Political Historian at Vanderbilt University
As Seen In
A political historian at Vanderbilt, Eli Merritt has written about the dangers of demagogues to democracy for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and Philadelphia Inquirer, among dozens of other news outlets. He writes a Substack newsletter called American Commonwealth that explores the origins of the United States’ political discontents and solutions to them.
See summaries of 2018-22 articles here.
He completed his B.A. in History at Yale; M.A. in Ethics at Yale, M.D. at Case Western Reserve; internal medicine internship at the Lahey Clinic; and psychiatry residency at Stanford.
He is the editor of How to Save Democracy: Inspiration and Advice From 95 World Leaders (Amplify, March 2023) as well as of The Curse of Demagogues: Lessons Learned from the Presidency of Donald J. Trump (Spotlight Press, 2022). His book Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution is forthcoming (University of Missouri Press, June 2023).
His areas of academic expertise are:
the politics of the founding era of the United States
the intersection of demagogues and democracy
the ethics of constitutional democracy
He divides his time between San Francisco, CA, and Nashville, TN, where he is a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.
Primary email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Secondary email address: email@example.com
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How to Save Democracy: Advice and Inspiration from 95 World Leaders
Release Date March 14, 2023
How to Save Democracy is a collection of 423 instructive quotations derived from the First International Summit for Democracy. Divided into three sections—Virtues of Democracy, Challenges & Threats, and The Way Forward—the books brings hope, optimism, and poetry to the fight. As vital, How to Save Democracy outlines seven key principles of democratic success:
Never take democracy for granted
Democracy is the peoples’ government
Free and fair elections are the bedrock of democracy
Equality, inclusion, and diversity are cornerstones of democracy
Free, independent, ethical media is a lifeline of democracy
Rule of law is the glue that holds democracies together
Citizens, and nations, must unite to defend democracy
How to Save Democracy (Amplify Publishing, 2023) is a collaboration between Eli Merritt and RepresentUs, one of the nation’s premier nonprofit organizations fighting corruption and strengthening democracy. It is scheduled for publication in early 2023.
Praise for How To Save Democracy
Unsparing in cataloging the challenges and threats confronting democracy today, this book is a source of hope and inspiration for all who care about preserving and strengthening our democracy.
Assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy for President Barack Obama (2011-2013)
Americans and others around the world must join forces to protect democracy, and reading How to Save Democracy is a good place to start to fight back.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia and the Kennedys—and one Senator's Fight to Save Democracy
Merritt has performed an invaluable service: to hold the powerful to their word, while holding the rest of us—the people—responsible for protecting the best system of government yet devised.
Member of the New York Times editorial board and author of Let the People Pick the President
How to Save Democracy is two-books-in-one: a collection of poetic quotations and simultaneously a how-to-save-democracy guide. Highly recommended for parents, teachers, activists, journalists, and nonprofits.
Former chairman of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust
How to Save Democracy captures the greatness and spirit of leaders from around the world who understand that the power of democracy is more than an idea—it is part of our very humanity.
Executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and author of Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens
Democracy is indeed a project of humanity, and achieving it is hard work and needs structure and inspiration. Eli Merritt provides both in great surplus.
Chancellor emeritus and distinguished professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University
Read How to Save Democracy and learn how to protect yourself, your family, and your democracy.
—CONGRESSMAN JIM COOPER
U.S. House of Representatives (1983-95, 2003-23)
As Jimmy Carter once said, “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” These are the same ideals that suffuse How to Save Democracy and the ones we must return to in order to restore our magnificent democracy.
Special assistant for congressional affairs to President Jimmy Carter (1977-81)
Q&A for Eli Merritt on
How to Save Democracy
There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about the future of democracy since 2016. Why did you feel a collection of quotations from the Summit for Democracy was an important contribution to the literature?
Discussion has almost entirely centered on the dangers facing democracy: demagoguery, corruption, and authoritarianism. What is sorely missing from the conversation is poetic inspiration and guidance to citizens about how to get involved and how to make a difference. We have to inspire and motivate one another every day to keep up the fight for ethical, inclusive democracy, and that is what the world leaders did at the first Summit. In their speeches, they described concrete strategies for safeguarding democracy, but what most impacted me was the beauty and hope of what they said. The prime minister of Malta, for example, says in the book that democracy is “the greatest gift” ever bestowed upon humankind. The president of Switzerland characterizes democracy as the most important “revolution” to ever take place in world history. And the prime minister of Saint Lucia calls democracy “our cherished way of life” that we must defend together every day. Quotations like these—from all over the world—boost morale and unite us. They help us to stay in the fight for as long as it takes.
At a time when our politics are so debased and full of vitriol, it’s easy to become depressed about the state of the country and world. Can you speak to the power of ideals and poetry to inspire citizens to hope and to act?
