The Gatekeeper Theory of Democracy
Each political party is responsible for counteracting its own demagogues
Throughout history, the founders of democracies have been exquisitely concerned about the type of leaders citizens might elect to high office, especially to the powerful post of head of state. That is why in most cases those founders painstakingly engineered gatekeeping systems to weed out personality types they believed would turn on the democracy itself, precipitating violence and civil wars.
Since ancient Greece and Rome, the personality type that the framers of democracies feared most is not tyrants, autocrats, or what today we call authoritarians. There is nothing inherent in these personalities that enables them to gain a majority of votes and therefore assume power in a functioning democracy. Instead, they worried about demagogues—charismatic, deceitful orators (capable of being elected) who descend into tyranny once they sip the cup of power.
More than any other democratic institution, political parties are responsible for excluding demagogues from the presidential pipeline. This principle is widely accepted by historians and political scientists, including Daniel Ziblatt and Steve Levitsky in their 2018 book “How Democracies Die.” Read more.
The most salient example of framers of representative government who were justly paranoid about demagogues is the fifty-five who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to rescue the new United States from slipping into disunion and civil wars. From top to bottom, Madison, Hamilton, Washington and the others designed the American charter to keep demagogues out of the executive office. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tragic outcome of the American experiment that the U.S. framers feared most—above every other crisis and catastrophe—was a demagogue in the presidential chair who would rouse a state or region (New England, the Middle states, and the Southern states) to secede from the Union, inciting civil wars.
See also my op-ed, “Democracy’s Survival Depends on Fighting Demagogues. Here's Why,” published in the LA Times on Aug. 9, 2022
I am confident of this assertion about the founders’ preoccupations with demagogues and civil wars because I have researched the question in depth over the past ten years, writing numerous articles on the subject. My book, Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution, scheduled for publication in mid-2023, centers on the same themes.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution were committed to elevating “wise and good men” to the presidency, as Benjamin Franklin put it during the convention. Gouverneur Morris called for the election of “the best, the most able, the most virtuous citizens.” Madison spoke of the need to invest government with “impartial umpires & Guardians of justice and general Good.”
The fifty-five were also quick to underscore the type of public personalities the United States must exclude from office. Through carefully designed gatekeeper systems, those to be kept out of high office included “corrupt & unworthy men,” “designing men” and “demagogues,” according to Elbridge Gerry.
As documented in the surviving records of the speeches given at the convention, it is no coincidence that the word “demagogue” was used 21 times by the framers as they crafted the Constitution’s essential checks and balances against a collapse into despotism and tyranny.
To prevent demagogues from ascending through the electoral pipeline to the presidency, the framers created numerous safeguards. One was the Electoral College system, whereby the people or the people's representatives in each state selected "electors" as their dedicated representatives to vote for president. In Electoral College state conventions, they theorized, these vigilant, politically experienced electors would recognize demagogues and vote them down.
A second essential safeguard crafted by the framers against demagogues was 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 was the removal of demagogues and other unfit presidents from office.
Today, a year and a half after the second Senate impeachment trial failed to convict Trump and permanently disqualify him from future federal office, we know that none of the founders’ protective mechanisms to keep demagogues out of the White House worked.
In American Commonwealth I will explore why the framers’ nightmare––the one we are living today in the era of Trump—came to pass and what can be done to promote recovery. The way forward is, first, to understand “the gatekeeper theory of democracy.” Second, we must vigorously reestablish the sacred duty of gatekeeping in political parties, elected and appointed officials, and the media.
More than any other reform, restoring the gatekeeper function to American democracy holds the greatest promise for blocking the ascent of demagogues like Trump to the highest office in the nation. And that end goal––securing the Oval Office from demagogues—is essential to rescuing the United States from further political violence and decline.
I am very much looking forward to reading this, and think it will be an excellent complement to Heather Cox Richardson’s work. We need such grounded, considered, studied historical perspective.
I first encountered this theory in the book How Democracies Die. They talk about how the Electoral College failed relatively early-on, and how the "back-room deal," as it came to be known, was central to this gatekeeping role. They make a clear case that democracy depends less on putting the right people in power, than on barring the wrong people, and it's based on studies of the many (many) democracies that have failed in the last century or so.
The removal of the Fairness Doctrine was certainly a huge mistake. But it's not the whole story. Religion was always treated with kid gloves in the US, and demagoguery is rife in the religious world, going back to Herbert W. Armstrong starting on radio in 1933, or back to William Miller and the founding of the Adventist churches, or even the the Calvinists and Puritans who figured in early America. Religion is driven and dominated by demagogues. The Religious Right began taking over the political system in the 1960's and 1970's, and they were driven by the Evangelical Coalition, which was dominated by the Southern Baptist Convention, which was closely tied to Reconstruction government in the South, and the KKK.
The significance of Limbaugh, in my opinion, was that he secularized much of the worst of the old-school KKK/Baptist/Evangelical demagoguery, making the same old story much more palatable. And the dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine let him get away with it.