Democracy’s Survival Depends on Fighting Demagogues. Here's Why.
The Los Angeles Times
The House select committee’s investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection has hammered home a fundamental truth about democracy: this free form of government can be upended by demagogues when political party gatekeepers do not block their ascent to power. When gatekeepers fail in this critical duty, democracies deteriorate in a two-step process. First, a demagogue gains executive power, and then the demagogue devolves into authoritarianism, corrupting and dismantling the democracy itself to retain power. The leaders of both parties must embrace their sacred duty to thwart the rise of demagogues. Grasping this truth—that each party is responsible for counteracting its own demagogues—is a crucial starting point for rescuing American democracy from further decline.
Would the Founders Convict Trump and Bar Him From Office?
The New York Times
Published on the opening day of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump in the Senate, this op-ed argues that if the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were sitting as jurors in the trial, they would cast two near unanimous votes: first, to convict the president of an impeachable offense, and second, to disqualify him from holding future federal office. They would vote in this way because they believed as a matter of civic principle that ethical leadership is the glue that holds a constitutional republic together. The op-ed underscores that the framers of the Constitution wrote the language of the impeachment powers specifically with a demagogue like Trump in mind. As incisive political scientists steeped in history, they understood that demagogues are the singular poison that infects and kills republics and democracies. Today's gatekeepers of our constitutional democracy must understand the same lifesaving principle.
Trump's Place in History? He is the Supreme American Demagogue
Los Angeles Times
It is never too early to begin to consider an ex-president's place in history. And, in the case of Donald J. Trump, what future historians are going to say is unambiguous. Trump’s fate in history is to become first among the cast of dishonored political figures known as "demagogues." Compared with Trump, famous demagogues like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy will become footnotes. Trump will be remembered as the first full-blown demagogue in the White House, one who incited seditious violence on the U.S. Capitol — and for little else. Over time, Democrats and Republicans will unite in this historical understanding of the 45th president, just as they have long since reached consensus about Democrat Huey Long and Republican Joseph McCarthy. The judgment of Trump will not be a partisan matter. Republicans in particular should recognize this fact and get on the right side of history, even if it means enduring criticism from constituents and the loss of reelection to office.
A Day of Ignominy in the U.S. Senate, One Year Later: Remembering Trump’s Impeachment Acquittal
New York Daily News
This opinion essay remembers Saturday, February 13, 2021, as a day of tragic, failed civic virtue in our elected officials. On that day 43 Republican senators voted to acquit President Donald Trump of the charge of incitement of the insurrection, thereby thwarting a conviction by the required two-thirds majority. By not convicting and then disqualifying Trump from holding future federal office, those 43 senators single-handedly enabled one of the most destructive politicians in U.S. history to campaign again for president and to return to the White House for a second term. The essay argues that, with time, Americans should forgive the senators, but we must not forget. We must not forget that they held in their hands a constitutional power to permanently exclude an authoritarian demagogue from federal electoral politics. But they chose self-interest and party over nation. We do not yet know the full consequences of Trump's acquittal that day, but we must hold the senators accountable for their dereliction of duty.
How to Prevent Another Violent Attack on the Presidential Transfer of Power
A Collection of Essays Prepared for the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol
The cover letter included with this collection of essays argues that a vital step in the prevention of future violent disruptions to the peaceful transfer of power in the United States is the reinvigoration of political institutions which successfully thwart the rise of demagogues to the Oval Office, irrespective of the party affiliation of the demagogue. It encourages the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack to study the history and political science of demagogues as part of their investigation. Further, it argues that members must apply the correct “political diagnosis” to the former president as they search for insights and preventive solutions. That diagnosis is demagogue. Armed with the right political diagnosis, the Select Committee will stand the best chance possible of generating effective recommendations to make sure such an attack never happens again.