I can speak directly to the question of grief and depression based on personal experience. By chance, the first Summit took place during my father’s last months of life. I listened to the speeches of the leaders one by one between visits to his bedside, and I was still listening to them on January 6, the one year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol. I was grieving, really, over the loss of my father and the loss of our democracy, and I know that millions of other Americans are likewise grieving over what’s happening to our democracy. The quotations in the book inspire us to hope, purpose, and action. At the end of the Summit, Biden said that the year 2022 must be a “Year of Action.” Essentially, he and the other leaders were telling each of us to do something—do something concrete to strengthen the democracy you live in. So, I worked on this book. That was my action.
HOW TO SAVE DEMOCRACY includes quotes from leaders of nations of all sizes and levels of geopolitical importance. What does it say about democracy that it’s treasured in such a breadth of countries?
For too long the discourse of democracy has been dominated by the leadership of the United States and Europe. But there are democracies of all sizes, races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds from all four hemispheres. The Bahamas and Barbados are represented in the book. So are Belize, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Jamaica, Japan, Nepal, Samoa, Taiwan, and so many others. The Summit and the book represent the diversity that is democracy today—and democracy in the future. I was most inspired not by the speeches of the leaders of Europe and the United States, but by those from smaller democracies. Mia Amor Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, for example, said that the secret to success in a democracy is “seeing each other . . . hearing each other, and . . . caring for each other.” I think she’s right. Lincoln said something very similar in his 2nd Inaugural in 1865, when he called up Americans to love their fellow citizens and to live life with “malice towards none” and “charity for all.”
This book is coming out just before the second Summit for Democracy, which will be co-hosted by the governments of the US, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia and held on March 29-30, 2023. Why do you think these global meetings are vital?
The summits are organized around principles of advancing human rights and combatting corruption and authoritarianism both globally and domestically. One great value of the summits is what I discussed above: the inspiration and motivation they provide to us to get off our couches and take action. But there is another value that is equally important. We need to know what to do—how to get involved, where to get involved—and the summits answer that question too. At the first summit, leaders outlined many areas of intervention, including protecting voting rights, election integrity, truth in the media, and the rule of law; promotion of diversity and inclusion, civics and history education, economic justice, and climate justice. I consider that the summits, like the quotations in the book, are “both motivational and instructional.” That is, they communicate the two-part message, “Get involved. Here’s how.”
Now that Trump and Bolsanaro both lost elections, do you think the tide has turned? Is the message of the book as needed now as it was just a few years ago?
The tide has not turned. Not at all. Our democracy and others are facing the triple threats of demagoguery, corruption, and authoritarianism, and if we do not “rise up” against these dangers, as Hamilton famously said in the musical, we are going to lose the battle. I want to reiterate this point. Silence and do-nothingism are a death sentence for democracy. Of all the warnings issued at the first Summit, the most frequently repeated was to beware of complacency—do not take democracy for granted, protect it every day, always be hypervigilant in defending it. Complacency is Enemy No. 1 of democracy.
A theme throughout the book—both in the quotes and in your introduction—is the importance of imparting democratic ideals to younger generations. Why was it important to you to make this book accessible to readers of all ages?
I enjoy nothing more than speaking to young people about democracy. They are creative, interesting and curious. They are also the most important protectors of democracy—now and in the future. But they need our help. We have to hand down to them what my father, a federal judge and a lifelong defender of democracy, called “the spirit of liberty.” What that means is that we must raise our children from the cradle to understand the importance of liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and justice. These things have to be learned at a deep emotional level from an early age so that they remain passionate attachments and sources of conviction and courage throughout life. That is what it takes to preserve democracy. For this reason, I especially hope parents and teachers will take the quotations to heart—and then go on to role model democratic action. That’s how we pass down “the spirit of liberty” from one generation to the next.
You have said that one value of the first Summit is the “concrete strategies” it provided for saving democracy. What is one strategy you can recommend to Americans for safeguarding our democracy?
The first summit conveyed that Strategy No. 1 for saving democracy is “Constant Effort,” and the most important area of constant effort in a democracy is vigilance over the behavior and conduct of our government officials. Voting is only one duty of citizenship—the easy one. As important, we must watch over all three branches of government like hawks, demanding ethical and constitutional behavior from our public servants at all times. And whenever they fail in this regard, we must kick them out of office—vote them out; censure them; shun them; impeach them; take to the streets in protest and demand they be removed. This vigilant activity by citizens is so essential because democracy is most easily corrupted from the inside.
If you had to point to one or two quotations from the book that best captures the message you want readers to take away from it, which would you choose?
The quotations that are the most powerful for me are the ones that tell us that we must fight for democracy every day—not only for ourselves but also for our children and grandchildren.
I also love the one from Carlos Alvarado Quesada of Costa Rica, quoting Mexican poet Octávio Paz, who says that “a nation without free elections is a nation without a voice, without eyes, and without arms.”
Another personal favorite is from Vjosa Osmani of Kosovo. She says that if history teaches us anything it is that “appeasement of autocrats never works.” We must stand up against them each and every day.
