Although Trump was narrowly defeated in the most recent elections, his presidency in the past four years has raised an important question about who is supposed to be the guardians of democracy.
Recent history and empirical evidence suggest to us that politicians and voters are not great at preventing democratic backsliders from gaining office if it conflicts with their personal interests. At the same time, demagogues are also making use of the media to spread disinformation and incite violence in order to consolidate their hold on power, and sometimes to extend their time in office as a means of eroding the democracy. Given these factors, how the media responds is of critical importance. As one of the most influential components of the election system, the media needs to assume the role of “gatekeeper” to America’s democracy, by enforcing a stronger fact-checking mechanism.
1. Political parties’ “gatekeeping” abilities are limited: as the Republican party’s support for Donald Trump has shown, politicians’ interests in career advancement may come into conflict with the preservation of democracy. Leaders who intend to run for higher office or have yet-to-be-achieved policy goals are unlikely to take big risks, such as openly opposing an anti-democratic candidate within their own party . Additionally, as Levitsky and Ziblatt point out in their book, How Democracies Die, the establishment of party primaries significantly hampered the party’s ability to select presidential candidates: “binding primaries weakened parties’ gatekeeping function, potentially eliminating the peer review process and opening the door to outsiders” . With individual politicians unwilling to forsake their own career interests, and the party’s selection process falling to the hands of the public, the gatekeeping ability of political parties has been reduced in recent decades.
2. We cannot rely solely on voters as “gatekeepers”: In addition to the failure of political parties in keeping demagogues out of the ballots, it seems that polarization at the electorate level is also hampering the voters’ ability to serve as checks against such backsliders. According to research by Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik at Yale University, American voters are “partisans first and democrats only second” . They found that only a small percentage of voters (about 3.5%) were willing to punish candidates’ violations of democratic principles—especially when there is greater partisan polarization, and that most voters were willing to trade these principles for political ideology, partisan loyalty, and policy preferences .
Moreover, while Trump as the anti-democratic candidate was narrowly defeated in the most recent elections, his rhetoric during the elections has encouraged portions of his support base to engage in undemocratic behavior—such as voting twice, voter intimidation, and voter suppression. Although voters play an important part in the system, merely relying on the public might not be enough to protect America’s democracy—particularly if these candidates offer enticing political platforms.
3. The media can be easily weaponized by dangerous demagogues: Based on an article by Richard Gunther, Paul Beck, and Erik Nisbet at Ohio State University, “it is highly likely that [the] pernicious pollution of our political discourse,” namely the spread of fake news, “was sufficient to influence the outcome” of the 2016 presidential elections . The spread of false information is not only a problem itself, but the tactics that demagogues like Trump use—such as undermining the media industry, denying knowledge of the event, or accusing opponents of using similar strategies—make it especially pernicious and difficult to detect by “even the most vigilant citizen critics” . Undemocratic candidates thus are able to further strengthen their position by taking advantage of media communication while flying under the public’s radar for anti-democratic behavior.
When they acquire a position of power, demagogic candidates destabilize the legitimacy of the media, use it to spark violent acts, and evade responsibility. While the media has, on many occasions, attempted to hold Trump accountable for his words, Trump has in turn attacked the media by calling it “dishonest” and labeling reporters as “disingenuous” . Besides damaging the legitimacy of the media, Trump has also used platforms such as Twitter, Fox News, and the radio to spread conspiracy theories about Obama prior to the 2016 elections, claiming that the latter supported terrorist organizations and was not born in the United States. Additionally, not only did he use the media to incite violence by refusing to condemn the white nationalist attacks on journalist Julia Ioffe following her GQ profile of Melania Trump, Trump also denied knowledge that such an attack had occurred, or that he was in any way responsible for the incident .
As seen from the example of Trump, engaging with demagogues may grant them more power, or at the very least, has no effect in keeping them accountable. Because of the uncontrollable nature of demagogic leaders, and parties’ and voters’ inability to fully contain their rise to power, the better solution for the sake of preserving democracy would be to place broader checks on their rhetoric as a means of preventing them from amassing power in the first place.
Although some social networking companies have recently implemented fact-checking warnings that alert the audience about questionable information, I suggest a more stringent and expansive implementation of these mechanisms. For instance, viewers should be compelled to check a box accepting that the posted information by a presidential candidate may not be accurate, before clicking to view the contents of such a post. Making people work to acquire false information would help reduce the dissemination of fake news. The right to expression would not be taken away, and those desiring to receive this information could still do so. However, by helping voters detect democracy eroding behavior, a demagogue’s potential to inflict harm may be limited. Professor Stokes’ lecture, “Oct 14 Fifth lecture”.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (2018), 42.  Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review 114, no. 2 (2020), 393.  Ibid.  Richard Gunther, Paul A. Beck, and Erik C. Nisbet, “Fake News Did Have a Significant Impact on the Vote in the 2016 Election”, 4.  Jennifer R. Mercieca, “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 49, no. 3, (2019), 277.  Ibid, 276.  Ibid, 274-5.