The Growth and Expression of Public Opinion

PUBLIC opinion, like democracy itself, is a new power which has come into the world since the Middle Ages. In fact, it is safe to say that before the French Revolution nothing of the kind was known or dreamt of in Europe. There was a certain truth in Louis XIV.’s statement, which now sounds so droll, that he was himself the state. Public opinion was his opinion. In England, it may be said with equal safety, there was nothing that could be called public opinion, in the modern sense, before the passage of the Reform Bill. It began to form itself slowly after 1816. Sir Robert Peel was forced to remark in a letter to Croker in March, 1820 : —

“ Do yon not think that the tone of England, of that great compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, or newspaper paragraphs, which is called public opinion, is more liberal — to use an odious but intelligible phrase — than the policy of the government ? Do not you think that there is a feeling becoming daily more general and more confirmed — that is independent of the pressure of taxation, or any immediate cause — in favor of some undefined change in the mode of governing the country ? It seems to me a curious crisis, when public opinion never had such influence in public measures, and yet never was so. dissatisfied with the share which it possessed. It is growing too large for the channels that it has been accustomed to run through. God knows it is very difficult to widen them equally in proportion to the size and force of the current which they have to convey, but the engineers that made them never dreamed of various streams that are now struggling for vent.”

In short, Peel perceived the growth of the force, and he recognized it as a new force. In America public opinion can hardly be said to have existed before the Revolution. The opinions of leading men, of clergymen and large landholders, were very powerful, and settled most of the affairs of state, but the opinion of the majority did not count for much, and the majority, in truth, did not think that it should. In other words, public opinion had not been created. It was the excitement of the Revolutionary War which brought it into existence, and made it seem omnipotent. It is obvious, however, that there are two kinds of public opinion. One kind is the popular belief in the fitness or rightness of something, which Mr. Balfour calls “ climate,” a belief that certain lines of conduct should be followed, or a certain opinion held, by good citizens, or right thinking persons. Such a belief does not impose any duty on anybody beyond outward conformity to the received standards. The kind I am now talking of is the public opinion, or consensus of opinion, among large bodies of persons, which acts as a political force, imposing on those in authority certain enactments, or certain lines of policy. The first of these does not change, and is not seriously modified in much less than fifty years. The second is being incessantly modified by the events of the day.

All the writers on politics are agreed as to the influence which this latter public opinion ought to have on government. They all acknowledge that in modern constitutional states it ought to be omnipotent. It is in deciding from what source it should come that the democrats and the aristocrats part company. According to the aristocratic school, it should emanate only from persons possessing a moderate amount of property, on the assumption that the possession of property argues some degree of intelligence and interest in public affairs. According to the democratic school, it should emanate from the majority of the adult males, on the assumption that it is only in this way that legislators can be made to consult the greatest good of the greatest number, and that, in the long run, the majority of adult males are pretty sure to be right about public questions. President Lincoln came near defining this theory when he said, “ You can fool part of the people all the time, and all the people part of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” This probably meant that under the democratic system public opinion forms slowly, and has to be clarified by prolonged discussion, but it is sure to prove correct eventually.

What appears most to concern us in the tendencies of democratic government is not so much the quality of public opinion, as the way in which it exercises its power over the conduct of affairs. I was struck recently by a remark in a private letter, that " public opinion is as sound as ever, but that the politicians ” — that is, the men in control of affairs — “ pay just as little attention to it as ever.” There is an assumption here that we can get at public opinion in some other way than through elections ; that is, that we may know what the public thinks on any particular question, without paying attention to what men in power, who seek to obey the popular will, do or say as a condition of their political existence. Is this true of any democratic country ? Is it true, in particular, of the United States of America ?

