Socrates criticized democracy for its conduciveness to demagoguery and its embrace of even those votes that do not come from thoughtful and intellectual individuals. These objections are salient given what we commonly see from political rhetoric today.

What have political philosophers proposed as counter-measures to these potential problems with democracy? I'm looking for some reading, so if you have some recommendations please do comment them.

  • One would think education is the answer, but... doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610642 – Fizz Apr 8 '20 at 2:24
  • I don't think that a pure "democracy" can fit your requirements - as long as you are implicitely talking about making voting not for all, or not equal. Which is the base principle of democracy, I think. – user2501323 Apr 8 '20 at 8:18
  • Well, then I suppose the question becomes: by what concrete criteria are we to decide who should vote and who shouldn't? – natojato Apr 8 '20 at 15:31
  • @natojato But who decides on those criteria? And how do you test them? So many opportunities for controlling the process. Controlling the process and stacking it in his favor is how Stalin managed to become dictator. – Sjoerd Apr 12 '20 at 0:12

Speaking of Socrates, lets look at Athens to see how demagoguery gets started.

Athens was originally governed by a relatively small group of rich nobles. These nobles are also Athens' best-equipped warriors, who provide their own weapons. This group was small enough that they mostly all knew each other personally, and their meetings could be fairly orderly; we're talking about just a few hundred men. They all know each other's history too, so they have to worry about their reputation much more. Can't just promise totally unachievable things, the voters will all remember.

Then there's a big war, and the Athenian navy proves essential to their victory. More essential than the nobility. Now the ~80,000 sailors all start clamoring for representation. The old nobility had always argued they got to run things because they were what kept Athens safe, now the sailors could all make that claim too. So, being outnumbered ~80-1 and fearing a revolt, the Athenian senate expands suffrage to include the navy as well. Now every senate meeting is packed with thousands of people, most of whom do not know each other. Also, the new people got their position by being strong, not intelligent. It took intellect to be wealthy enough to maintain your own weapons and armor, like the old nobility had to. Sailors though, for the most part, just had to be strong enough to pull an oar. Last, the sailors have very little at stake, and everything to gain. They're already poor, they don't have much to lose from failed policies. But they would benefit from successful policies. So they have no incentive to be risk averse.

So you have ~90% of the electorate chosen based on how big they are, not how bright they are, and these voters have little reason to not take every gamble. Legally, the old, landed nobility are still the only ones who can hold most offices, but it doesn't matter. They are selected mostly by the sailors, not other educated land owners. So you will see some noble promise amazing, impossible things, and he'll win any election because most voters are either too uninformed to know better or because there is no possible negative outcome for them.

So, to sum up what allowed demagoguery to take over Athens, it is the careless expansion of the electorate. Your two options to avoid it are to thoroughly educate the electorate, and to deny suffrage to anyone who doesn't have a lot to lose if the things he or she votes for end up being terrible.


Demagoguery is delicate, persistent problem in any theory or implementation of Liberal democracy. On one hand, Liberalism holds the ideal of public participation in governance as sacrosanct. Citizens needs to have some say in how things are run, if only to protect their own individual rights and interests, otherwise the system ceases to be Liberal in any meaningful sense. On the other hand — as everyone from Aristotle onwards realized — the public at large can be gullible, temperamental, stubborn, ignorant, or driven by rampant emotions, all of which can make them particularly ill-suited for political decisions. Maintaining a balance between this idealistic drive towards individual participation and this sour but reasonable fear of the lemming-like tendencies of human tribes is key. But this key point is difficult to conceptualize, much less implement.

The standard practical solution, at least since the end of the 18th century, has been to implement some form of Madisonian democracy. Madison reasoned (see Federalist 10) that since we could not stop a faction (a tribe) from forming or spreading without damaging the rights of individuals to participate freely, we should instead introduce what amount to fire-breaks: institutional structures that spread power over many different locations, that slow down political decision-making, or that otherwise break up the capacity of a faction to quickly and easily grab power through emotional manipulation. The underlying assumption is that the harder and longer a faction has to work to gain power, the more that emotions will fade and be replaced by pragmatic concerns and rational interests. Congressional districts were meant to keep hot-headed movements localized, so they could only capture a small number of seats in the House; The Senate was meant to be overly deliberative, to slow down the passage of bills until the movements that spawned them lost steam; the Electoral College was meant to be an elite body that could nix the popular vote if the popular vote fell in line with an noxious faction. Madison's solution is elegant and effective within its limits: not perfect by any means, but (to slightly misattribute Churchill) better than all the others that have been offered.

