For anyone who has paid attention to U.S. politics over the past couple years, many blatant instances of democratic erosion have been hard to miss. Democratic erosion or backsliding is essentially formal or informal political changes that “significantly reduce the capacity of citizens to make enforceable claims upon the government” and “degrade citizens’ rights and their engagement with the state” (Lust and Waldner 2015). Even for someone who may have never heard of the phrase, events like the January 6th capitol riot and the electoral manipulation in the last cycle rise up as red flags. These instances of backsliding are not signals that the U.S. is in danger of becoming an authoritarian state any time soon; rather, they are part of a concerning trend that needs to be critically watched. There has been a clear uptick in symptoms of democratic erosion obvious to the public, in a country where corruption and other signs of backsliding are often more subtle. One major factor that informs our nation’s culture is the extreme polarization of our politics. But what does this polarization mean in the long run? It could mean a political future dominated by demagogues–both good and bad.
Beyond making it hard for members of one party to trust anyone that belongs to the opposing party, the political polarization of the U.S. has influenced the way Americans engage in politics. A common complaint among citizens is that the two options who end up at the top of the ballot are both not ideal choices, and that they wish that one of the more moderate candidates had been able to have a chance at the presidency. Why, then, do the more moderate runners get eliminated early on? It’s because what catches peoples’ attention is sensationalism. Name recognition. The catchiest sound bites and the most viral videos. The media is instrumental in the production that the United States elections have become, and a battleground for opposing candidates to fan the flames of polarized parties. Moderate candidates cannot rise to the top in these conditions; the politicians that come into power do so because they are considered extreme by a sizable percentage of the country. This is where demagogues enter the political process.
Charles W. Lomas describes demagogues as political leaders who use “the process by which skillful speakers and writers seek to influence public opinion by employing the traditional tools of rhetoric with complete indifference to truth…its primary motivation is personal gain” (Lomas 161). Demagogues do not necessarily have to be “bad” people. Jennifer Mercieca distinguishes between “villainous” demagogues and “heroic” demagogues,” the difference being in whether there is any space for accountability in the rhetoric they use (Mercieca 267). This distinction holds merit, as revolutionary leaders and progressive activists use their platforms to defend the people from corruption and exploitation. Typically, demagoguery is not needed in times of stable democratic periods, yet it looks like the U.S. will be seeing mostly demagogues in its future because of the volatility of its politics.
There are two blatant examples of demagogues in recent U.S. history: Donald Trump as a dangerous demagogue, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a heroic demagogue. It was a surprising turn of events—a young female newcomer beating a ten-term incumbent—that made a representative for one of New York’s many congressional districts practically a household name in the U.S. Whether you agree with her platform or not, it is undeniable that she has greatly impacted American politics since her appointment, being the fastest politician in recent memory to turn votes into political and social capital. Trump was a businessman reality TV star with an outrageous campaign style who beat all predictions and found himself in the Oval Office. These two politicians share similarities in their unexpected rises to power and have both sparked massive debates and discussion throughout the country with their words, actions, and stances. Why, then, the distinction between “heroic” and “villainous demagogue?” It comes down to accountability.
Lust and Waldner’s definition of democratic erosion taken with Schmitter and Karl’s assertion that democracy is “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives,” leads to the conclusion that a lack of accountability among politicians is a sign of democratic erosion (Schmitter and Karl 1991). The willingness to be taken accountable for one’s actions is the key factor in the decision to label AOC as a heroic demagogue and Trump as a villainous one–not either of their platforms or belief systems. Both politicians have had heavy social media presences and were willing to speak on topics they are passionate about. With the increasing reliance on social media to connect with constituents and spread campaigns, this is the future of political discourse in the country.
Trust in the political process is a requirement for a functioning democracy, and citizens need to feel that their vote counts for them to have any faith in their system of government. A politician engaging with the people of the nation through villainous demagoguery can reduce political participation; the lack of accountability from the most powerful politicians in the country closes political dialogue with the average citizen and make them feel voiceless, removing incentive to vote. In coming years, it will be interesting to see how much the U.S. will rely on charismatic, polarizing demagogues to keep its democracy running.