There are only two ways in which public opinion upon political questions finds expression, or is thought to find it. One is the vote at elections, the other is journalism. But public opinion declares itself through elections only at intervals of greater or less length : in England, once in five or six years; in America, once in two years, or at most in four ; in France, once in four years. It is only at these periods that public opinion must be sought; at others, it is consulted at the will of the minister or sovereign, and he rarely consults it when he can help it if he thinks that its decision will be against him, and that the result will be a loss of power. The imperfection of elections, however, as a means of making public opinion known, is very obvious. It is seldom, indeed, that a definite issue is submitted to the public, like the Swiss referendum, and that the voters are asked to say yes or no, in answer to a particular question. As a rule, it is the general policy of the party in power, on all sorts of subjects, which appears to determine the action of the voters. The bulk of them, on both sides, vote for their own party in any event, no matter what course it has pursued, on the principle that if what it has done in a particular case is not right, it is as nearly right as circumstances will permit. The remnant, or “ independents,” who turn the scale to one side or the other, have half a dozen reasons for their course, or, in other words, express by their vote their opinions on half a dozen subjects, besides the one on which the verdict of the majority is sought. During the last thirty years, for instance, in the United States, it would have been almost useless to consult the voters on any subject except the tariff. No matter what question might have been put to them, it would almost surely have been answered with reference mainly to the effect of the answer on the tariff. All other matters would have been passed over. In like manner, it has probably been impossible in England, for ten or twelve years, to get a real expression of opinion on any subject except Irish home rule. To the inquiry what people thought about the Armenian massacres, or education, or liquor regulation, the voters were pretty sure to answer, “We are opposed to Irish home rule.” Accordingly, after every election there are disputes as to what it means. The defeated party seldom acknowledges that its defeat has been due to the matters on which the other side claims a victory. The great triumph of tire Conservatives in 1894 was ascribed by them to home rule, but by the Liberals to local option and clerical hostility to the common schools. Similarly, the Republican defeat in America in 1890 was due, according to one party, to the excesses of the McKinley tariff, and, according to the other, to gross deceptions practiced on the voters as to its probable effect on prices.

What are called “ electioneering devices ” or “ tricks ” are largely based on this uncertainty. That is, they are meant to influence the voters by some sort of matter irrelevant to the main issue. This is called “ drawing a red herring across the scent.” A good example of it is to be found in the practice, which has prevailed during nearly the whole tariff agitation, of citing the rage, or disgust, or misery of foreigners due to our legislation, as a reason for persisting in it, — as if any legislation which produced this effect on foreigners must be good. But, obviously, there might be much legislation which would excite the hostility of foreigners, and be at the same time injurious to this country. In voting on the tariff, a large number of voters — the Irish for instance — might be, and doubtless were, influenced in favor of high duties by the fact that, to a large extent, they would exclude British goods, and thus they appeared to be approving a protective policy in general. Nobody believes that in Germany the increasing Socialist vote represents Socialist ideas — properly so called. It expresses discontent generally with the existing régime. In Ireland, too, the vote at a general election does not express simply an opinion on the question which has dissolved Parliament. Rather, it expresses general hostility to English rule. In Italy elections mostly turn on the question of the temporal power of the Pope. In fact, wherever we look at the modes of obtaining expressions of public opinion, we find that elections are not often reliable as to particular measures, except through the referendum. In all democratic countries, it is the practice of the bulk of the voters to indicate by their votes rather their confidence in, or distrust of, the party in power, than their opinions on any particular measure. It is the few who turn the scale who are really influenced by the main question before the voters. The rest follow their party prepossessions, or rely on the party managers to turn the majority, if they secure it, to proper account.

In England some reliance is placed on what are called “bye elections,” — or elections caused by vacancies occurring between two general elections, — as indications of the trend of public opinion touching the acts or policy of the ministry. But these elections very seldom show more than slight diminution or slight increase of preceding majorities, and the result, as an instruction, is very often made uncertain by local causes, such as the greater or less popularity of one of the candidates. They may, and generally do, reveal the growing or declining popularity of the party in power in the constituency in which they occur, but rarely can be held to express the opinion of the majority on any particular matter. There are several ways of accounting for any changes which have occurred in the total vote, all equally plausible. In America town or county elections serve somewhat the same purpose. They are watched, not so much with reference to their influence on local affairs, as with reference to the light they throw on the feelings of the voters toward the administration for the time being. It is taken for granted that no local wants or incidents will prevent the bulk of the voters from casting their ballots as members of federal parties.

