Each political party is responsible for counteracting its own demagogues
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.
Interesting. I'd like to hear more about the gatekeeper theory. While the Electoral College still helps to protect US federalism somewhat, it obviously no longer plays the historical gatekeeper role referred to in this article, as it is now supposed to simply reflect the votes by the "demos" of each state... those so very susceptible to demagogues, especially in these days of 24 hour news and social media. As free and ubiquitous megaphones of Trump, arguably CNN and MSNBC did as much as anyone to help Trump get elected in 2016. In 2020, however, the Electoral College ironically became a positive instrument of deceit and demagoguery.
I admire Eli explaining and warning of demagoguery, given the treacherous and metastasizing example Trump set. I admire Eli fighting against it becoming a new norm, as there sadly seems to be a growing contagion of demagoguery, aided greatly by new and old media.
This is essential, existential work to save and sustain the best form of governance in human history. Dr. Merritt's diagnosis is precise and and well-supported across an admirable body of historical writings. May these efforts lead us all to a clearer vision of what we can and must do as citizens, as the body politic of our great republic. History will be our judge. I hope Merritt will help us all rediscover the wisdom and courage of Lincoln. Tempus fugit.
This is a critical and spot-on argument. As we are seeing today with the Republicans, even those who take oaths, who are supposed to block and jettison the corrupt, themselves become corrupt. That is the hot mess we’re in today. In fact are “ethical gatekeepers” one vital element of democracy that can protect it from the downward spiral of demagogues to tyrants? Yes, I believe so. For the moment, my focus is on accurate insight. Once the premise is accepted, the question becomes how do we determine who is ethical and how do we get those folks into positions where they can actually gatekeep. I am lately thinking about the rules and referees that seem to manage professional sports so well. Why should politics really be any different?
Thanks for this thoughtful post! I find the "gatekeeper theory" fascinating. That said, I'm curious about what can make a "gatekeeper" impervious to demagoguery. After all, ancient Rome had a pretty robust system of checks and balances, and that did not prevent demagogues like Caesar and Tiberius Gracchus from taking control. As you write in this post, it seems that our "gatekeeping" institutions have also failed to protect democracy from demagoguery. This is making me wonder: is it possible to prevent demagoguery on a structural level? I'm sure this is something you'll discuss in future installments, and I'm looking forward to reading.