What electoral mechanisms might prevent the rise of a demagogue?

  • I realize that this may be one of the intentions of the US Electoral College system. Its most obvious role is to prevent a candidate of purely local appeal from winning nationally, but another de-facto role seems to have been assumed by many media sources in the recent election. Specifically, I got the impression that the EC members were supposed to exercise some sort of double-check on the candidate's validity, character and legal qualifications (e.g. lack of conflicts-of-interest) and thereby moderate the influence of pure populism on the outcome, at least to some extent. A few of the electors seem to have interpreted their duty in this way (Christopher Suprun being the most public example).

    If the latter truly was within the intention of the Founding Fathers, it means that it's not ridiculous to consider implementing a brake on pure populism—without meaning that one is cynically discarding the notion of democracy entirely.

    My question is: what other electoral mechanisms might achieve this?

    Digest: answers seem to cluster around several ideas:

    • There's nothing that can be done about demagoguery if you want democracy. I would say this is neither helpful nor entirely true. The goal would be to make the rise of the next Hitler harder and less likely, while acknowledging that it can never be ruled out entirely. Furthermore, there are many shapes democracy can take and mechanisms could always conceivably be improved and adapted to current conditions (similarly, sentiments that the US Constitution is already perfect, or inviolable, or even just the best imperfect system there could ever be, are all highly debatable and at best lacking in the vision that the spirit of the question hopes to elicit).

    • Educate the masses. Always a worthy goal in general, but if one were to try to do this systemically, decisions about the syllabus content would disappear down a million subjective rabbit-holes. There might be ways of crowd-sourcing it democratically, but its application would almost inevitably be uneven. This answer by Philipp to another question gives a great run-down of all the mechanistic problems with applying this truly democratically (especially if considering making the franchise contingent on it).

    • A panel of experts to vet candidates, before or after election. This could easily be done badly (i.e. in a way that is so open to abuse that it would only reinforce tyranny). It might or might not conceivably be done better than currently so is worth debating.

    • Tighten the qualifications required to run. The most objective way to do this is to require legislative experience, though it's not clear that the outcome of that would be any more desirable. Other evaluation methods would run foul of subjectivity to more or less of an extent. To my mind, one interesting idea that emerged is that of applying an electoral handicap (not an all-or-nothing bar) to candidates based on the non-verifiability or disprovability of their public statements.

    • Smooth the process of becoming head of state with respect to time, in various ways such as indirect election by a rolling elected panel. This might tend to allow popular frenzies to cool off.

    • Reduce and/or devolve the power of a central government, and/or the head of state, entirely. Great in theory. Practicability thereof is an old and well-worn debate.

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    Why is this question tagged [tag:united-states]? The question is of general interest globally.

    @gerrit - because the original question was a bit of a anti-Trump rant (not a bad one, compared to overall average recently). imho the tag can be safely edited out without losing anything.

    @gerrit I agree—I removed both Donald-trump and united-states tags for this reason, but the US one got reinstated, presumably due to the focus on existing US mechanisms.

    How do you tell a populist from someone who *changes* public opinion? How would you rate the candidates on a "populist scale" to see who is less populist? Any political power requires political support, which ultimately means some level of populism - it's a lot easier to use the term to deride one's political opponents than to actually give it significant meaning :) Even the most brutal autocrats were still necessarily populists - even outside of a democracy, you still need some popular support to rule.

    "The most objective way to do this is to require legislative experience." This would give career politicians a decided advantage, no? That may or may not be desirable, depending on your opinions.

    Not exactly an answer to this question but a highly relevant mechanism to *mitigate* the damage by any government, led by demagogues or not: after WWII the allied powers imposed a so called “streitbare Demokratie” on Germany and Austria that renders the suspension of and deep semantical changes to some parts of the constitution illegal (even by a unanimous ratification by all chambers of parliament), most importantly those that guarantee basic human rights, the division of power between democratic branches, and free elections.

    Re: "legislative experience"; I am not at all convinced that this is the best requirement. From what we see currently in the US-Mexico "fight", experience in economics could well be better, and given the growing role of technology, a good understanding of computers/new technologies would also be very valuable. And I am afraid this points an important flaw: the candidates cannot be all-knowing, so they should be *humble* enough to accept guidance from experts.

