Liberal democratic rhetoric is supposed to unify citizens with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and make visible previously discounted perspectives (for example, the perspective of women during the struggle for women’s right to vote). Trump’s and Carson’s comments are explicitly antidemocratic. The fact that they seem to have been rewarded — at least in immediate improvements in poll standings — confronts defenders of the American political system with...questions..--Jason Stanley
The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected.--Madison, Federalist 10.
Recently, Jason Stanley noted, while commenting on some remarks by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, in the New York Times that "There once was a facade of equal respect that required political strategists to use code words to avoid accusations of violating it."* Stanley explains their apparent popular success (among a non-trivial segment of the voters) as a rejection of political hypocrisy and the inability of politicians that defend the common interest to survive in the present media landscape. He then goes on to claim that if politicians "demonstrated their supposed honesty and sincerity by explicitly targeting groups that are disliked by the voters they seek to attract. Such open rejection of democratic values would be taken as political bravery, as a signal of sincerity." Undoubtedly, Stanley is right that there is a deep yearning for sincerity and authenticity; it is not restricted to American racists nor to voters for the new British Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is also the ruling value of all forms of religious fundamentalism.
By drawing on Madison, Stanley thinks, by contrast, that "an election campaign is supposed to present candidates seeking to show that they have the common interests of all citizens at heart." Stanley subtly misreads Madison (who certainly did hope that the electoral process would facilitate the rise of elected aristocracy). This is obvious if we remind ourselves that Federalist 10 explicitly addresses the problem of anti-democratic values (in Stanley's sense) among the electorate. Madison calls it the disease of faction: "By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."**
Stanley somehow wishes for circumstances in which people elect folk that campaign on the "common interest" and thereby transcend their own interests. But that would demand a reform of human nature that Madison thinks unlikely; it would only be possible to get rid of factious sentiments by constraints on liberty that Madison thinks worse than the disease (Stanley implies, without mentioning Madison, that this is "excellent argument").
Stanley seems to hope that a suitably Enlightened citizenry will -- once it understands that "democratic values are not weaknesses" -- vote in the common interest. By contrast, Madison does not think one can eliminate the problem of faction, for there always remains "the latent causes of faction," one can only "control its effects." After all, "it is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm."
Madison's solution to the problem of demagoguery is to focus on institutional design: the hope is that by having fairly large electoral districts (which will require coalitions among local interests) in a continental republic will prevent, or quarantine, the spread of demagogic ideas. Moreover, even if the factious ideas dominate in Congress, the Constitution is designed to ensure permanent gridlock among competing interests; thus a ruling faction is "unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression." Madison's position turns out to be a decent, albeit imperfect, response to the problem of faction; as the history of American democracy reveals, it also requires civil rights movements in every generation and a fairly activist judiciary to guard against the remaining excesses of faction.
Madison notes that "the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property." It would follow that Madison ought to advocate -- in line with say Plato's scheme in the Laws -- a limitation on the extent of possible inequality of property. But he worries that this would generate more abuses than it would solve. I mention this because while Stanley mentions the role of money in politics and the role of (media) corporations, he never quite faces up to the fact that from Madisonian vantage point we should expect a lot more factionalism given the huge disparities of wealth, status, and recognition in our contemporary polity. (Given what I know of his politics, I suspect Stanley would agree with the Madisonian diagnosis.) Huge inequality is not a natural phenomenon, but the deliberate result of government policy of the last few decades; the political system is reaping the turbulence it has sown.***
Stanley is right to note that contemporary demagogues are thought sincere. But not all sincerity, or even sincere authenticity, generates winning electoral politics. So, we need an analysis of demagoguery. Here Madison is of little help because he underestimated the possibilities and dangers of mass media. So, tomorrow I'll explore the reflections of Madison's French contemporary, Sophie de Grouchy, who experienced the political effectiveness and dangers of popular demagogues up close.
*The facade is not an enduring feature of politics even in living memory (Cf. George Wallace; Jesse Helms, etc.)
**Admittedly Madison is not contemplating contempt aimed at non-citizens here.
***Note to my Democratic friends: the Dems also signed up to maintain a financial system that socializes risk and privileges the few without social benefit.