Benjamin Rush's Idea of 'Civic Virtue' is Still a Prerequisite of True Democracy
This essay, published shortly after the first Biden-Harris Summit for Democracy, argues that “civic virtue” in the political leaders of a democracy is as essential to the survival of this free form of government as a written constitution itself. Showcasing a central theme found in the political philosophy of founder Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, as well as the concurring sentiments of Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, the piece defines civic virtue as "a duty, understood since the first decades of democracy in ancient Greece, to subordinate personal and party interests to the common good. To practice civic virtue was to place the public interest ahead of self-interest — or else the house of democracy collapses." The essay concludes by calling upon Americans to put this political wisdom at the forefront of future gatherings of the Summit for Democracy. First, however, civic virtue is something that Americans must commit to relearn and reinvigorate in our politics here at home.
This article maintains that the preservation of a healthy constitutional democracy in the United States hinges critically on whether Americans heed a golden rule of this free form of government as taught throughout the ages by democracy experts like Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Livy, Edward Gibbon, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln and especially the framers of the U.S. Constitution. That rule is that demagogues erode and eventually destroy democracies. In their writings and speeches, these incisive political philosophers teach us that demagogues, especially those serving as heads of state, are to the body politic of democracy what cancer is to the human body. If the cancer is not kept out, or removed, it eviscerates critical organs and eventually mutates democracy into autocracy.
Why Demagogues Were the Founding Fathers' Greatest Fear
Los Angeles Times
This op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, subsequently published by 22 other newspapers,reveals that the founders self-consciously drafted the Constitution to be a bulwark against demagogues gaining power in the federal government. As Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1: “History will teach us that ... of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
Alexander Hamilton Would Have Led the Charge to Oust Donald Trump
Los Angeles Times
Published at the height of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump in the Senate, this op-ed in the Los Angeles Times tells the story of Alexander Hamilton's campaign in early 1801 to defeat a demagogue, Aaron Burr, and instead elect his political arch-rival, Thomas Jefferson, as president of the United States. Hamilton deplored Jefferson's policies but believed he, unlike Burr, was dedicated to the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law. Burr, he said, who was “deficient in honesty” and “one of the most unprincipled men in the UStates,” would “disturb our institutions” and be governed by a singular principle — “to get power by any means and to keep it by all means.”
Why America Must Not Reelect a Demagogue: That's What Trump Is, and It Matters
New York Daily News
Trump’s election to the American presidency has exposed a fatal Achilles' heel of democracy. It is demagogues. The great danger of this political personality type is that demagogues are temperamentally wired to run roughshod over everything we hold dear in our representative government: the Constitution, Bill of Rights, impartial courts, the rule of law, institutional norms, and, not least, free and fair elections followed by the peaceful transfer of power. In order to arrest our constitutional democracy’s descent into chaos and breakdown, we must get Trump’s "political diagnosis" right. According to the political science of democracy, he is not a fascist, autocrat, or dictator. He is a demagogue — and therefore the worst poison possible to a democracy. Voters must understand this clearly. The health, and possibly survival, of our democracy depends upon it.
Could Trump have a reality-distorting mental condition?
Los Angeles Times
On January 6, a pro-Trump mob, after attending a "Save America" rally organized by the president, staged a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol where the Congress was counting Electoral College ballots. After such an event, this Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times argues, it becomes incumbent upon the members of the House, the Senate, and the Executive Cabinet to inquire to what extent President Trump might suffer from a fixed delusion that played a role in inciting the riot. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Trump seems to believe he won the election. Could he be “captured”––to borrow a term from David A. Kessler’s book “Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering”––by a fixed delusion? In light of the tragic events of January 6, the gatekeepers of our democracy must explore all possibilities as they weigh options on how to ensure the safety of the American people and the integrity of our democracy.
The Constitution Must Be Our ‘Political Religion’: Remembering Lincoln’s Words
This op-ed in the Seattle Times, telling the story of Lincoln's historic 1838 address entitled "The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions," showcases Lincoln's belief that in order to survive as a democracy we must transcend our racial, religious, regional and party affiliations and together embrace what he calls "the political religion of our nation" — that is, the Constitution and the rule of law.