    @delicateLatticeworkFever Assumptions abound on this site. You're making a few.

    @jez I apologise; this is not at all an appropriate format for inserting stuff like that. It's just something that alarms me too, but part of what I see going on is people saying, "We play the game like this, in this box", then they are shocked by (what seems to me) completely predictable results, but still do not want to draw into question the nature of the game or the box. There's that definition of insanity (keep doing the same thing over and over each time expecting a different outcome).

    @delicateLatticeworkFever I sort of see what you mean. But as an outsider I just tend to copy the conventions I see—in this case imprecisely, because the phrase is really "Founding Fathers" but either way, yes, a few clicks past a google search convince me that capitalizing is the convention. I suppose you *could* think of it as quasi-religious veneration (that does seem to happen) but not necessarily—until you mentioned it, that hadn't occurred to me any more than it does when someone talks about the Big Four accounting firms or the Treaty of Versailles.

    I was being a bit ignorant. I actually did google before I wrote my first (deleted) comment, but it was for "Founders"; I lived for a while in the U.S. and didn't think I'd seen it quite that way before. Which still does seem a bit Freudian, veneration wise (a cigar is never just a cigar but "that hadn't occurred to me"). It's a good question though with good answers...

    ...This is a critical problem of democracy, which to twist Churchill a little, isn't a good idea because it is more likely to produce the *best* outcome, but because it is less like to produce the *worst*. Of course we elect demagogues; people yearn unconsciously for a strong father figure to venerate, lol and free them of responsibility. But that responsibility comes back anyway every four years kind of thing. Defangs dictators; they're rotating fads.

  • This was actually a big concern of the authors of the Constitution. They were thinking in particular of the example of Oliver Cromwell from their own father's generation. He gained power as Prime Minister, and slowly over time remade himself into military dictator of England, eventually dispensing with parliament altogether.

    The basic idea they tried was to limit the power of the Federal Government to only things specifically spelled out in the constitution. A lot of people still felt this wasn't enough during the effort to get it ratified, which is how we ended up with the first 10 amendments (aka: The Bill of Rights) prior to full ratification. These are the minority's defense against the majority.

    However, as Justice Learned Hand* pointed out, all this is just mere stained paper if the people don't respect it. Or to put it another way, you can't simply transplant some magic set of rules to any old despotic country in the world and expect it to work just as well there. In the end, the only real protection anybody has is their respect for the system, and the ideals it was founded on.

    What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it… What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.

    Which is why, as I've grown older, I become convinced that what has made the USA work for 250 years is not the official rules we wrote down (which were imperfect in the extreme), but the unofficial "mission statement" that Jefferson wrote that started it all off.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    This is essentially the agreed-upon nut of the USA. It isn't any kind of law, but rather it is beyond law. If any law or set of laws or established system is deemed unjust, this is the standard that they are held against.

    * - Probably the United States' most cited constitutional scholar

    This is eloquently said, and I agree with everything. First time I see you on this forum.

    Reminds me of the fall of the Roman Republic - it worked well until the traditions which held it together in (relative) peace were broken. Once respect for the myth that is a civilized representative government is shattered, it is gone. Be it the brothers Gracchus or Trump, there might not be an easy way back from the outright rejection of respectable behavior.

    @pluckedkiwi Or Wickard v. Filburn.

  • The possibility of populist demagogues rising to power is unfortunately a drawback of any democratic election system. Any system where you have an institution which is able to overrule a democratic vote of the electorate is by definition undemocratic.

    There are of course lots of other voting systems than first-past-the-post which promise more democratic election results, like approval voting, alternative vote and their many variants. But unfortunately every voting system is based on one axiom: That the voters are smart enough to form an objective opinion on each candidate. When your electorate is receptive to populism, "alternative truths" and appeals to emotion, no voting system will protect them from themselves.

    So if you don't want a demagogue to raise to power, there are two options:

    • Abandon fair and equal elections and find some other method to pick your leader (one-party dictatorship, military junta, oligarchy, hereditary monarchy, ecclesiocracy...)
    • Provide a better political education for your population so that they learn how to differentiate between populism and actual political knowledge. A good political education should not be indoctrinating. It should teach people the knowledge (economy, sociology, history etc.) they need to decide for themselves what political direction is best for them and the media competency to evaluate trustworthiness of information.

