On what political propositions are Americans apparently agreed? There are two. The first is that the President currently in the White House should be replaced. Not by being tossed out on last February's impeachment rap, but replaced when his term finally ends.
The second proposition is that no presidential candidate currently striving to succeed the incumbent is an exhilarating alternative. What's the problem? If the incumbent is so bad, shouldn't we be enthusiastic about at least one of the contenders? After all, there are two Democrats out there to choose from, and six Republicans. So whom are the American people waiting for? Abraham Lincoln? Pericles?
Many people are inflamed by the rampant demagoguery in the present scene. Demagoguery--demagogy--comes in two modes. Most conspicuous is that of the candidate who promises the voters what are best described as Nice Things. Why not health care for the uninsured? Or for children? Why not cheaper drugs? Free child delivery? (Free funerals?) Sharpshooters tracking down demagogy were out there waiting last summer, eyes trained, when Bill Bradley arrived in Iowa. Would he do it? Would he advocate an end to the subsidy of ethanol? Ethanol is the program, excogitated during the Carter Administration, which sought to augment the staying power of a gallon of gasoline by an infusion of ethanol. What happened is that the price of oil went down, and the potential economic value of an ethanol additive turned out to be less than the cost of producing ethanol, and that was many moons ago.
Answer? No. Bradley (like his Republican opponent Steve Forbes, a sound economic fundamentalist on most points) devised airy reasons why ethanol was an okay federal program, which he would not disturb, if elected President.
Was that demagogy? You would tend to dismiss it as that on the simple grounds that that is what Iowa voters wanted to hear. But wait! Only a small percentage of the agricultural community of Iowa is engaged in producing the corn that goes into making ethanol. So how do we account for the politician who ignores the interests of 96 percent of the taxpaying public in order to endear himself to so small a minority?
The answer to that is that voters at large don't naturally intuit economic realities. Iowans assume that ethanol subsidies materialize from the good offices of fairy political godparents out there somewhere. They do not focus on the itinerary of the ethanol subsidy. It is of course a dollar collected in Iowa from citizens at large and then remitted to those Iowans who are engaged in producing ethanol.
So there we have the one problem--the encouragement given to demagogues by undiscriminating voters. The procedure here is to attract support to finance a campaign. But does the term demagogue fit in other circumstances? What about the aspirant who has a private vision to offer to the public and has the means, personal or contrived, to finance a campaign? In some cases, the vision isn't merely a program to be adopted. It is a program that includes the visionary's serving as President. Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today's lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America.
But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents--midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War--had little to do with a bottom line. So what else can Trump offer us? Well to begin with, a self-financed campaign. Does it follow that all who finance their own campaigns are narcissists?
At this writing Steve Forbes has spent $63 million in pursuit of the Republican nomination. Forbes is an evangelist, not an exhibitionist. In his long and sober private career, Steve Forbes never bought a casino, and if he had done so, he would not have called it Forbes's Funhouse. His motivations are discernibly selfless. Yes, you can make the point that under a flat tax he would pay less in federal income tax, leaving the critic with the problem of figuring out how many decades it would take Forbes to earn back, in reduced taxes, the $63 million he has spent on his campaign.
The other way to enter a political contest in which there is something less than a draft movement working for you and you don't have the means to finance it on your own, like Trump and Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, is to opportunize on a political anomaly. If there is something approaching a dead heat between the two candidates of the major parties, go for the independent ticket.
Now this is (in my judgment, colored no doubt by personal experience) not exclusively the behavior of the demagogue. In New York State 35 years ago, the Republican Party had become a zygotic twin of the Democratic Party. In 1965 I ran for mayor of New York City having no prospect whatever of prevailing. It could therefore be said of my political venture that I was an exhibitionist and a demagogue: except that what I said, and the measures I advocated, were in large measure what many voters did not wish to hear (accounting, perhaps, for the paltry 13 percent of the vote I won). But then five years later my brother James Buckley, running on a third-party ticket, caused a great upset. He was a more persuasive contender, and he had a gift for giving life to common sense. It had been 50 years, back in Wisconsin in the Twenties, since a third-party candidate had been elected to the Senate. What accounts for such anomalies is a latent ear in the voting public that suddenly awakens to the tedium of establishmentarian contenders and says, on voting day: Cut it out!
Was that what brought Jesse Ventura to the State House in St. Paul in 1998? That, in part--plus the devil-may-care gratification of voting for governor a professional wrestler. The Minnesota voters may have suffered something of a hangover the next day. (What did we do!!!) On the other hand, what deep trouble could Jesse Ventura get Minnesota into? He wasn't going to lead a movement to secede from the United States. Or to forbid smoking. The only strategic mischief he might get into (the voters were saying to themselves in midwinter) was to join the fray against Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump and maybe Ross Perot for Reform Party candidate for President in 2000. He couldn't have so much as considered the possibility except for his victory in the race for governor. And since no one, possibly including Mrs. Ventura, can tell you what Jesse would proceed to do, assuming he were elected President and had omnipotent powers, any race in which he seriously competed can be dismissed as a venture in opportunism; a practice of the art of the demagogue.
So much for the passing scene. We need, in searching for consolation, to remind ourselves that the missionary is not automatically to be dismissed as a demagogue, practicing or inchoate. The apparent demagogue is, of course, a candidate for the respect owing to a prophet. John Brown was hanged. If he had lived and fought a hundred years later, there'd have been a national holiday named after him.
On the other hand, a sovereign democratic responsibility is to measure the claims of a candidate by empirical standards: Is he right for the United States? Now? And if he is right, is he the person to incarnate that mission? John Brown was wrong even as Martin Luther King Jr. was right, and a study of the two, and of their two movements in history, illustrates what we need to know about demagoguery and prophecy.
There are moments of deep gloom during the primary season. The candidates are immediately approached after a public event to be told whether what they just finished saying added or subtracted from their probable standing in the polls. And the American voter who wants to see a sign of life and of pride in the participants in our expensive and exhausting democratic obstacle course wonder, sometimes with a sense of desperation, whether what we're seeing is new. Or, are we looking at merely this season's reenactment of a ritual that began when Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were quarreling before their conclusive encounter at Weehawken?
There is always rivalry, and there is always a search for means of exploiting the means of advancing one's own position. In other ages, one paid court to the king. Now we pay court to the people. In the final analysis, just as the king might look down with terminal disdain upon a courtier whose hypocrisy repelled him, so we have no substitute for relying on the voter to exercise a quiet veto when it becomes more necessary to discourage cynical demagogy, than to advance free health for the kids. That can come later, in another venue; the resistance to a corrupting demagogy should take first priority.
William F. Buckley Jr. is the founder and current editor-at-large of National Review.