It is, probably, this disposition to vote on the general course of the administration, rather than on any particular proposal, which causes what it is now the fashion to call the “ swinging of the pendulum,” — that is, the tendency both in England and in America to vote in a different way at alternate elections, or never to give any party more than one term in power. If public attention were apt to be concentrated on one measure, this could hardly occur so frequently. It doubtless indicates, not positive condemnation of any particular thing, so much as disapproval or weariness of certain marked features of the government policy. The voters get tired both of praise and of blame of particular men, and so resolve to try others ; or they get tired of a particular policy, and long for something new. It is a little difficult to fix on the exact cause of such changes, but it seems pretty certain that they cannot be considered definite expressions of opinion on specific subjects. And then, owing to the electoral divisions through which every country chooses legislators, a far greater change may often be made in the legislature than the vote in the separate constituencies warrants. For instance, a President may readily be chosen in the United States by a minority of the popular vote ; and in England, an enormous majority in the House of Commons may rest on a very small aggregate majority of the electors. There never was a more striking illustration of the difficulty of getting at popular opinion than the defeat of the Disraeli ministry in 1880. It was the confident belief of all the more instructed portion of the community — the gentry, the clergy, and the professional class — that, rightly or wrongly, public opinion was on the side of the ministry, and approved what was called its “ imperial policy,” — the provocation given to Afghanistan, and the interference in the Russo-Turkish War on the side of Turkey. One heard, it was said, nothing else in the clubs, the trains, the hotels, and the colleges. But the result showed that these indications were of little value, that the judgment of the classes most occupied in observing political tendencies was at fault, and that the bulk of the constituencies had apparently taken quite a different view of the whole matter.

A striking example of the same thing was afforded in the State of New York in 1892. The leaders of the Democratic party at that time were men of more than usual astuteness and political experience. It was of the last importance to them to learn the popular judgment on the more recent acts of the party, particularly on the mode in which it had secured control of the state Senate. Up to the day of election they seem to have had the utmost confidence in an overwhelming popular verdict in their favor. The result, however, was their overwhelming defeat. They apparently had but a very slight knowledge of the trend of public opinion. In truth, it may be said that the great political revolutions wrought by elections, both in England and in America, have been unexpected by the bulk of observers, either wholly or as to their extent. No change at all was looked for, or it was not expected to be so great a change.

Why this should be so, why in a democratic society people should find so much difficulty in discovering beforehand what the sovereign power is thinking, and what it is going to do, is not so difficult to explain as it seems. We must first bear in mind that the democratic societies prodigiously increased in size almost at the moment at which they acquired control of the State. There was no previous opportunity for examining their tastes, prejudices, weaknesses, or tendencies. Most of the descriptions of democracies within the present century, as I have already pointed out, have been only guesses, or deductions from the history of those of antiquity. Nearly every modern writer on this subject has fallen into mistakes about democratic tendencies, merely through a priori reasoning. Certain things had happened in the ancient democracies, and were sure to happen again in the modern democracies, much as the conditions had changed. Singularly enough, the one absolutely new difficulty, the difficulty of consulting a modern democracy, has hardly been noticed. This difficulty has produced the boss, who is a sufficiently simple phenomenon. But how, without the boss, to get at what the people are thinking, has not been found out, though it is of great importance. We have not yet hit on the best plan of getting at “ public opinion.” Elections, as we have seen, are the medium through which this force manifests itself in action, but they do not furnish the reason of this action, the considerations which led to it, or all the consequences it is expected to produce. Moreover, at best they tell us only what half the people are thinking ; for no party nowadays wins an electoral victory by much over half the voters. So that we are driven back, for purposes of observation, on the newspaper press.

Our confidence in this is based on the theory, not so much that the newspapers make public opinion, as that the opinions they utter are those of which their readers approve. But this ground is being made less tenable every year by the fact that more and more newspapers rely on advertising, rather than on subscriptions, for their support and profits, and agreement with their readers is thus less and less important to them. The old threat of “ stopping my paper,” if a subscriber came across unpalatable views in the editorial columns, is therefore not so formidable as it used to be, and is less resorted to. The advertiser, rather than the subscriber, is now the newspaper bogie. He is the person before whom the publisher cowers and whom he tries to please, and the advertiser is very indifferent about the opinions of a newspaper. What interests him is the amount or quality of its circulation. What he wants to know is, how many persons see it, not how many persons agree with it. The consequence is that the newspapers of largest circulation, published in the great centres of population where most votes are cast, are less and less organs of opinion, especially in America. In fact, in some cases the advertisers use their influence — which is great, and which the increasing competition between newspapers makes all the greater — to prevent the expression in newspapers of what is probably the prevailing local view of men or events. There are not many newspapers which can afford to defy a large advertiser.