      Oh, but please try to avoid voting rights based on level of education.

    The problem with the second bullet point is that it's a good idea in theory but not usable in practice for two different reasons: (1) various cognitive biases would counteract your education from working when populist politically aligns with someone; (2) and conscious tactical choices would ensure that even those who are able to work around cognitive biases would still vote for that populist if they are aligned. You don't seriously think that 100% of Trump voters honestly believe very word he says, I hope?

    @user4012 about 2), the final election day is just the end of a lengthy electoral process; if voters are better educated and use that education all through the process a demagogue should be stopped earlier in the process (so, for a party supporter it would not be end as [My demagogue] vs [candidate from other party], because [My demagogue] would have been voted out in the primaries; in these primaries such a voter would have the option to vote for other candidates more ideologically acceptable).

    Option #2 is literally impossible because (1) Who defines what a better political education is? (2) This is _very close_ to having education tests for voters (aka blanket ability to discriminate against whoever you want).

    Comment cleanup. Please try to address the answer directly. Why you voted for whom in the 2016 US presidency election is not really relevant.

    At this risk of Godwining this, I believe the experience of the Weimar Republic with the Nazi party shows that proportional representation is no protection whatsoever from this. It arguably made things *easier* for the hopeful demagogue, as he only needed enough votes to become the largest party, which was *far* less than a majority.

    @user4012: Cognitive bias cannot be eliminated entirely from anyone -- the point is to _minimize it as much as possible_. To get as many people as possible to be skeptically/critically-minded thinkers. It does not have to be 100%. It just has to be enough that a majority, or even getting "close enough to cause a technicality" is much less likely to happen. (It would not have taken a great deal of extra votes to have prevented Trump from winning.) No, it won't bar demagogues entirely, or anything else for that matter. Nothing can be perfect, but "nothing is perfect" (cont'd)

    @user4012: (cont'd) doesn't mean "therefore what exists now is the best possible".

    @David Grinberg: Simple -- the ones who actually have constructed the models of thinking that have proven themselves to generate actual close-to-truth answers about the real world, that is, the scientific method and logic and the methods of rational skepticism and critical thinking. You are teaching _method_, _how to think_ not _what to think_ and the _habit of thinking_. Also, there are no _tests_ established to make you vote.

    @DavidGrinberg The politicians that the OP likes will decide that, I thought that was the whole point of this question?

    *Any system where you have an institution which is able to overrule a democratic vote of the electorate is by definition undemocratic.* This interpretation of democracy is overly narrow and rather reminiscent of ochlocracy. There is nothing undemocratic about having a constitutional court or rules that changes in the constitution have additional requirements such as a ⅔ majority.

  • The only way to be demagogue-resistant is to have demagogue-resistant voters.

    That means voters who can think independently and critically, people who are willing to put the greater good before their own interests, people who are not afraid to say unpopular things, and people who don't demonize others because they say unpopular things.

    Many of those are difficult to do for any democracy. Especially when that democracy has been turned into a tyranny.

    As to education being a requirement: well, you should just look at the current debate on climate research to see how unreliable of a proxy education is.

    Edit: I just wanted to add that having an education requirement (or most qualification requirement) is not doable in most (all?) Western democracies today. You will face significant backlash, legal challenges or politicians damages. But I understood your question to be de Novo.

    This is the one answer I've upvoted. The problem with "education requirements" is that the USA has a very nasty history of applying them unevenly in partisan and/or racist ways. Basically we've proven through sad history that allowing governments to decide who can and can't vote for them is a power they can't be trusted with.

    An alternative to *requiring* education is to be a nation that simply emphasizes access to education (Germany, Scandinavian nations, etc.)

    @T.E.D. So then we need to work on getting them applied more evenly. Not "_requirements_ (as in legal requirements) to vote", which is not in the spirit of the second paragraph, but giving people the _tools_ to make informed voting choices (which is in that spirit). You are improving the schools, not putting locks on the ballot boxes. This won't be perfect, but that is no excuse to just not do it at all. There are more options than "things will be perfect" and "do nothing at all".