Unfortunately, we started to see the limitations of Madisonian democracy in the 1930s, with the rise of mass media. Mass media creates the opportunity for propaganda on a wide scale, and the manipulation of emotional reasoning that lies at the heart of propaganda began allowing factions to extend their reach across wider ranges of the populace. This has systematically broken down the fire-breaks that Madison built into our 18th century system. Each innovation in mass communication allows smaller factions to reach and incite larger populations, and to keep inflammatory viewpoints in the public eye for longer durations, so that the containment and cooling down strategies Madison relied on lose their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, political thought is still in the 'analyzing the problem' stage, and I have not yet seen many solutions proposed. As I've seen it, there seem to be two common themes running through the literature:

  • Proposals about revitalizing the citizenry so that the mass public can (in one way or another) push back on factions and reduce their influence. Habermas was wrestling with that in "Between Facts and Norms", and you can find that thread running through European Social Theory more generally.
  • Proposals that try to hobble factions directly: campaign finance laws, term limits, proportional representation models, anti-gerrymandering efforts, etc.

The first have not come into any focus clear enough to implement, and second always seem to come up a day late and a dollar short.

My own pet theory (in the US context) is that we ought to establish a quorum system for public voting: mandate that the winning candidate in any election has to win a majority of everyone entitled to vote in his district, or the election is null and void. That ties leaders to their constituents strongly: they cannot afford to ignore, disparage, anger, or disappoint any of their constituents in favor of some factional interest, because all constituents have to do is not vote and the leader will lose his job. That puts politicians and parties in the position of having to encourage, inform, educate, and serve their constituents (just to ensure that the maximum number of people show up at the polls); this in turn will gradually improve the political literacy of the population as a whole, making them more capable at political decision-making.

But I'm not holding my breath on that being implemented...

  • Wouldn't a majority vote simply entrench two party politics, allow for a political elite to easily control their party through safe seats and reduce representation by having (potentially huge numbers of) people completely unrepresented simply from no-one achieving the required standard. – Jontia Apr 10 '20 at 18:11
  • @Jontia: There would be no 'safe seats'. Any candidate — even ones running unopposed — would need to get 50% of the entire constituency to vote for her, or she's out. The seat sits empty until someone meets the requirement. Established parties can try to play games with it, but that just creates openings for independent candidates to step into the void. – Ted Wrigley Apr 10 '20 at 18:19
  • @TedWrigley In practice, that would require near-total voter turnout. If one party must get 51% of the vote from all eligible voters, that means low-turnout wins will be blow-outs. Consider that the average for American elections is around 60%. So to win in your system, you need 51% of all eligible voters, or in otherwords 85% of actual voters. This seems exceedingly unlikely to me. I think what's more likely is that most seats will be empty, and the few that are filled will be in stronghold districts where that 85% is actually achievable. – Ryan_L Apr 10 '20 at 18:49
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    Even with a 90% turn out rate a district is more likely to go unfilled, and today's safe seats are the only ones that will ever get representives, micro sizing congress allowing a handful of politicians to dictate well, everything. – Jontia Apr 10 '20 at 19:04
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    It doesn't though, because only safe seats can win their elections. Imagine you somehow get 100% turnout. 47% vote D, 48% vote R, 5% turn in a blank ballot or vote 3rd party. Nobody gets the seat. There still ARE safe seats because some regions will be dominated by one ideology. Seats aren't safe in the real world because nobody votes, they're safe because the vast majority of the district shares one ideology. Lets look at AOC's district. AOC got +110k votes compared to her opponent's ~15k. Do you think more turnout would have made it more even? Remember, D's outnumber R's there 6-1. – Ryan_L Apr 10 '20 at 20:02

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