Great 1000 Words DEMOCRACY Essay

The system of choosing public officials by popular vote is properly enough called Democracy. The terms of tenure and nomenclature, etc., are matters of detail. If we are to seek any test as to what constitutes a Democracy, we may as well take as a test the formal setting up at a particular time of some scheme of government by the popular will. England has been a democracy since the Act of Settlement, and if it be said that universal suffrage was not then known, the answer is that it is not known now, and never can be known. The exclusions of women and non-naturalized residents or even of criminals and lunatics are matters of convenience. It is a question of degree.

Again, it is impossible that all the officials should be elected, and the assignment to the elected officials of the power to appoint the others is a matter of convenience. The very simple expedients adopted by the framers of116 the United States Constitution were the result of English experience and French theory. The intellect of France had, during the eighteenth century, put into portable form the ideas that had been at work in England’s institutions. The theoretical part of it, the division of government into three departments, had been worked out from European experience going back to Greek times. The written constitution was a mere expansion of the Bill of Rights. Our Framers were men who had had personal experience in governing under the English system in force in the colonies, where the power of practical self-government had been developed by isolation. They received from the French a scientific view of that system. They had learned by experience that a confederacy was not a government, and they proceeded to bind the country together by the grant of that power which defines government, the power to tax. The extension to a large territory of a system which was in practical operation in all its parts, was in one sense a miracle of intelligence, in another sense it was the only conceivable solution of the problem of unity. Philosophers speak of Democracy as if it were the outcome of choice. It has been the outcome of events.117 No other system would have endured, and every formula of government that did not embody an old usage would have been transformed in ten years by the popular will into something that did.

The reason the Constitution of the United States is the most remarkable document in existence is that it contained so little of novelty. The election of some officers and the appointment of the rest, that was what the people were used to. That is democracy. There is of course no such thing as a pure democracy, or a pure monarchy. Every government is in practice the outcome of forces of which a very small fraction are expressed in its constitution and laws.

A constitution is a profession of faith, a summary written on a bulletin board, and so far good. The United States had this advantage in starting upon her career, that the bulletin was a very accurate summary of existing customs, and was in itself an inspiring proof of the virtue of the people. We are driven into admiring the Colonists as among the most enlightened of their kind. It is true that the revolution was conducted, and the Constitution adopted by the activity of a small minority. But this is true of all revolutions. The point is that the leaders118 represented sense and virtue. The people followed.

The moment the scheme was launched it became the sport of the elements. In the North a trading bourgeoisie grew up under it. In the South a slave-holding oligarchy, a society so fantastically out of touch with the modern world that it seems like something left over from the times before Christ, found no difficulty in making use of the forms of Democracy. During the half century that followed, these two societies became so hostile to each other that conflict was inevitable, and there ensued a death-grapple in four years of war, a war to extinction. At the end of the war no trace of the oligarchy remained upon the face of the earth. And yet these forms of government survived and began to operate immediately, under new auspices of course, deflected by new passions, showing new shapes of distortion, yet ideally the same. The only common element between the north and the south was the reverence for these forms of government.

Meanwhile civilization had been creeping westward in a margin of frontier life, conducted under these forms. Behind this moved a belt of farming and village life, at119 war with the backwoods ideals, but using the same forms of government. Then arose the railroad era and tore millions of money from the continent, heaped it in cities, obliterated State lines, centralized everything, controlled everything, ruled everybody—still under these forms.

Let us examine them.

The problem of government is to protect the individuals in a community against each other, and to protect them all against the rest of the world. The power to interfere and the power to represent must be lodged somewhere, and the question is how to arrange it so that this power shall not be turned against the people. Democracy solves it by election. Let the people choose their rulers. Instantly every man is turned into a custodian, a part of him is dedicated to the public. He is prevented by fundamental theory of law from being absolutely selfish. Corrupt him how you will, deflect him, play upon him, degrade, deceive him, you cannot shut him off from this influence. The framework of government makes continuous appeal to the highest within him. It draws him as the moon draws the sea. This appeal is one to which the organic nature of man responds, as we have seen.120 For man is an unselfish animal. The law of his nature is expressed in the framework of government. The arrangement shows a wisdom so profound that all historical philosophy grows cheap before it.