Nothing is more striking in the reading public to-day, in our democracy, than the increasing incapacity for continuous attention. The power of attention is one that, just like muscular power, needs cultivation or training. The ability to listen to a long argument or exposition, or to read it, involves not only strength but habit in the muscles of the eye and the nerves of the ear. In familiar language, one has to be used to it, to do it easily.

There seems to be a great deal of reason for believing that this habit is becoming much rarer. Publishers complain more and more of the refusal of nearly every modern community to read books, except novels, which keep the attention alive by amusing incidents and rapid changes of situation. Argumentative works can rarely count on a large circulation. This may doubtless be ascribed in part to the multiplicity of the objects of attention in modern times, to the opportunities of simple amusement, to the large area of the world which is brought under each man’s observation by the telegraph, and to the general rapidity of communication. But this large area is brought under observation through the newspaper; and that the newspaper’s mode of presenting facts does seriously affect the way in which people perform the process called “ making up their minds,” especially about public questions, can hardly be denied. The nearest approach we can make to what people are thinking about any matter of public interest is undoubtedly by “reading the papers.” It may not be a sure way, but there is no other. It is true, often lamentably true, that the only idea most foreigners and observers get of a nation’s modes of thought and standards of duty and excellence, and in short of its manners and morals, comes through reading its periodicals. To the outsider the newspaper press is the nation talking about itself. Nations are known to other nations mainly through their press. They used to be known more by their public men; but the class of public men who represent a country is becoming every day smaller, and public men speak less than formerly ; with us they can scarcely be said to speak at all. Our present system of nomination and the loss of the habit of debating in the legislature have almost put an end to oratory, except during exciting canvasses. Elsewhere than in England, the names of the leading men are hardly known to foreigners ; their utterances, not at all. If I want to learn the drift of opinion in any country, on any topic, the best thing I can do, therefore, is to read tire papers; and I must read a large number.

In America more than in any other country, the collection of “ news ” has become a business within half a century, and it has been greatly promoted by the improvements in the printing-press. Before this period, “ news ” was generally news of great events, — that is, of events of more than local importance ; so that if a man were asked, “ What news ? ” he would try, in his answer, to mention something of world - wide significance. But as soon as the collection of it became a business, submitted to the ordinary laws of competition, the number of things that were called “ news ” naturally increased. Each newspaper endeavored to outdo its rivals by the greater number of facts it brought to the public notice, and it was not very long before “ news ” became everything whatever, no matter how unimportant, which the reader had not previously heard of. The sense of proportion about news was rapidly destroyed. Everything, however trifling, was considered worth printing, and the newspaper finally became, what it is now, a collection of the gossip not only of the whole world, but of its own locality. Now, gossip, when analyzed, consists simply of a collection of actual facts, mostly of little moment, and also of surmises about things, of equally little moment. But business requires that as much importance as possible shall be given to them by the manner of producing each item, or what is called “ typographical display.” Consequently they are presented wish separate and conspicuous headings, and there is no necessary connection between them. They follow one another, column after column, without any order, either of subject or of chronology.

The diligent newspaper reader, therefore, gets accustomed to passing rapidly from one to another of a series of incidents. small and great, requiring simply the transfer, from one trifle to another, of a sort of lazy, uninterested attention, which often becomes sub-conscious ; that is, a man reads with hardly any knowledge or recollection of what he is reading. Not only does the attention become habituated to frequent breaches in its continuity, but it grows accustomed to short paragraphs, as one does to passers-by in the street. A man sees and observes them, but does not remember what he sees and observes for more than a minute or two. That this should have its effect on the editorial writing is what naturally might be expected. If the editorial article is long, the reader, used to the short paragraphs, is apt to shrink from the labor of perusing it ; if it is brief, he pays little more attention to it than he pays to the paragraphs. When, therefore, any newspaper turns to serious discussion in its columns, it is difficult, and one may say increasingly difficult, to get a hearing. It has to contend both against the intellectual habit of its readers, which makes prolonged attention hard, and against a priori doubts of its honesty and competency. People question whether it is talking in good faith, or has some sinister object in view, knowing that in one city of the Union, at least, it is impossible to get published any criticism on the larger advertisers, however nefarious their doings ; knowing also that in another city there have been rapid changes of journalistic views, made for party purposes or through simple changes of ownership.