    @mike3 And who decides what gets taught in those schools? Any public school (including private schools with any support from the state) will have an incentive to spread ideas that are very pro-government. This has been used to great effect in both Nazi Germany and various communist countries. It has even been the very *basis* of the public education system (the Prussian model) - the primary goal was building a nationalist spirit and subversion to authority. It was a response to people being more educated (and thus productive and free), not the cause.

    Tocqueville's idea of virtue, well played

    @ dannyf While education can never hurt, a necessary condition is not to drive the electorate to anger to begin with. I don't know about Cromwell, but in the cases I am aware of, the electorate turned to the demagogue out of desperation and a feeling of betrayal.

    @Luaan: However, isn't that already a risk for public schools as they are now? If so, why can't it be handled as now? How does adding "enough critical thinking" to the curriculum make that suddenly change somehow?

    @mike3 It *is* a problem with public schools now, yes. People learn all sorts of ridiculous things in schools (it's not exclusive to public schools - but they're under one authority with little freedom; this varies by country somewhat, of course). Personally, I don't think schools should be about a person of authority ("teacher") pushing knowledge into the passive students, but that's a topic for a very long discussion, so no point in starting that here :) What the impact is is hard to really judge today - you have plenty of teachers who don't follow the rules blindly.

    @Luaan: What would you consider one of the most egregious examples of something "ridiculous" pumped into students by a public school? How would you propose to avoid these problems with public schools?

    @mike3 It's entirely subjective. For me, it would be saying a prayer or singing the national anthem. For others, it might be claiming the Earth is billions of years old. It doesn't really matter - and it cannot really be avoided. Public schools are instruments of power - a way for the government to influence the way its subjects think. I don't think that's a power the government can be trusted with (and mind you, where I'm from, education in state curriculum is far harder to avoid than in the US - homeschooling etc. is mostly reserved to kids with "medical reasons").

  • I hate to say this, because it sounds like a tautology but it isn't. One of the primary electoral concerns in neo-liberalism, a cornerstone of its thought, is limited government. If you are worried about a demagogue executive being too strong, the primary culprit is that your government has too much power and authority to begin with. Revert it to the people, through property rights, gun rights, the right to petition, the right to a free press, a government of enumerated powers that are concentrated at the local level, etc., etc. No one really cares about a demagogic Cub Scout leader, now do they?

    Then read the rest of the Federalist Papers on how to achieve other sensible electoral reforms. It's still the best blue print out there.

    In short, a government that is powerful enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything away.

    Here are the 7 small "r" republican principles that came out of the Constitution ratifying process, undefined but assumed in Article 4 of the Constitution:

    1. There is a strict separation of powers, horizontally and vertically.
    2. The government is run by officers governing for a term and only during good behavior.
    3. Offices are selected by our election, and not by the appointment of the government itself.
    4. The government recognizes that power resides originally in the People (immediately from God).
    5. There is a deliberativeness in action and that it is, by the checks and balances, not subject to the whimsical fancy of a few.

    6. The government acknowledges the final right of the People to alter or abolish it whenever it usurps the rights for which it was instituted by the People to administer God’s Law.

    1. The government does not grant entitlements.

    that's exactly what the founding fathers had envisioned. sadly we have migrated further and further away from it. trump seems to be onto that, with the talks of block grants to the states, etc. lets hope that the congressional republicans wise up.

    Limited government is per definition anti-democratic, because government is the only democratic institution we have. Businesses have very limited democracy with worker representation on boards, but usually it's owners or shareholders who decide. Capitalism is therefore inherently pseudo-feudalistic and any reduction in government power implies a reduction in democracy.

    @gerrit Every power the government enjoys comes at the expense of your liberty and freedoms. So no, limited government, is not per definition anti-democratic. Emergent governance of locally controlled clubs, professional societies, associations, businesses, and yes participatory local government make up the very fabric of a rich and vibrant civic society

    The entire point of the Constitution was to balance the government and place checks on each branch's power so that even if a demagogue were to be elected president, the damage they could do would be limited and narrow in scope. But in our modern era, presidents past have usurped so much authority and Congress has delegated so much away from itself that a tyrannical president is a very serious concern and a very real threat to our democracy. Recajiggering the electoral college is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic at this point. The president simply should not have this much power.