If you jump from the study of psychology straight into the theory of democracy, you see why it was that the allegiance to the ideas of the United States Constitution endured through slavery, through the carpetbag era, through the Tweed ring. It was not the letter, but the spirit which was inextinguishable.

It has taken a century of pamphlets to break down the distinctions between men based upon orders of nobility, property, creed, etc. Fifteen minutes of psychology would have levelled men and set them upon the same footing as that upon which they walk into a hospital.

The creature man is by this system dealt with so simply as he had not been dealt with since the birth of Christ. It must be conceded that the thing could not even have been tried, except with a people familiar with the distinctions between legislative, executive, and judicial power, criminal and civil law, etc. Altruistic impulse would not have sufficed to execute itself. But the121 divisions and forms of thought expressive of that altruism already existed, and were in operation, as we have seen.

It is thought that the peculiar merit of Democracy lies in this: that it gives to every man a chance to pursue his own ends. The reverse is true. The merit lies in the assumption imposed upon every man that he shall serve his fellow men. This is by the law of his being his only chance for happiness. You cannot find a man who does not know this. If you examine the consciousness of any typical minion of success, you will find that his source of inward content lies in a belief that his success has benefited somebody—his kindred, his townsfolk—mankind.

The concentration of every man on his own interests has been the danger and not the safety of Democracy; for Democracy contemplates that every man shall think first of the State and next of himself. This is its only justification. In so far as it is operated by men who are thinking first of their own interests and then of the State, its operation is distorted.

Democracy assumes perfection in human nature. In so far as an official or a voter is corrupt, you will have bad government. Or to put the same thing in another way, all122 corruption is shown up as a loss of the power of self-government. The framework of government lies there exposed in all its parts like a vast and complex dial, recording with the nicety of a scientific instrument every departure from virtue of the human beings whose lives, whose standards, whose very thoughts are registered against it. When selfishness reaches a certain point, the machine stops. Government by force comes in. We have had railroad riots and iron foundry riots. In Denver not many months ago thirty thousand people, or about one-fifth of the population, engaged in a carnival of destruction and raided a picnic given by the Cattle Association. These ebullitions, which look like mania, are nothing but an acute form of blind selfishness, due to the education of a period in which everything has been settled by an appeal to the self-interest of the individual. The Bryanism, with which we must all sympathize, is nothing but a revolt on the part of the poorer classes against the exploitation of the country by the capitalist, due to pension laws, tariffs, trusts, etc. “Something must now be done for me,” says the laboring man, and the mine owner says “Silver.” The appeal is by a little manipulation worked up into a craze,123 with the result that property is unsafe. The craze is a craze of mistaken selfishness. One of the weapons with which the richer classes fought it was corruption. They fed the element which was devouring them. There is talk of bayonets, and it is true that either bayonets or public spirit must in such cases be the issue. We cannot have property at the mercy of a mob, and if any single state like Colorado were separated from the rest, and the spirit of unreason should possess it utterly, government by force would ensue. Elections would be superseded, and property would improvise some mode of practical government which every intelligent man would back. The danger of an episode of this sort is that it interrupts the course of things. It is revolution. It is the breakdown of democracy, and tends to perpetuate the conditions of incompetence out of which the crisis arises. Fortunately the country is so large that one State holds up the next. No community would tolerate a state of siege for more than six months, and the State would return to educational methods, weaker but alive.

A military imposition of order is then the extreme case. But the Boss system is the halfway house in the breakdown of free124 government. In the Boss system we have seen a lack of virtue in the people show itself in the shape of a government, in fact autocratic, but in form republican. Here again the loss in the power of self-government is apparent.

But there is no departure from civic virtue which can get by unnoticed. Take the case of a voter who submits to having his street kept dirty because he fears that a protest would make him disagreeably conspicuous. Here also the loss of power of self-government is traceably recorded. So much selfishness—so much filth.

If we now recur for a moment to the state of things described in the essay on politics, we see that our government in all its branches has reflected the occupation and spiritual state of the people very perfectly. But outside of the recurrent and regular political activity of the country, there has grown up during the past few years a sort of guerilla warfare of reform. This represents the conservative morality of the community, the instinct of right government which resents the treason to our institutions seen in their operation for private gain. The reformers’ methods of work are necessarily democratic, and it is here that the most125 delicate tests of self-seeking are to be found. These reformers desire to increase the unselfishness in the world, yet the moment they attempt a practical reform they are told that any appeal to an unselfish motive in politics means sure failure. They accordingly make every variety of endeavor to use the selfishness of some one as a lever to increase the unselfishness of somebody else. The thing is worked out in daylight time after time, year after year, and the results are recorded in millegrams. No obscurity is possible because every man stands on the same footing. Our minds are not obscured by thinking that A must be sincere because he is a bishop, or need not be sincere because he is a lord.

