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.

  • 4
    Why is this question tagged united-states? The question is of general interest globally.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 11:33
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    @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.
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:54
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    @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.
    – jez
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 13:54
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    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.
    – Luaan
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:02
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    ...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.
    – goldilocks
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 5:22

15 Answers 15


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

  • 5
    This is eloquently said, and I agree with everything. First time I see you on this forum.
    – Joël
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 2:19
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    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. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 20:59
  • @pluckedkiwi Or Wickard v. Filburn. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 21:38

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.

  • 10
    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
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 15:56
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    @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).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:06
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    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). Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:27
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    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.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 20:08
  • 2
    @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. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 7:51

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.

  • 12
    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.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 19:58
  • 12
    An alternative to requiring education is to be a nation that simply emphasizes access to education (Germany, Scandinavian nations, etc.)
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 21:57
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    @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". Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 7:52
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    @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.
    – Luaan
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:10
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    @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").
    – Luaan
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 11:50

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.
  • 2
    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.
    – dannyf
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 1:33
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 11:47
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    @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
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:36
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    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.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 13:35
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    @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
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:20

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.

  • 2
    This election by lot was tried in Athens too.
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 13:08

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).

  • 3
    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.)
    – jez
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 18:13
  • 8
    @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
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 19:50
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    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.
    – Knetic
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 5:34
  • 1
    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). Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:36
  • 1
    @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.
    – endolith
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 21:07

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.
    – jez
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 0:47
  • 3
    Look at Putins career. This would not work.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 11:49
  • 6
    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.
    – user9790
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 13:05
  • @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
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:33
  • 1
    @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.
    – Dunk
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 20:26

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
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:32
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 17:44
  • Bobson: right. At least in theory. It seems that there was a defeat of Ahmadinejad in 2009 that was somehow overrides by the regime.
    – Joël
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 17:49

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. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 1:24
  • 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. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 1:26
  • @sabbahillel: Really? It's approval not of campaign promises but of actual performance in office. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 5:09
  • 1
    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. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 5:12
  • @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.
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 8:48

Preventing a demagogue is hard in democracy, because democracy requires informed electorate, and many people do not care (or are prevented by economic hardships of life) to get informed enough, and/or many questions are really complicated and might have complicated long-term consequences (like: will abandoning Pacific Trade agreement allow China to control trade in Pacific by bilateral agreements)

You cannot require education, and you cannot give more votes to more educated people. And for demagogue, it is much easier to fool people with less education (and there is more of less-educated people than say people with PhD in Economy).

One possibility would be to give right to vote only to people who are not dependent on government (so unemployed people and people in retirement cannot vote themselves better benefits paid by others).

Another would be to give vote only to war veterans: people who were ready to risk their life for the country. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starship_Troopers

Point is: limit voting rights to people who are longer-term interest in the progress in the country or (veterans) demonstrated readiness to sacrifice to the country. Hope is that these electors would be less vulnerable to demagogue, but of course it is not proven.

This is orthogonal to another inevitable change in the future - basic income for everyone, when most jobs will get automated and oligarchs would be able to buy the vote by manipulating the media.

Remember one rule in politics: Every long complicated question has one easy short and wrong answer, and there would be a politician peddling it.

  • Anonymous downvoter, care to say why? Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 21:42
  • "limit voting rights to people who are longer-term interest in the progress in the country or (veterans) demonstrated readiness to sacrifice to the country." - dangerous, that is a group that will (justifiably! openly or unconsciously) think they are owed something - which makes them a very easy target for demagogues too. Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 9:20
  • 1
    Side point: In the novel Starship Troopers, there were public service paths other than the military. The intent was that before a person could have authority over citizens -- including voting for or holding political office -- that person must first have responsibility to citizens of a non-trivial nature. The book even notes that a blind person might spend their service counting the hairs on caterpillars by touch, if that was all the challenge that the person could achieve. Could such a system arise in real life? I have no idea. Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 14:20

There is a democracy which is named as "direct",that would offer a solution ,but it is hard to implement in scale(if not impossible)

Another good idea that exists (in European thought) is the plain vanilla analogical democracy ,where each party gets a percent of the seats in parliament according to the number of votes in the general elections.

