The Rise of The Demagogue

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The current presidential race for the United States has been unmistakably and unsurprisingly characterized by stark ideological extremes. They come in the form of two breakaway candidates who stand polar opposite on multiple issues; on the right side is Donald Trump, the bastion for capitalist and conservative ideals, and on the left is Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed democratic socialist and ‘voice’ of the average American.

A representative democracy is often defined as having the common interests of all citizens at heart, and democratic values as being the norm of citizen equality that would be expected within said democracy. The multiple examples of political incorrectness that both Trump (and his challenger Ben Carson) have intentionally displayed, some fear that the current political climate has been damaged by voters’ profound mistrust of the political class and poorly perceived political efficacy, and consequentially voters are beginning to discount the importance of democratic values in favour of their personal opinions. Candidates such as Trump and Carson have used this self-centric attitude to build platforms that are divisive, politically incorrect, but also provide a “breath of fresh air”[1] to voters who see their political environment to be extremely hypocritical and contrived.

So far, the current Republican frontrunners are not running highly democratic campaigns, but that doesn’t appear to be bothering any of their supporters. There is a common misconception that people are being fooled or falsely mystified by Trump or Carson, that somehow their campaigns are garnering support by striking awe into impressionable rally attendees, but the simple truth is that Republican voters are sick of the politically correct. With so many cleavages forming within the party and so many candidates issuing vague statements on key issues, Republicans now look for the candidate they feel they can trust. Political theorists believe a key parameter for the acceptability of a candidates claim in this presidential race should be its adherence to democratic values, but the positions of voting Republicans shows that they care more about the candidate’s personal honesty behind that claim. Take the example of Carson arguing against allowing a Muslim to be president as Islam is “incompatible with the Constitution”[2] — that position may be misinformed, discriminatory, and completely against democratic values, but it aligns with the beliefs of many voters, and therefore aligns Carson more favourably in their minds.

But what does this mean for the presidential race? These kind of platforms have not only lead to further division in an increasingly partisan nation, but also raised questions as to what a politician should be allowed to say. Theorist Jason Stanley proposes that a high-functioning democracy would seek to “ban antidemocratic speech from politics”[3], essentially following India’s example of restricting free speech in order to “prevent its abuse”[4]. However, some of the rhetoric spouted by Trump and Carson has verged on hate-speech and racism, and yet — alarmingly — still they climb in the polls. This explicit refusal to follow the unwritten code of democratic values has allowed both Trump and Carson to distinguish themselves as sincere and honest in their commitment to their principles, which evidently has appealed to Republican voters who are sick of political posturing. Yet has also served to alienate the rest of the voting public, as candidates who disregard the varying opinions of a populace are fairly obviously unfit to democratically govern that populace.

Which is why it is so interesting that a completely opposite transformation is occurring on the left.

When Bernie Sanders announced his campaign for presidency, the first thing the average curious Democrat did was look up who he was. Lacking widespread reputation or an impressive image, Sanders seemed like a low-ball candidate with a one in a million shot at getting the Democratic ticket. Today, he’s up to almost 25 points in the latest polls[5], and has been consistently welcoming record-breaking numbers into his rallies[6], despite his platform being one of the most liberal and idealistic of the Democratic candidates. Sanders is a fierce advocate for democratic values and equality in all shapes and forms, and is hoping to represent of an entire populace (or at least what he believes all citizens need), to the extent that some analysts are calling him the “Anti-Trump”.

Yet it is no surprise that a democratic socialist has garnered so much support at the same time as the Republicans are seeing a reigns-free super conservative rising on the other side of the fence. The United States’ political climate has brought them to this point, because voters are sick of dishonesty. Whereas Trump and Carson show their hand by ignoring all attempts to be politically correct, Sanders shows his through genuine and passionate attacks on corruption, capitalism, and political greed. Both sets of extreme candidates lambast the flaws in the political system and the previous politicians who have been ineffective in Washington. Their messages and styles are extremely different, but the fundamental reason behind their climb to the top is the same.

The political culture in America has reached a critical point of change, despite this change being jointly initiated by two very different, polar factions. The materialist, older-generational thinking that characterizes the Republican party is furthering towards the right at the same time as the post-materialist, “new citizen” members of the Democratic party are drifting to the left. Voter turnout has been steadily decreasing in the last few decades (at just 54.87% in 2012[7]), and as a result the voting populating has been concentrated into those who are more active in the political environment, leading to this further extremism on both sides of the political spectrum. However, if America truly wants to be the democracy is claims to be, the political culture must be accessible to all citizens, not just those who respond best to politicians who split the partisan divide wider and wider.


Written By: Fiona McCarten




[1] Stanley, Jason. “Democracy and the Demagogue.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stanley, Jason. “Democracy and the Demagogue.”

[5] “2016 National Democratic Primary – Polls – HuffPost Pollster.” The Huffington Post. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

[6] Jilani, Zaid. “Bernie Sanders Exceeds Obama’s Historic 2008 Run in Crowds, Donors and Polling.” Alternet. Alternet, 12 Oct. 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

[7] “Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections.” Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

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One thought on “The Rise of The Demagogue”

  1. Donna Reid says:

    I now understand the way Americans view their politics. Thank you Fiona. This article was so well written.

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