    @gerrit Sure, it's anti-democratic. Why is that a bad thing again? Is democracy really what we want to strive for? Do you want your life to be entirely at the mercy of the majority of people? It really feels more and more like an idol people pray to to solve all their problems; but its original goal (in the US) was to make people *more* free, not less (with all the benefits and problems it causes). Workers may not have a voice on the board, but they can always vote with their feet - the easier that is, the healthier the companies themselves.

    @Luaan Democracy does **not** mean rule of the majority of the people. You are confused with ochlocracy.

    @gerrit From your link: "Ochlocracy, or Mob Rule, is often incorrectly equated with Tyranny of the Majority, but differs because Ochlocracy involves illegal action and does not necessitate a majority."

    @WesSayeed-You described an aspect of the Constitution but certainly not the entire point. To more clearly identify "the entire point" of the Constitution you have to refer to the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was the founders attempt to put the ideals declared in that declaration into practice with built-in safeguards. In that line of thought the entire point of the Constitution is to put into practice 1) The rule of law over the rule of man. 2) The individual matters. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not upheld its role, so the main point of the Constitution is void.

    It is incorrect to assert that limiting government would in any way prevent or reduce the risk of the rise of a demagogue. Indeed, in many ways, a stronger government can resist the rise of a demagogue, if done correctly. The whole point of a demagogue is to rise through the power of the people - this is how they differ from a dictator. It's the restraints on democracy - the removal of certain kinds of power from the people - that helps to restrain demagoguery. That's why the Supreme Court, for example, exists, and why it takes a lot more than mere popular support to change the constitution.

    @GlenO I didn't say it wouldn't be possible, I said if it occurred it wouldn't matter. AKA Demagogue Den Mother.

    And I was referring to the impact that such a person would have. The true danger of the demagogue isn't how much power they get handed to them when they get office, it's how much impact they have on society. The Nazis weren't powerful because Hitler had a lot of power, Hitler had a lot of power because he drew power from the people. Gas chambers that are only in some states/local areas are still gas chambers.

    @GlenO The Reichstag Fire and resulting government reorganization around Hitler I think is more properly understood as a coup d'état. What happened there was completely outside of the Weimar's Republic's governing system, so no legal safeguard would have sufficed. What you are arguing for are cultural safeguards, unfortunately given human nature are few and far between.

    Yes, but the point is, the position of "leader" naturally lends the person in that position the bully pulpit. It wouldn't have mattered if Hitler didn't have the necessary power to do what he did, he'd have used influence to do it. To quote the BBC, "In January 1933, Hindenburg and Papen came up with a plan to get the Nazis on their side by offering to make Hitler vice chancellor. He refused and demanded to be made chancellor. They agreed, thinking they could control him." Demagogues can't be "controlled" like that. You have to provide a way to stop them getting to that level, or remove them.

    @GlenO It comes down to do you want to give a Hitler-type a fully weaponized State, or one they have to build? I really prefer the latter.

    This will be my last comment (not the place for extended discussion) - a demagogue leading a country with lots of weapons in the hands of the people is worse, because the demagogue rules through the support of a majority, who will do their bidding. Hitler achieved what he achieved by tightening gun controls on those against him (especially Jews), and loosening them for those supporting him. And gun control was strong "on the books", but in practice there was little control. More info: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/oct/26/ben-carson/fact-checking-ben-carson-nazi-guns/

  • Okay, let me propose another answer. There is a mechanism already in place in the US constitution which has for aim to temper the supposed "excess" or "irrational enthusiasm" of the people, but without resorting to any other ultimate authority than the authority of the people itself. This is the mecanism used for the election of the senate. There are several aspects in play here, such as the over-representation of small state (since every state, small or large, has two senators), the question of whether the election is direct by state (as it is now) or indirect (as it used to be), and many others, but the one which interests me is the rolling election.

    Inspired by this, we could imagine a solution like this:

    An electoral college is elected by the people. Every elector has a mandate of say 4 years. His role (let me assume he's a male) is just to elect, with his fellow electors, the president, any year with a presidential election (that is a year whose number is a multiple of 4). One fourth of the electoral college is renewed every year, precisely the one who was elected four years ago.