To request a PDF of the book, email Eli Merritt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Curse of Demagogues: Lessons Learned from the Presidency of Donald J. Trump is a collection of thirty-two essays by twenty-two writers that makes the case that the pathway back to a healthy American democracy is for citizens, first, to understand demagogues and, second, to defend against them.
The book makes the story of Donald Trump’s rise to the White House coherent and understandable. Trump, a demagogue, gained ascendancy in a laissez-faire political culture wherein neither the Republican Party nor the other gatekeepers of democracy, including the news media, effectively counteracted him. Once in the highest office in the land, Trump devolved into authoritarianism in order to retain power, as demagogues are well-known to do.
To restore our democracy, we must defend it against demagogues by strengthening gatekeeping systems within political parties, the media, and the U.S. Congress (powers of impeachment, conviction, and disqualification from future office) and through vigorous civics, ethics, and media literacy education K-12 and beyond.
Prominent contributing writers include:
Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
Jeff Flake, former Republican U.S. senator
Barbara Comstock, former Republican U.S. congresswoman
Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times
Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic
Jesse Wegman, editor at The New York Times
Eric Posner, author of The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump
Michael Signer, author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies
By agreement of the twenty-two contributors, the digital version of The Curse of Demagogues (Spotlight Press, November 2022) has been made available for free on numerous ebook platforms as an educational service to the public. A print version is available on Amazon.
Five Concise Lessons Learned from
The Curse of Demagogues
As modern and ancient history teaches, demagogues are the agents of destruction that debilitate and dismantle democracies.
Once in high office, demagogues become intoxicated with power and descend into authoritarianism in order to retain power.
Trump is the first demagogue in two and a half centuries of American history to obtain the Oval Office. The turmoil and trauma of the past seven years is singularly explained by the fact that American gatekeeping system did not successfully counteract his rise.
Democracies without strong ethical gatekeeping systems ultimately succumb to demagogues and authoritarians.
To restore our democracy, we must defend it against demagogues by strengthening gatekeeping systems within political parties, the media, and the U.S. Congress (powers of impeachment, conviction, and disqualification from future office) and through vigorous civics and ethics education K-12 and beyond.
Five Additional Key Ideas from
The Curse of Demagogues
Citizens of democracies must understand what demagogues are and how to prevent them from obtaining political power because this species of political actors is well-known to corrupt and ultimately dismantle healthy democracies.
Demagogues debilitate democracies in a two-step process well-known to political philosophers since ancient Greece and Athens. First, they foster division and distrust among the people as a means of obtaining power. Second, once in office, the demagogue devolves into an authoritarian who subverts the government, corrupting and disabling the democracy itself to retain power. As Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1, these talented, fearmongering orators achieve elected power by manipulating and dividing the people, “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
Demagogues are as ancient as democracy itself, and, historically, watchful gatekeepers prevent them from seizing the bully pulpit and winning the public trust. Examples of gatekeepers include elected and appointed officials, judges, community leaders, and the media, but the most important gatekeepers are political parties. In our system of government, each party has the crucial duty of defending the Constitution and democratic norms against demagogues.
Donald Trump started out as a demagogue, and, as the recent January 6 Committee hearings demonstrate, he slid deep into authoritarianism, orchestrating an aggressive multifaceted campaign to overturn a free and fair election. What the United States and the world have witnessed over the past seven years since Trump announced his run for president is precisely the process of democratic deterioration that takes place when gatekeepers neglect to fulfill their duty to keep demagogues out of the executive pipeline.
The enemy of democracy is not a Democrat or Republican. The enemy of democracy is a demagogue.
From the Introduction
“To understand the system flaws that enabled Trump to win the presidency, we must first acknowledge a fundamental principle that governs the operation of democracies. Demagogues are as ancient as democracy itself, and, historically, watchful gatekeepers have worked to keep them from the bully pulpit and the public trust.
“What these insights mean for American democracy today is that political, media, and education leaders must unite to keep demagogues out of the presidential pipeline . . . The enemy of democracy is not a Democrat or Republican. It is a demagogue.”
From the Essays
“There have been two occasions in American history when the fate of the republic was placed at risk. The first was the Civil War . . . The second was the Great Depression . . . We are currently on the cusp of a third serious challenge to our republican roots, which has emerged in the person of the first full-scale demagogue who was elected president . . . This is the chief reason why the looming election is the most important political event of our lifetime . . . This is an election to decide whether we wish to remain the American republic.”
JOSEPH J. ELLIS
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
“How many injuries to American democracy can my Republican Party tolerate, excuse and champion? It is elementary to have to say so, but for democracy to work one side must be prepared to accept defeat. If the only acceptable outcome is for your side to win, and a loser simply refuses to lose, then America is imperiled.”
Former Republican U.S. Senator
“My fellow Republicans, stop fearing this dangerous and diminished man.”
Former Republican U.S. Congresswoman
“The enemy of democracy is not a Democrat or Republican. It is a demagogue.”
Psychiatrist and Historian
To request a PDF of the book, email Eli Merritt at email@example.com.