Plutocrats and Demagogues: The Prophetic Warning of Montesquieu

Nicholas W. Drummond

The French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu predicted the divisiveness of our current political climate. He also anticipated the two major threats likely to emerge in large democratic republics like the United States: plutocrats and tyrant demagogues.


Historians may one day regard the 21st Century as the epoch in which the steady march of globalization was abruptly halted. According to John Judis of the Guardian, the Brexit vote and populist support for politicians like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Jean-Marie Le Pen is “a warning sign that the status quo is failing.” Yet, populism alone does not account for the dissident rebellion underway in Western countries. It is populism’s convergence with nationalism that has energized political rallies, fueled alternative media, and inundated the voting booths with angry citizens who feel betrayed by the political, cultural, and financial leaders of what is resentfully called “the establishment.”

Populism of the nationalist variety is epitomized by Trump’s vilification of a cosmopolitan “global elite” accused of numerous failures and betrayals, including: (1) Crashing the economy in 2008 with irresponsible financial behavior, (2) ratifying trade deals that have increased the polarization of wealth, (3) implementing migration policies harmful to citizens, (4) fighting unnecessary and mostly unsuccessful wars, (5) and dogmatically imposing political correctness. Although this provocative campaign message secured electoral victory, Trump lost the popular vote, which suggests Americans remain strongly divided on these issues. The recent electoral defeat of nationalist candidates Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands also indicates that globalization and its components (e.g., multiculturalism, immigration, free trade, and foreign interventionism) remain the current political trajectory of many Western countries.

We should nevertheless anticipate that nationalism will—at least in some quarters of society—grow in popularity as the forces of globalization continue to operate. Globalization for most of the 20th Century was generally a cultural phenomenon that reactionaries in the West could elude: (1) by self-censoring their media exposure, (2) by fleeing urban living spaces and avoiding immigrant enclaves, and (3) by focusing their attention on work and family life. However, the globalization of the 21st Century is penetrating suburbia and the heartland with demographic changes and economic forces that are disrupting the norms and livelihoods of citizens. That some of these individuals will become more supportive of nationalist leaders and their policies seems inevitable. Consider, for example, that a  county-level study of the American 2016 election found that “Trump’s vote was higher in counties where the number of Latinos has increased significantly since 2000.”

The veracity of the nationalist populist message is not the focus of this essay. My objective instead is to demonstrate that French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu predicted the divisiveness of our current political climate. He also anticipated the two major threats likely to emerge in large democratic republics like the United States: plutocrats and tyrant demagogues.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu warned that extensive republics because of their luxury, heterogeneity, and economic complexity are unlikely to sustain the “virtue” necessary to stabilize class politics. Defining this civic passion as “love of one’s country” and “love of equality,” Montesquieu thought virtue could perform three vital functions for a democratic republic. First, this passion unified citizens with a shared pursuit of national glory. Next, it inspired deference for talented and patriotic elites. Lastly, it stimulated love of freedom and vigilant hatred towards despotic abuses of power. All of these functions were necessary to stabilize the class struggle between the few and the many that Montesquieu thought was historically so ruinous to democratic republics. When virtue was sufficiently cultivated, the dutiful mindset of the citizenry would prevent the multitude from succumbing to the “spirit of extreme equality,” a licentious impulse to reject traditional forms of authority and seize public and private forms of wealth. Virtue could also defensively unite the multitude against demagogues and plutocrats who might otherwise subjugate the people with despotic coercion, bribery and entertainment, or manipulative divide-and-rule strategies.

Although Montesquieu thought virtue was better preserved in small republics, he also believed national security requirements were unlikely to be met with the limited resources of a small territory. He thus recommended for small republics to defensively confederate with other small republics instead of expanding their territory through conquest. That way, the federation could wield the power of a large state, but could also avoid degeneration if member states retained sovereignty over domestic affairs.

The challenges facing democratic republics today were anticipated by Montesquieu in his small republic thesis.

This analysis was the center of gravity during the American Constitutional Debate. Anti-Federalists like Brutus warned that constitutional provisions like the Supremacy Clause and the veto power of the Supreme Court would eventually render America “one great republic” ruled by a single central government. Ratification would therefore establish a pseudo federation plagued by all the problems Montesquieu assigned to extensive republics. Conversely, Alexander Hamilton observed in Federalist 9 that Montesquieu favored the Lycian confederacy, which the French thinker said was governed by a general council with the authority to appoint local political officers. Hamilton believed this suggested a preference for central government “interference” with the “internal administration” of member states. Federalists like James Madison also rejected the assertion that an “energetic” central government would inevitably become despotic because of America’s extensive size. On the contrary, he turned the small republic thesis on its head by postulating in Federalist 10 that geographic separation, distrust, and sociocultural diversity would impede majority faction tyranny, and would therefore be the salvation of the republic rather than its ruination.

The divisiveness of our current political climate suggests that we should not overestimate the degree to which Madison slew the proverbial dragon of Montesquieuean small republicanism. Indeed, Madison’s own words should moderate any expectations we have about the extended sphere preserving liberty in a country the size of contemporary America. In a 1787 letter written to Thomas Jefferson, Madison conceded that an excessively large republic would—in addition to debilitating majority factions—also prevent citizens from forming a righteous “defensive concert…against the oppression of those entrusted with the administration.” Then, in his National Gazette articles of the 1790s, Madison expressed similar anxieties by underscoring the growing dangers of plutocracy and heterogeneity rather than the majority faction threat he emphasized in the 1780s.