    How are the electors elected? By the people, democratically, but how is not the point here (nationally or by state, proportional by state or with a majority system, with a number of electors by state proportional to the population or not exactly, etc. Other aims may determine this mode of election).

    What's the interest? Well, in the 2016 election, electors elected in 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013 will decide. If a "flawed" candidate has a surge in 2016, this will be probably not be enough to get her (let me assume she's a female, for a change) elected. it would need the surge to last more, and during this time the "flaws" have more chance to be detected and to rebuke many electors. So the idea is to moderate the people by the people itself, but one, two or three years earlier, nit by an independent authority (of experts, clerics, media figures, or whatever).

    Let me add that I do not favor such a system. I am happy with the current system in the US where the president in 2016 is elected by the people *of 2016*, though I would not mind the electoral college disappearing and replaced by a national vote (e.g. like in France, with run-off).

    To me this is the best answer so far because it's a genuine attempt to design a novel mechanism that doesn't assume that all is lost or that the US Constitution is already perfect. The mechanism has a lot in common with ideas of buffering in engineering, the role of which is to smooth processes with respect to time. As such it might dampen partisan swings, and that in turn *might* allow for the emergence of more informative policy distinctions in the middle ground. (Alternatively it might get corrupted in unforeseen ways and spin uncontrollably of its axis, just like anything else.)

    @Joel The primary problem with a straight national vote is that a handful of population centers would decide the entire election... which is, of course, why we have the electoral college in the first place. A better compromise between the two would be to keep the EC, but amend the Constitution to require each state to allocate its electors in proportion to the popular vote _in that state_. Thus, the balance of power is preserved, but the nonsense 'swing state' concept goes away, along with the ridiculous concept of everyone in a state being counted as if they voted for the plurality candidate.

    @reirab your comment would make a good answer.

    Going with a state-by-state popular vote runs into the same problem. Some states, like Washington (not DC) are almost 50/50 split rural/urban, and have extreme voting pattern differences between districts. Huge, but regionally small, places like Seattle would cause a flood of electors from a small handful of districts, dwarfing the other districts. It would be better to just eliminate "winner-take-all" and let each district send their own elector. But that, of course, is a state level thing - state's have to want to do it.

    @Joël. The French system isn't a run-off, it has two turns for every election, the voters are voting at both turns. For the presidential election, there can be only two candidates for the second turn, while for other elections there cna be more. Advantage : the elected president has always more than 50% of the votes. Disadvantage : this leads to strategic vote (so-called "vote utile"). In a run-off election, there is only one turn. It also leads to strategic vote. You watch this video (in French), run-off is the 3rd system presented.

    @jez A nice example of the buffering system is in the Czech senate. A third of the senate is voted for every two years, so you get a nice mix of senators spread over the total six-year period - even if all the people changed their mind one year, you only change one third of the senate. In practice, I'm not sure how well it works - most people think that the only reason the senate still exists is that to disband it, the senators would have to vote on it :P

    Right now things get heavily polarized, and that's caused a lot of problems because it limits compromise. One of the simplest means of dealing with this even retains the electoral college: have the EC allocate its votes for each state proportionately to the vote, regardless of electoral district (which also renders gerrymandering almost irrelevant, since the state is considered as a whole). This means a candidate has to not only 'win the important states', but has to do well in almost all the states (from what I've read, the 'red and blue states' are all shades of middling purple).

    (Proportional EC cont.) This also allows the EC to balance the 'urban states' and the 'rural states', as originally intended. The proportional EC votes mean the candidates can't count on 'safe states' that they'll get most of (sure, Dems might take 60% of California, but that 40% they didn't get means there's a small net gain here) and invest disproportionately in the 'swing states' that currently result in win or loss. They have to do well *everywhere*.

    @jez If you're interested in dampening partisan swings, look into utilitarian voting systems like Score and Approval, which elect highly-approved centrists rather than highly-polarizing majority favorites.

  • Another way to prevent demagogy is to establish a demarchy. In such a system, parliament still represents the people, however, parliamentarians are not elected but randomly appointed. This is based on the assumption that most people are intelligent enough to figure out complicated matters, but simply don't have/take the time to study them in enough detail. If they were drafted into parliament for four years, they would have to (and would be paid for it, of course). In such a system, the government itself is technocratic and simply carries out the wishes of parliament. There is no head of state.