  • 5
    How would a direct democracy help against demagogy? If the demagogue convinces a majority of the people that his ideas are good, he also can convince them to vote for his proposals. Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 20:16
  • I removed a part of your answer which wasn't really an attempt to answer the question but rather a rant about the political system. Please note that we try to answer questions objectively on this website and try to keep our personal opinions to ourselves (or our blogs, social media accounts or other forums more appropriate for sharing opinions).
    – Philipp
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 21:24

How about targeting one of the essential tools of the Demagogue: Dishonesty

If a candidate in a public appearance makes a provably false statement (it goes before a judge if there is a dispute as to whether it's false) 1% of the total ballots cast for that election is subtracted from their total. Note that this means that a candidate caught in 100 lies can't be elected, period. (The count starts over for the next election, though.)

This would require a very expedited means of hearing these cases and the appeals that result. If there are cases that don't get resolved in time they still continue, perhaps booting the guy from office. (If they haven't taken office yet the election goes to the one who is now ahead. If they have taken office the office becomes vacant and normal succession rules apply.)

  • This assumes facts mean anything anymore.
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 8:49
  • 1
    @blip True, but maybe we can hold out hope that truth will make a comeback. Don't ask me how. But "fraud" is a concept that is judged by courts: making false or misleading statements for financial advantage, to the disadvantage of your mark. With a good enough separation (again, don't ask me how) between legislature and judiciary, one could even imagine an offense of making false or misleading statements for political advantage, to the eventual disadvantage (hard though that is to prove) of your marks.
    – jez
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:46
  • 1
    The problem with this proposal is that judges aren't politically independent either. Just look at how much bickering there is whenever a new supreme court justice is needed. In theory a judge should just decide based on the law as written, but in practice their political leanings will always affect their judgment.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 9:20

There is no electoral mechanism that can prevent the rise of a demagogue, as the whole point of demagoguery is to use the power of the people, and this can include influencing any group whose job is to "vet" candidates, for example.

This is why successful governmental designs include non-electoral systems, such as Supreme Courts (although how effective this is depends on how the Supreme Court operates, and how its members are chosen). The only way to prevent the rise of a demagogue is to provide checks and balances that ensure that there can be no Tyranny of the Majority. And because democracy relies on majorities for at least some of its operation, you can never completely prevent a demagogue - you can just make it more difficult.

In some ways, the system we have here in Australia achieves a portion of that goal. Our formal head of state is the Queen of Australia (also known as the Queen of England), who is represented in Australia by the Governor-General (GG). Government is not run by Queen or GG, but instead by the head of parliament, the Prime Minister.

The result of this is that the Prime Minister, although tasked with being the head of government, can be removed by Queen/GG, which forces a new election - but the Queen/GG can't actually wield power directly. As such, if a demagogue were to rise, the Queen or GG would be able to remove them.

In terms of the electoral system, we eschew First Past The Post in favour of Instant Runoff (usually called Preferential Voting). We also have mandatory voting, so that the winner isn't decided by "who can get more people to vote", nor by voter suppression techniques.

We do not elect members of the judiciary, and they are not viewed as political appointments. Indeed, it is relatively unusual for the supreme court to have any ties with any political party, and when they do, it often doesn't impact their selection - of our seven justices, only one has any connection to a political party, and they were selected by a prime minister from the opposing party.

By keeping populism away from the judiciary, we ensure that judges will not make decision on the basis of popular support, and thus they are more able to put restraints on upcoming demagogues.

In isolation, it is unlikely that any of these would help to prevent the rise of a demagogue. However, in combination, it makes such a rise more difficult. Not having a two party system is probably also helping to suppress it - our current wannabe demagogue is named Pauline Hanson, and she's relegated to a minor party (although she likes to publicly make-believe that her party will form government at the next election).

Fundamentally, it's not about individual mechanisms, it's about how the entire system is structured. And education, of course, is essential, too. In this age of echo-chamber social networks, we need to start educating children in how to identify truth from false claims, how to question what they're told, and how to determine what constitutes an expert on a topic.


You should have a central commitee, for example the "Guards of the People's Happiness". This committe could decide if a candidate is enough leftist, liberal. If not, he can't run on the election.

This system would surely close out any populist, demagogue.

  • 8
    Except a leftist demagogue?
    – jez
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 23:49
  • If that answer was sarcastic, pls upvote, is good sarcasm! Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 9:22

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