MLK's Prescription For Healing Hate Was Embracing 'Agape'
This op-ed in USA Today, published to commemorate the Birmingham campaign of 1963, describes MLK's relentless devotion to the Greek concept of agape, defined as love and compassion for all fellow human beings, in his arduous life's work as a civil rights leader. King characterizes agape as a potent inner position of “soul force” that each of us can cultivate within ourselves—and teach to our children. According to King, agape is the world's greatest hope for healing hate in all its manifest forms, whether racial, religious, ethnic or political.
How to Sustain a Constitutional Democracy: The Legacy of Judge Gilbert S. Merritt
This opinion essay memorializes the life and legacy of Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, Eli Merritt's father. Serving on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals for 44 years, Judge Merritt believed that the success of American democracy is rooted not only in an intelligent Constitution and sound institutions but in an active citizenry imbued with a spirit of justice, truth, and self-sacrifice for the greater good. On the question of how to sustain a constitutional democracy, the judge counseled others to rouse the spirit of Washington, Madison, Churchill, FDR, Lincoln, and MLK, among other historical figures who were willing to give their lives and fortunes for our liberties. “Liberty and the democratic spirit,“ he often said, “must exist within the hearts of the people.” Judge Merritt believed these values must be handed down faithfully from one generation to the next because, without them, a democracy may be quickly lost.
Feeling despair and uncertainty? This Roman Stoic philosopher has some answers
Los Angeles Times
Published during the year-end holiday of 2021-22, this essay in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and numerous other media outlets communicates that the best way for Americans to cope with today's despair about climate change, COVID-19, and the uncertain future of our democracy is not by pursuing false cheer but by following the advice of Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca to seek equanimity with all life’s misfortunes, including death itself. Seneca says to place the laws of nature, whether we like them or not, at the center of our thoughts. “Now I bear it in mind,” he once wrote, “not only that all things are liable to death but that liability is governed by no set rules. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.” In his writings the philosopher also underscores a second facet of life that is vital to achieving a calm spirit. It is friends. During hard times, philosophy was always Seneca's first consolation and, after this, the “intimate bond” of friendship. Originally published in the LA Times.
Published in the aftermath of George Floyd's death and the toppling of white-dominant statues throughout the nation, this essay proposes dialectical thinking as the best way to remember the founding fathers on the Fourth of July. Only through dialectical thinking can we tolerate the cognitive dissonance of remembering both the horrors of the United States' original sin of slavery and, simultaneously, the founders' fierce and brilliant establishment of equality and justice as our nation’s founding principles. Our common American narrative centers on the undying fight for equality and justice for an ever-widening circle of "We the People."
How George Washington Would Fix Partisan Politics Today
This op-ed in The Tennessean casts new light on Washington's political talents as revealed in the Newburgh Conspiracy and his First Farewell Address in 1783. Washington's two-part prescription for politics in the 21st century would be the same as in the 1780s: 1) the rule of law and 2) emotional intelligence.
Published in The American Journal of Legal History, "Sectional Conflict and Secret Compromise: The Mississippi River Question and the United States Constitution" reveals that the United States nearly broke apart in 1786-87. The young nation was saved from North-South disunion by the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.
Published in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, "The Mississippi Navigation Crisis" highlights the role of New Yorker John Jay and North Carolinians Timothy Bloodworth, Richard Caswell, Hugh Williamson, Benjamin Hawkins, and William Blount in the North-South crisis over the Mississippi River in 1786-87.
This letter to the New York Times calls for doublethink on founder Thomas Jefferson. The otherwise enlightened founding generation perpetuated slavery not only due to a pervasive ideology of white racial superiority but due to the founders' overwhelming fear that emancipation would trigger disunion, civil war, and a swift collapse of the American experiment in self-government.
In this op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Merritt satirizes Democrats and Republicans for their mutual intransigence in resolving the debt-ceiling crisis. The piece concludes with a prescription by founding father James Madison for treating such political dysfunction.