weal.” For one thing, a large republic would have more good candidates to choose from. For another, it would place “unworthy” candidates at a disadvantage because it would be hard to corrupt a large and geographically diverse set of constituents via “the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried.”
In Federalist Paper No. 68, Hamilton expanded on what this meant for presidential elections. While “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity” could win over a single state, a candidate would need “other talents and a different kind of merit” to win over the electors from many states at once. Again, Hamilton made no guarantees, but asserted a “constant probability”— in fact, a “moral certainty”— that the system would produce “characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” While individual states might choose demagogues, a set of electors chosen by all states would screen them out.
So, Wehner is right: The system was supposed to weed out demagogues and anti-constitutional populists. However, two big changes since the founding era render it extremely unlikely that it will.
The first is mass communications. Already in Hamilton’s era, swashbuckling, popular newspapers — Hamilton himself started the New York Post — gave politicians a reach much broader than the elite, state-capital audience assumed by the Federalist. By the 1820s and ’30s, thanks to subsidized mail, ideological or partisan newspapers could spread a uniform message across vast territories.
They could also spread popular love of the same candidate. Andrew Jackson, a patriot to his fans and a demagogue to his enemies, was beloved by millions who had never seen or met him. Later developments — the telegraph and telephone, radio, television, email, the Internet, social media — have tended to make political communications ever more efficient, and presidential elections ever more national rather than local.
The example of Jackson also points to the other big change: the growth of political parties. Almost as soon at the Constitution was ratified, advocates of different political views, appealing to different constituencies, began to form organized groups.
Such groups had once been denounced as “factions,” which the authors of the Federalist Papers feared precisely because they thought factions undermined the mechanisms of dispersed, independent choice that were supposed to prevent demagogues. They came to be called parties. And by the time Jackson won the presidency, no candidate could aspire to the office without the support of a party that was well organized and national in scope and that could coordinate its supporters around a single candidate.
When national candidates are chosen by national parties, state-by-state electors are no longer able to exercise independent judgment. In fact, we’d now be outraged if they did, given that presidential electors are all pledged to support one party’s candidate and selected in the belief that they are good party warriors who will keep that pledge.
All this means that the system can no longer reject candidates who rely on “the low arts of popularity.” On the contrary, those arts are exactly what’s now required to win, and any competent party will nominate a gifted artist. What used to be called demagoguery is now called running an effective campaign — a phrase that didn’t even exist in its political sense when the Federalist Papers were written.
The growth of parties and charismatic national candidates helped encourage an alternative view of how to prevent the abuse of power. That view, first popularized in Britain and imported to America by Anglophile Woodrow Wilson, assumed that there would be a governing party but relied on there also being a party in opposition. Under this view, the president, as a national leader with a mass following that gave him or her influence over Congress, would facilitate the kind of unified national policy that the Constitution annoyingly tended to prevent. The opposition party, in turn, would reliably seek out and expose the government’s errors and abuses so as to boost the popularity of its own candidate in the next election.
This shift in orthodoxies has had ironic consequences. Many political scientists follow Wilson, and in doing so largely oppose the spirit of the Constitution that most of their fellow citizens regard as the basis of governing authority. Where the Constitution’s framers railed against demagogues and “majority factions” in the name of careful and independent judgment, political scientists applaud mass parties and their charismatic leaders in the name of popular control.
Conservative intellectuals like Wehner, many of whom defend the old constitutional logic and decry what they see as Wilson’s successful attempt to subvert it, face their own problem. They find it tough to explain how the constitutional preference for localism and weak or absent parties can survive modern technologies of communication and coordination.
We can still talk about demagogues, and criticize politicians who seem to care more for their own power than for constitutional checks and principles. But neither the constitutional system nor the political parties that have fundamentally altered it will reliably prevent demagogues’ rise. If political parties were honest, they would admit that their only serious response to the other party’s demagogue is to seek a demagogue of their own — though with luck one whose popular appeal caters to the public’s interests rather than our fears.
When ordinary citizens, civic leaders, journalists or scholars come to believe that a presidential candidate’s excessive populism endangers the constitutional order in particularly dangerous ways, we can and should speak out. But our speech will be cutting against the grain of contemporary, neo-constitutional practice and the modern, presidency-centered party system, not with it.
Andrew Sabl is visiting professor in ethics, politics and economics at Yale University and the author of “Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics” and “Hume’s Politics,” both from Princeton University Press.