The result is that the effect of newspaper editorial writing on opinion is small, so far as one can judge. Still, it would be undeniably large enough to possess immense power if the press acted unanimously as a body. If all the papers, or a great majority of them, said the same thing on any question of the day, or told the same story about any matter in dispute, they would undoubtedly possess great influence. But they are much divided, partly by political affiliations, and partly, perhaps mainly, by business rivalry. For business purposes, each is apt to think it necessary to differ in some degree from its nearest rivals, whether of the same party or not, in its view of any question, or at all events not to support a rival’s view, or totally to ignore something to which it is attaching great importance. The result is that the press rarely acts with united force or expresses a united opinion. Nor do many readers subscribe to more than one paper; and consequently few readers have any knowledge of the other side of any question on which their own paper is, possibly, preaching with vehemence. The great importance which many persons attach to having a newspaper of large circulation on their side is due in some degree to its power in the presentation of facts to the public, and also to its power of annoyance by persistent abuse or ridicule.

Another agency which has interfered with the press as an organ of opinion is the greatly increased expense of starting or carrying on a modern newspaper. The days when Horace Greeley or William Lloyd Garrison could start an influential paper in a small printing-office, with the assistance of a boy, are gone forever. Few undertakings require more capital, or are more hazardous. The most serious item of expense is the collection of news from all parts of the world, and this cannot be evaded in our day. News is the life-blood of the modern newspaper. No talent or energy will make up for its absence. The consequence is that a very large sum is needed to establish a newspaper. After it is started, a large sum must be spent without visible return, but the fortune that may he accumulated by it, if successful, is also very large. One of the most curious things about it is that the public does not expect from a newspaper proprietor the same sort of morality that it expects from persons in other callings. It would disown a bookseller and cease all intercourse with him for a tithe of the falsehoods and petty frauds which it passes unnoticed in a newspaper proprietor. It may disbelieve every word he says, and yet profess to respect him, and may occasionally reward him; so that it is quite possible to find a newspaper which nearly everybody condemns, and whose influence most men would repudiate, circulating very freely among religious and moral people, and making handsome profits. A newspaper proprietor, therefore, who finds that his profits remain high, no matter what views he promulgates and what kind of morality he practices, can hardly, with fairness to the community, he treated as an exponent of its opinions. He will not consider what it thinks, when he finds he has only to consider what it will buy, and that it will buy his paper without agreeing with it.

But it is as an exponent of the nation’s feeling about other nations that the press is most defective. The old diplomacy, in which, as Disraeli said, “ sovereigns and statesmen ” regulated international affairs in secret conclave in gorgeous salons, has all but passed away. The “ sovereigns and statesmen ” and the secret conclave and the gorgeous salons remain, but of the old indifference to what the world outside thought of their work not very much remains. Now and then a king or an emperor gratifies his personal spites, in his instructions to his diplomatic representatives, like the Emperor of Germany in the case of the unfortunate Greeks ; but most governments, in their negotiations with foreign powers, now listen closely to the voice of their own people. The democracy sits at every council board, and the most conservative of ministers, consciously or unconsciously, consults it as well as he can. He tries to find out what it wishes in any particular matter, or, if this be impossible, he tries to find out what will most impress its imagination. Whether he brings peace or war, he tries to make it appear that the national honor has been carefully looked after, and that the national desires, and even the national weaknesses, have been considered and provided for. But it is from the press that he must learn all this ; and it is from the press, too, that each diplomatist must learn whether his opponent’s country is really behind him. The press is never silent, and it has the field to itself ; any one who wishes to know what the people are feeling and thinking has to rely on it, for the want of anything better. In international questions, however, the press is often a poor reliance. In the first place, business prudence prompts an editor, whether he fully understands the matter under discussion or not, to take what seems the patriotic view ; and tradition generally makes the selfish, quarrelsome view the patriotic view. The late editor of the Sun expressed this tersely by advising young journalists “ always to stand by the Stars and Stripes.” It was long ago expressed still more tersely by the cry, “ Our country, right or wrong! ” All first-class powers still live more or less openly, in their relations with one another, under the old dueling code, which the enormous armaments in modern times render almost a necessity. Under this code the one unbearable imputation is fear of somebody. Any other imputation a nation supports with comparative meekness ; the charge of timidity is intolerable. It has been made more so by the conversion of most modern nations into great standing armies, and no great standing army can for a moment allow the world to doubt its readiness, and even eagerness, to fight. It is not every diplomatic difference that is at first clearly understood by the public. Very often, the pros and cons of the matter are imperfectly known until the correspondence is published, but the agitation of the popular mind continues ; the press must talk about the matter, and its talk is rarely pacific. It is bound by tradition to take the ground that its own government is right; and that even if it is not, it does not make any difference, — the press has to maintain that it is right.

