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A Tipping Point in American Politics



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Alexander Hamilton argued in The Federalist Papers (No.72) that political leaders in the new American regime would be motivated by a love of fame, and that incentive would encourage them to “plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit,” assuming that they would receive due recognition for their efforts (Rossiter, 1961, p. 437). In short, for the Founders, a democratic leader’s self-interested desire for power and standing could ultimately redound to the public weal, but only if accompanied by a specific orientation. The challenge was not to imagine purely altruistic leaders, but to identify incentives to persuade them to pursue others-oriented behaviors that would serve the public interest, rather than merely seeking power or personal aggrandizement. Office holders and those running for election could surely evidence self-interest in their pursuit of power in this view, but Hamilton’s definition of leadership required that elected leaders (and candidates) not simply seek office for the personal gratification and status it might confer. Hamilton contended that would-be leaders’ awareness of the implications of their behavior for how they later would be regarded would temper their excess and prevent them from usurping freedom in naked pursuit of power. That is, their awareness of how history would treat them and their concern for their long-term reputation and what Hamilton called “fame” would rein in their willingness to fan the flames of popular fears or ignorance, or engage in demagoguery, because practicing these would ensure they would be remembered only as enemies of freedom and of the true interests of the people. This was surely one of the key ways by which the Founders sought to prevent leaders from taking steps that would undermine freedom and self-governance, but there were others as well. The Framers imagined, for example, that a property requirement as a requisite for office would cause elected leaders to think twice before undermining freedoms, as they would have a material reason not so do so. However, we have long since abandoned such requirements for candidates pursuing office. In addition, the Framers required that all elected to public office must take a solemn oath to uphold the Constitution, which enshrines individual freedom while ensuring a common capability to act for the public good (at least one hopes such will obtain more often than not). The Founders also created a well-known system of institutional checks and balances designed to work to prevent the emergence of individual and majority tyranny.

In addition, it seems clear that the Framers simply assumed that individuals of judicious temperament and thoughtful disposition would seek office and that their natural talents would garner them stature in elections. The Founders hoped that the electorate would itself be prudent in its choice-making, and when it was not, that the regime’s institutions and its leaders could stymie their worst impulses toward tyranny. Finally, while the Framers did not envision political parties as important social mediating institutions, these emerged soon after the nation was founded and came (ideally, if not always perfectly) to play significant roles in sifting popular passions to ensure that political leaders were not simply demagogues bent on mobilizing individuals on the basis of their worst instincts.

The current 2016 national campaign, especially as it is now being pursued by the many individuals seeking the Republican Party presidential nomination, suggests strongly that many of the checks against leaders practicing demagoguery the Founders envisioned are no longer in place or are actively under assault. This is so for a number of reasons, which are worth outlining briefly. First, political parties often no longer control who gains their nomination for various offices, including the presidency. Parties’ capacity to determine nomination outcomes has been in decline since the early 1970s with the broad adoption of primary driven electoral processes. Primary voters, who typically do not represent the broader body politic, cast ballots in these elections, skewing their results profoundly. That fact is a major concern as the current GOP nomination process unfolds and Republican candidates seek to appeal to exceedingly conservative and often radical primary voters.

Second, during roughly the same period (late 1970s to the present) and with increasing speed, mass communications outlets have segmented to serve specific groups within the general population in a phenomenon political scientist Austin Ranney early labeled “narrow casting” (King, 1990, p.175). These entities tell their viewers what they want to hear, and perhaps more precisely, what will secure continued viewership or listenership, to ensure their profitability. The growth of the right-wing entertainment industry and of Fox Television News (which is part of that industry), with their obvious ideological perspective, represent cases in point. Voters tuning into such media may listen to or see what they wish to hear or witness. If they are fearful, they can turn to these media sources and have those concerns confirmed and amplified and be informed further that their apprehensions are the consequence of convenient political targets.

The radio, television and Internet businesses so engaged profit handsomely from this sort of apocalyptic blamecasting and there is little to offset their claims, especially if a voter is already predisposed to believe them, even when those assertions are divorced from reality. This development is remaking our presidential nomination process, as evidenced by the emergence of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, both of whom meet classic definitions to be regarded as demagogues. Trump has repeatedly engaged in vicious and vacuous fear mongering and, most recently, in fascistic claims concerning immigrants and refugees, and often been shown by fact-checkers to play fast and loose with the truth. None of this appears to matter to his supporters who are prepared to believe the outlets they follow and to back his anti-democratic claims, on the view that he will alleviate their existential state of fear and set all right through his forceful personality. Carson has likewise adopted profoundly anti-democratic positions and has nonetheless been supported by his followers, even when his claims about his personal history or policy stands have been found to be false or without basis. He has simply told his followers that mainstream media do not “like him” and are therefore not to be believed when they reveal his falsehoods.

Third, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow all but unfettered campaign spending in its Citizens United decision in 2010 has transformed the national political nomination processes. Since that ruling, corporate and personal campaign spending has exploded, and one consequence, given the cost of political campaigns, is that the very wealthy may now spend their own funds as they wish to pursue public office as well as conduct orchestrated efforts on behalf of their favored candidates. Both phenomena have been much in evidence this electoral cycle. The Court’s decision has provided space for Republican Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, for example, to spend considerable sums from their personal fortunes to pursue their political aspirations, and for the billionaire Koch Brothers openly to press for (and fund the campaigns of) the election of anti-government and libertarian candidates.

All of these trends together have created a Kafkaesque moment in our current politics, in which shares of the population (GOP primary voters) support individuals shown repeatedly to be uninformed and often dishonest, and who routinely have maligned and scapegoated immigrants and refugees and pretended that wild rhetoric will “solve” the country’s complex challenges. Vilification of others and exploitation of citizens’ fears will never result in meaningful efforts to address the nation’s problems, but they surely threaten and undermine our regime’s dedication to freedom. The daily more bizarre and outrageous GOP presidential nomination process suggests our nation is at a crossroads. Can our citizenry discipline itself in favor of its hard won freedoms, or will it sacrifice those to empty promises and demagogic claims in the name of its fears? The would-be GOP nominees have shown no willingness to countenance Hamilton’s argument that they should discipline themselves in the name of how history will regard the implications of their behavior for the common good. That leaves Republican voters in the nomination process (whose behavior and predilections to date do not give much hope), and the general electorate later, as the lone bulwarks against demagoguery. The open question is whether either will evidence the probity to resist a possible regime tragedy. The nation stands at a political tipping point, with its fundamental devotion to freedom hanging in the balance.

Note to Readers: Soundings will return on January 4, 2016. Happy Holidays! MOS


Ranney, Austin, “Broadcasting, Narrowcasting, and Politics,” in Anthony King, Ed. 2nd ed., The New American Political System (Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press, 1990).

Rossiter, Clinton, Ed. The Federalist Papers (New York: New American Library,1961).

Publication Date

December 7, 2015