There is no landlord class with prejudices, no socialist class with theories. There are no interests except money interests, and against money the fight is made. If a man is a traitor it is because he has been bought. The results, stated in terms of ethical theory, are simply startling.

A reform movement employs a paid secretary. In so far as he gets the place because of his reform principles he represents an appeal to selfishness. This is instantly reflected in his associates, it colors the movement.126 He himself is attracted partly by the pay. By an operation as impossible to avoid as the law of gravity he enlists others who are also partially self-seeking.

A Good Government Club is formed by X, and every member is called upon for dues and work. It thrives. Another is founded by Y and supported by him because of his belief that reform cannot support itself but must be subsidized. Inside of three weeks the existence of X’s Club is threatened, because its members hear that Y’s Club is charitably supported and they themselves wish relief. They are turned from workers into strikers by the mere report that there is money somewhere. Spend $100 on the Club, and Tammany will be able to buy it when the need arises. So frightfully accurate is the record of an appeal to self-interest made in the course of reform, that no one who watches such an attempt can ever thereafter hope to do evil that good may come.

The system lays bare the operation of forces hitherto merely suspected. Democracy makes the bold cut across every man and divides him into a public man and a private man. It is a man-ometer. You could by means of it stand up in line every man in New York, grading them according127 to the ratio of principle and self-interest in each.

In England a man takes office as the pay for services to the government. In America he does the same. It is part of their system, part of our corruption. This may seem a small point, but it will work out large. An absolute standard is imposed. That our most pronounced reformers are far from understanding their duties gives proof of the degradation of the times, but it exalts the plan of government. These men will lead a reform for four weeks, as a great favor, a great sacrifice, under protest, apologizing to business. They say public duties come first only in war time. They give, out of conscience and with the left hand, what remains after a feast for themselves. And these are the saints. Tell one of them that he has not set an honorable standard of living for his contemporaries unless, having his wants supplied, he makes public activity his first aim in life, and he will reply he wishes he could do so. He hopes later to devote himself to such things. He will give you a subscription. This man lives in a Democracy but he denies its claims. He too is recorded.

The English, who gave us all we know of128 freedom, have been the first to understand its meaning. They too have suffered during the last century from the ravages of plutocracy, from the disease of commerce. But they had behind them the intellectual heritage of the world. They had bulwarks of education, philanthropy, thought, training, ambition, enthusiasm, the ideals of man. It was these things, this reservoir of spiritual power, that turned the tide of commercialism in England, and not as we so cheaply imagine her “leisure class.” The men and women who in the last ten years have taken hold of the Municipality of London, and now work like beavers in its reform, are not rich. Some of them may be rich, but the force that makes them toil comes neither out of riches nor out of poverty, but out of a discovery as to the use of life. These Englishmen have outlived the illusions of business. As towards them we are like children. If it were a matter of mere riches we have wealth enough to make their “leisure class” ridiculous. If there must be some term in the heaping of money before the energies of our better burghers are to be diverted toward public ends, we may wait till doomsday. But the reaction is of another sort, and is very simple. Let us be just to129 the conscience-givers. They dare not give more. The American is ashamed to lose a dollar. He does not want the dollar half the time, but he will lose caste if he foregoes it. Our merchant princes go on special commissions for rapid transit, and receive $5000 apiece. They must be paid. Out of custom they must receive pay because “their time is valuable,” and thus the virtue and meaning of their office receives a soil: they do not work. All this is, even at the present moment, against the private instincts of many of them. It is apparent that they stand without, shame-faced. It needs only example to give them courage. A few more reform movements in which they see each other as citizens, will knock the shackles from their imagination and make men of them. And then we shall have reform in earnest. For with this enfranchisement will come their great awakening to the fact that not they only but all men are really unselfish. It is the obscure disbelief in this salvation which has made reform so hard where it might be so easy. As soon as the reformers shall have reformed themselves, they will avoid making any appeal to self-interest as so much lost time, so much corruption, and will walk boldly upon130 the waves of idealism which will hold them up.