    There are downsides to demarchy, of course. You'd have to trust the software. You might get a biased parliament because people with some political leanings might be disproportionally inclined to refuse to serve. But it is a democratic system that would certainly prevent the rise of a demagogue.

    This election by lot was tried in Athens too.

  • A system which "double-check on the candidate's validity, character and legal qualifications" exists in Iran. From wikipedia article on the Guadrian Council:

    The Guardian Council of the Constitution is an appointed and constitutionally-mandated 12-member council that wields considerable power and influence in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    The Iranian constitution calls for the council to be composed of six Islamic faqihs (expert in Islamic Law), "conscious of the present needs and the issues of the day" to be selected by the Supreme Leader of Iran, and six jurists, "specializing in different areas of law, to be elected by the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament) from among the Muslim jurists nominated by the Head of the Judicial Power," (who, in turn, is also appointed by the supreme leader).

    It is charged with interpreting the Constitution of Iran, supervising elections of, and approving of candidates to, the Assembly of Experts, the President and the Majlis, and "ensuring ... the compatibility of the legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly [i.e. Majlis] ... with the criteria of Islam and the Constitution". [...]

    Since 1991, all candidates of parliamentary or presidential elections, as well as candidates for the Assembly of Experts, have to be qualified by the Guardian Council in order to run in the election. For major elections it typically disqualifies most candidates, for example in the 2009 election, 476 men and women applied to the Guardian Council to seek the presidency, and four were approved.

    Is it something like this that you are looking for?

    It's in that space, sure. Not that that means the parameters of either this or the US EC are set optimally for happy outcomes. Let's separate the *mechanism* (having a panel of experts appointed from the top) from the *content* of the constitution/guidelines that they apply (religious law, in this case). The *mechanism* sounds like it concentrates judgment in the hands of even fewer people who are even more partisan than in the US EC. To me it sounds like a step in the wrong direction along that particular continuum. I wonder what a moderate step in the opposite direction would look like?

    @jez - It's an interesting mechanism in that they approve the people who can run, but the election itself is still democratic. So there may not be as much in the way of major differences between the candidates, but there's no one who can override the results.

    Bobson: right. At least in theory. It seems that there was a defeat of Ahmadinejad in 2009 that was somehow overrides by the regime.

  • If a president had to "Work his way up" through the ranks, it would mitigate the problem significantly.

    In most other leadership positions we recognize the value of direct experience working in the position you will lead but the president can just jump in and start breaking stuff.

    You could say that before running for president one had to spend at least 4 years in congress. To run for congress you need maybe 4 years in elected positions and to hold your first elected position you need 4 years in government service (Military/civil) in combination with schooling/interning. That 12 years as a bare minimum would stop a TV personality from using his popularity to a degree and as a bonus would ensure that candidates had at least a slight grasp of the issues.

    Why does a doctor require more training than the president? It's not like the doctor can do MORE damage?!?!

    This is also an interesting answer. Like Joël's it has an effect of smoothing the process with respect to time—the candidate has to grow into the role and in a transparent enough government everyone could see him/her coming. It doesn't protect against malevolent populist campaigns by *well-qualified* candidates (and one doesn't have to look far down the international news headlines to see demagogues-turned-tyrants who did come up through the ranks) but I agree it would mitigate many of the risks.

    Look at Putins career. This would not work.

    Congress is the last place they should work. I would rather they have to work in a coal mine for 4 years, or bag groceries, or serve in the military as you mention. It would build more character.

    @jez Look at Trump's history (since you've originally mentioned him in your question) - he's been propagating the same ideas for the past fifteen years or so. He's not consistent on many throw-away issues, but his main ideas have stayed the same throughout his political history. Just because he only became a candidate *this* election doesn't mean that he jumped out of nowhere. The same was true of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao zedong, Putin... it has a nice ring to it, but as history shows, it's quite a worthless concept. At best, you get a bureaucrat - and that's already pretty bad :)

    @luaan Granted re: the history of some of the core MAGA ideas. But allowing these ideas to develop (or die) *within* the framework of a legislative career would have still helped, I think.