The action of Congress on the recent Venezuelan complication well illustrated the position of the press in such matters. When Mr. Cleveland sent his message asking Congress to vote the expense of tracing the frontier of a foreign power, Congress knew nothing of the merits of the case. It did not even know that any such controversy was pending. As the message was distinctly one that might lead to war, and as Congress was the war-making power, the Constitution presumptively imposed on it the duty of examining the causes of the dispute thoroughly, before complying with the President’s request. In most other affairs, too, it would have been the more disposed to discharge this duty because the majority was hostile to Mr. Cleveland. But any delay or hesitation, it feared, would be construed by the public as a symptom of fear or of want of patriotism, so it instantly voted the money without any examination whatever. The press was in an almost similar condition. It knew no more of the merits of the case than Congress, and it had the same fear of being thought wanting in patriotism, so that the whole country in twenty-four hours resounded with rhetorical preparation for and justification of war with England.

As long as this support is confined to argumentation no great harm is done. The diplomatists generally care but little about the dialectical backing up that they get from the newspapers. Either they do not need it, or it is too ill informed to do them much good. But the newspapers have another concern than mere victory in argument. They have to maintain their place in the estimation of their readers, and, if possible, to increase the number of these readers. Unhappily, in times of international trouble, the easiest way to do this always seems to be to influence the public mind against the foreigner. This is done partly by impugning his motives in the matter in hand, and partly by painting his general character in an odious light. Undoubtedly this produces some effect on the public mind by begetting a readiness to punish in arms, at any cost, so unworthy an adversary. The worst effect, however, is that which is produced on the ministers conducting the negotiations. It frightens or encourages them into taking extreme positions, in putting forward impossible claims, or in perverting history and law to help their case. The applause and support of the newspapers seem to be public opinion. They must bring honor at home, no matter how the controversy ends. In short, it may be said, as a matter of history, that in few diplomatic controversies in this century has the press failed to make moderate ground difficult for a diplomatist, and retreats from untenable positions almost impossible. The press makes his case seem so good that abandonment of it looks like treason to his country.

Then there is another aspect of the case which cannot be passed without notice, though it puts the press in a less honorable light. Newspapers are made to sell; and for this purpose there is nothing better than war. Wav means daily sensation and excitement. On this almost any kind of newspaper may live and make money. Whether the war brings victory or defeat makes little difference. The important thing is that in war every moment may bring important and exciting news, — news which does not need to be accurate or to hear sifting. What makes it most marketable is that it is probable and agreeable, although disagreeable news sells nearly as well. In the tumult of a great war, when the rules of evidence are suspended by passion or anxiety, invention, too, is easy, and has its value, and is pretty sure never to be punished. Some newspapers, which found it difficult to make a livelihood in times of peace, made fortunes in our last war ; and it may he said that, as a rule, troublous times are the best for a newspaper proprietor.

It follows from this, it cannot but follow, that it is only human for a newspaper proprietor to desire war, especially when he feels sure that his own country is right, and that its opponents are enemies of civilization, — a state of mind into which a man may easily work himself by writing and talking much during an international controversy. So that I do not think it an exaggeration or a calumny to say that the press, taken as a whole, — of course with many honorable exceptions, — has a bias in favor of war. It would not stir up a war with any country, but if it sees preparations made to fight, it does not fail to encourage the combatants. This is particularly true of a naval war, which is much more striking as a spectacle than a land war, while it does not disturb industry or distribute personal risk to nearly the same extent.