If commerce has been our ruin, our form of government is our salvation. Imagine a hereditary aristocracy, a State church, a limited monarchy to have existed here during the last thirty years. By this time it would have been owned hand and foot, tied up and anchored in every abuse, engaged day and night in devising new yokes for the people. The interests now dominant know the ropes and do their best, but they cannot corrupt the sea. They cannot stop the continual ferment of popular election and reform candidate. The whole apparatus of government is a great educational machine which no one can stop. The power of light is enlisted on the side of order. A property qualification would have been an anchor to windward for the unrighteous. At the bottom of the peculiarly hopeless condition of Philadelphia lie the small house and lot of the laboring man. They can be taxed. They can be cajoled and conjured with. Corruption is entrenched.

We find then in democracy a frame of government by which private selfishness, the bane and terror of all government, is thrust131 brutally to the front and kept there, staring in hideous openness.

Nothing except such an era as that which we have just come through, during which we have grown used to absolute self-seeking as the normal state of man, could so have glazed the eyes of men that they could not see thrift even in a public official as a crime, or self-sacrifice even in a public official except as a folly. And yet so sound is the heart of man that in spite of this corruption and debauchery, the American people, the masses of them, are the most promising people extant. We have a special disease. It is our minds which have been injured. We are cross-eyed with business selfishness and open to the heavens on all other sides. For this openness we must thank Democracy. Here are no warped beings, but sane and healthy creatures under a temporary spell. The American citizen, by escaping the superstitions studded over Europe since the days of the Roman empire, has a directer view of life (when he shall open his eyes) than any people since the Elizabethans. He will have no prejudices. He will be empirical. But he must forswear thrift, and the calculating of interest in his sleep. No religious revival will help us. We are religious132 enough already. It is our relaxation. Only the painful unwinding of that intellectual knot into which our minds are tied,—that state of intense selfishness during which we see business advancement as our first duty, taught us at the cradle, enforced by example, inculcated like a religion,—can make us begin to operate our institutions upon the lines on which they alone can run freely, and we ourselves develop normally. This unwinding will come through a simple inspection of our condition. Let no one worry about the forms and particular measures of betterment. They will flow naturally from the public acknowledgment by the individual of facts which he privately knows and has always known and always denied.

This goes on hourly. Those people who do not see it, look for it in the wrong places. You cannot expect it to show itself in the public offices. They are the strongholds of the enemy. You cannot expect it to appear very often in the children of captivity, the upper bourgeoisie. These men are easily put to sleep and will take the promise of a politician any day as an excuse for non-activity. They give consent. What we want is assertion, and it is coming like a murmur from the poorer classes who desire133 the right and who need only leadership to make them honest.

It is the recurrent tragedy in reform movements that the merchants put forward something that the laboring man instantly nails for a lie. It is not the loss of the election which does the harm, but this insult to the souls of men.

Let no one expect the millennium, but let us play fair. We can see that our standards, particularly among the well-to-do, are so low that mere inspection of them causes indignant protest. But we must also know that when we accepted democracy as our form of government we ranked the political education of the individual as more important than the expert administration of government. This last can come only as a result, not as a precurser of the other.

The example of a whole people, mad with one passion, living under a system which implies the abnegation of that passion, has laid bare the heart of a community, has shown the interrelations between the organs and functions of a society, in a way never before visible in the history of the world. Everything is disturbed, but everything is visible. We see Literature, a mere thread, yet betraying all things; Architecture, still134 submerged in commerce but showing every year some vital change; Social Life, the mere creature of abuses, like a child covered with scars, but growing healthy; the Drama, a drudge to thrift every way and yet palpably alive. By the light of these things and their relation to each other we may view history.

The American is a typical being. He is a creature of a single passion. In so far as Tyre was commercial she was American. You can reconstruct much of Venetian politics from a town caucus. In so far as London is commercial it is American. You can trace the thing in the shape of a handbill in Moscow. Or to take the matter up from the other side: you can, by taking up these correlated ganglia of American society, which do nevertheless simply represent the heart of man, and are always present in every society—by imagining the enlargement of one function, and the disuse of the next, you can reconstruct the Greek period and re-imagine Athens.

No wonder the sociologists study America. It seems as if the key and cause of human progress might be clutched from her entrails.


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