    I would also suggest strict term limits for congress and president and possibly a few more levels of "Local" government. Part of the problem is that we don't actually know the people we are voting for--One possibility I've considered is that the lowest level of government (neighborhood) is selected by random selection like a jury, and then each neighborhood chooses a leader who becomes the representative at the next level up. This hopefully gives you an ever-improving selection but starts with a random base (preventing career politicians from even getting started)

    @BillK - Most people don't even know the people they voted for in their HOA. A few more levels of government isn't going to solve anything.

    The point is that you can ONLY vote for people in your neighborhood. Each level picks one representative from their own group to forward to the next level. In this way you always know the people you are voting for and most are a member of 2 small groups. Kind of the way a team lead might meet with his team and with other leads. A manager might attend meetings with the team leads and meetings with his management peers, etc.

  • To prevent a demagogue from becoming head of state, you need to abolish the position of head of state. Switzerland has no head of states, so no demagogue can rise to grab power. More generally, a nominally democratic system with powerful individuals (Turkey, USA, Russia) is more susceptible to falling into demagoguery and autocracy, than a system where decisions are taken by parliament or by referenda.

    However, even in the most anarchist of systems, you will always get that some people are more successful in convincing others to support them or their ideas, than others. Those people may either be good-willing, or they may be corrupt and misleading the people.

    Some mechanisms that have been proposed:

    • Frequent recall elections, where a minority can request that officials can be popularly recalled. This may be argued to reduce the effect of a politician deciding s/he can do what s/he wants because the elections are years away,
    • In a parliamentary system, making participation in elections conditional, for example, upon having internal democracy, such that even when the party gains a majority in parliament, the party members can still depose the leader.
    • Doing away with the head of state entirely.
    • A strong constitutional court that ensures that measures that contravene the constitution cannot be passed into law unless the constitution is changed first, along with a process where changing the constitution is difficult.

    None of those mechanisms guarantee that a demagogue does not rise to power. Each of those mechanisms (and others) might prevent a demagogue from rising to power.

  • Solving this problem is not technically difficult; rather, the difficulty is resistance to instituting the policies needed to solve it. Such policies need not be dictatorial or anti-democratic but they do need to reject the "anything goes" recklessness of some countries' ideas of "freedom".

    While I'm sure people will disagree on what sorts of policies will work best, and there is no data I'm aware of to go by, a good starting point seems to be constitutionally mandated qualification and disqualification conditions for candidates before they can go on the ballot.

    • Requirement of political experience in lower-level offices and moderate to high approval ratings during their time in office.

    • Disqualification on the basis of expressed ideology antithetical to a democratic system of government. This would need to be spelled out so that it's not being decided during an election what does or does not constitute that, but there are plenty of red flags that can be spelled out explicitly, and they're the same sort of things you'd use to disqualify a job candidate when hiring because you know they'd be a legal liability to the company if hired. One might argue that politicians could get around this by hiding their intentions until they're elected, but that ignores that the only way they get voters is by expressing their ideology; they don't have anything else to make them likeable.

    • Economic conflict of interest requirements before getting on the ballot, rather than after the election, and much stricter than anything we have now.

    These are just examples; it would take a lot more work to flesh them out into actual proposals.

    As an example, President Lincoln would have been disqualified by your first bullet mark. President Washington would have also been disqualified by that, but since he predated the Constitution, that may not apply. President Trump would have been disqualified by the first and third bullet marks. Your second point is a matter of opinion as some of the latest presidents are claimed to have the second bullet point apply, though there supporters would disagree. In fact some of the candidates pretend to be for "a democratic system" but then act against it.

    Your approval rating statement would not be good because a demagogue would get high approval ratings while being bad and an honest statesman would get low approval ratings because of his honesty and clarity of thought.

    @sabbahillel: Really? It's approval not of campaign promises but of actual performance in office.

    Re: Lincoln, of course a system that filters out definitely-bad candidates will also filter out some possibly-good ones, i.e. have false positives. I don't see that as a problem. There are already countless good people effectively filtered out by money and political considerations. Avoiding getting awful people in high offices is much more important to democracy than ensuring that good candidates don't get excluded.

    @sabbahillel I'm certainly no proponent of using polls, but note that in the time of Lincoln and Washington, there was hardly any way to equate approval ratings of the time as the only stats we'd have is voting records, and that only reflects white, male landowners.

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