However, the most damning evidence against a contemporary application of the extended sphere is Madison’s critical assessment of racial and cultural diversity. In Federalist 14, he emphasized the importance of “kindred blood,” which corresponds with the pessimism he demonstrated throughout his lifetime towards the prospect of whites coexisting with Indians, freed slaves, and immigrant populations unwilling to assimilate. The upshot of this analysis is that Madison did not stray nearly as far from Montesquieu’s thesis as some have suggested. His “enlargement of the sphere” was a mechanism crafted specifically for a democratic republic that was by today’s standards remarkably homogenous.

If America today is an extensive republic subject to the problems anticipated by Montesquieu, there may be three additional solutions intimated by his “science of politics.” One of these appears in a drafted letter he wrote to William Domville. Montesquieu said England despite its larger size was capable of nourishing a sentiment akin to virtue because of its commercial spirit and its trickledown economics. Essentially, the work ethic of this acquisitive regime coupled with its balanced distribution of wealth produced a sizable middling class with sufficient public-spiritedness to unify the nation, inspire respect for meritocratic leaders, and stimulate vigilance against despotic threats. If such a remedy is applicable to a democratic republic like the United States, then we should be concerned that empirical evidence indicates the middle class in this country is shrinking, as are opportunities for social mobility.

For example, Thomas Piketty et al. found that:

“From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61 percent in the United States, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 121 percent for the top 10 percent, 205 percent for the top 1 percent, and 636 percent for the top 0.001 percent.”

Montesquieu’s analysis suggests that outcomes like this are highly probable in large republics. He would also tell us the demise of trickledown economics in the United States is perpetuating a class war the multitude is destined to lose because a unifying civic virtue has been eroded by the divisive identity politics of race, culture, gender, and sexuality. Indeed, this may explain why populist movements with overlapping goals like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, or the grassroots supporters of Sanders and Trump, have been incapable of forming what Ralph Nader calls “Left-Right alliances” to defend the common good.

A more conspiratorial explanation for this friction is divide et impera. Montesquieu said disunity among the people is all the more likely if wealthy elites are strategically exacerbating subnational tensions. Madison likewise warned that moneyed interests and other anti-republican forces will seek “to weaken their opponents by reviving exploded parties and taking advantage of all prejudices, local, political, and occupational, that may prevent or disturb a general coalition of sentiments.”

Is America today an extensive republic subject to the problems anticipated by Montesquieu?

The next solution is a tripartite government that grants executive power to a hereditary monarch. Montesquieu said a king “is always the foremost citizen of his state, and has more interest in preserving it than anyone else.” This was because his wealth, status, and power require a flourishing society. A hereditary king also has dynastical ambitions that predispose him towards long-term national concerns that other government officials are likely to relegate beneath short-term interests like reelection. In Democracy: The God That Failed, the libertarian thinker Hans-Hermann Hoppe advances a similar theory to explain why democracies irresponsibly amass huge national debts and practice inflationary monetary politics.

Montesquieu believed the king was especially important for triangulating the struggle between the few and the many. Not wanting either side to overpower its rival because monarchical authority would be challenged next, the king would stabilize class politics by strategically using his legislative veto and appointment power. With this solution in mind, an interesting question to ponder is whether executive magistrates like the American president approximate closely enough to the monarch of Montesquieu’s tripartite system. Perhaps hereditary title and dynastical ambitions are required to imbue the executive with private interests that truly overlap with the long-term interests of the country.

The dynastical motivation is fascinating to consider because so many important European leaders today lack hereditary title and are without biological children of their own. This includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the newly elected French President, and the prime minister of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, perhaps dynastical ambition is overrated since a celebrated leader like George Washington never sired any children. It may be that desire for personal fame can sufficiently motivate political leaders to care about the long-term interests of a regime.

Montesquieu’s last solution is the fear of the “Other.” Simply put, the existence of a foreign threat could submerge private interests into a public interest shared by all. In an unconventional way, this solution could be operating in some Western countries today. Nationalist populists believe cosmopolitan elites—with no meaningful ties any one country—are the primary force behind globalist policies harmful to Western nations, including free trade economics and the immigration of cheap labor immigrants regarded as criminals, terrorists, or simply unassimilable. A favorable political assessment of the public support for Brexit and political candidates like Trump would contend that legitimate concerns have virtuously galvanized citizens to defensively endorse policies and leaders they believe will secure the national interest against the globalist plutocracy. Conversely, it may be that unvirtuous citizens animated by the “spirit of extreme equality” have rejected the counsel of traditional authority figures like mainstream journalists, politicians, and business leaders. They are captivated instead by demagogues who garner public support by appealing to bigotry, irrationalism, and fear. Perhaps time will prove one of these two interpretations is correct.

In conclusion, the challenges facing democratic republics today were anticipated by Montesquieu in his small republic thesis. He warned that civic virtue was unsustainable in extensive republics, which meant plutocrats were likely to dominate unless the decadent multitude united behind a tyrant demagogue. The solutions Montesquieu offered to avert these despotic outcomes were confederation, trickledown economics, a hereditary king, and fear of the “Other.” If we accept the diagnosis that democratic republics like the United Kingdom and America are ruled by plutocrats, and if we also speculate that Brexit and Trump are not going to effectuate positive change, then we must infer these solutions to be insufficient or unsatisfactorily implemented. What then would Montesquieu tell us the future holds for democratic republics in the 21st Century? In short, nothing good.

Nicholas W. Drummond is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sweet Briar College. His publications have examined the topics of multiculturalism and the impact of religion and human rights on American foreign policy. He has taught courses in political theory, constitutional studies and American government at Mizzou and UNT.

Plutocrats and Demag…

by Nicholas W. Drummond time to read: 10 min