Of much more importance, however, than the manner in which public opinion finds expression in a democracy is the manner in which it is formed, and this is very much harder to get at. I do not mean what may be called people’s standing opinion about things in general, which is born of hereditary prejudice and works itself into the manners of the country as part of each individual’s moral and intellectual outfit. There is a whole batch of notions about things public and private, which men of every nation hold because they are national, — called “ Roman ” by a Roman, “ English ” by an Englishman, and “ American ” by an American, — and which are defended or propagated simply by calling the opposite “ un-English ” or “ un-American.” These views come to people by descent. They are inherited rather than formed. What I have in mind is the opinions formed by the community about new subjects, questions of legislation and of war and peace, and about social needs or sins or excesses, — in short, about anything novel which calls imperatively for an immediate judgment of some kind. What is it that moves large bodies or parties in a democracy like ours, for instance, to say that its government should do this, or should not do that, in any matter that may happen to be before them ?

Nothing can be more difficult than an answer to this question. Every writer about democracy, from Montesquieu down, has tried to answer it by a priori predictions as to what democracy will say or do or think under certain given circumstances. The uniform failure naturally suggests the conclusion that the question is not answerable at all, owing largely to the enormously increased number of influences under which all men act in the modern world. It is now very rare to meet with one of the distinctly defined characters which education, conducted under the régime of authority, used to form, down to the close of the last century. There are really no more “ divines,” or “ gentlemen,” or “ Puritans,” or “John Bulls,” or “Brother Jonathans.” In other words, there are no more moral or intellectual moulds. It used to be easy to say how a given individual or community would look at a thing; at present it is well-nigh impossible. We can hardly tell what agency is exercising the strongest influence on popular thought on any given occasion. Most localities and classes are subject to some peculiar dominating force, and if you discover what it is, you discover it almost by accident. One of the latest attempts to define a moral force that would be sure to act on opinion was the introduction into the political arena in England of the “ Nonconformist conscience,” or the moral training of the dissenting denominations, — Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists. In the discussions of Irish home rule and various cognate matters, much use has been made of the term, but it is difficult to point to any particular occasion in which the thing has distinctly made itself felt. One would have said, twenty years ago, that the English class of country squires would be the last body in the world, owing to temperament and training, to approve of any change in the English currency. We believe they are to-day largely bimetallists. The reason is that their present liabilities, contracted in good times, have been made increasingly heavy by the fall in agricultural produce.

The same phenomena are visible here in America. It, would be difficult to-day to say what is the American opinion, properly so called, about the marriage bond. One would think that in the older States, in which social life is more settled, it would strongly favor indissolubility, or, at all events, great difficulty of dissolution. But this is not the case. In Connecticut and Rhode Island divorce is as easy, and almost as little disreputable, as in any of the newer Western States. In the discussion on the currency, most observers would have predicted that the power of the government over its value would be most eagerly preached by the States in which the number of foreign voters was greatest. As a matter of fact, these States proved at the election to be the firmest friends of the gold standard. Within our own lifetime the Southern or cotton States, from being very conservative, have become very radical, in the sense of being ready to give ear to new ideas. What we might have said of them in 1860 would be singularly untrue in 1900. One might go over the civilized world in this way, and find that the public opinion of each country, on any given topic, had escaped from the philosophers, so to speak, — that all generalizing about it had become difficult, and that it was no longer possible to divide influences into categories.

The conclusion most readily reached about the whole matter is that authority, whether in religion or in morals, which down to the last century was so powerful, has ceased to exert much influence on the affairs of the modern world, and that any attempt to mould opinion on religious or moral or political questions, by its instrumentality, is almost certain to prove futile. The reliance of the older political writers, from Grotius to Locke, on the sayings of other previous writers or on the Bible, is now among the curiosities of literature. Utilitarianism, however we may feel about it. has fully taken possession of political discussion. That is to say, any writer or speaker on political subjects has to show that his proposition will make people more comfortable or richer. This is tantamount to saying that historic experience has not nearly the influence on political affairs it once had. The reason is obvious. The number of persons who have something to say about political affairs has increased a thousandfold, but the practice of reading books has not increased, and it is in books that experience is recorded. In the past, the governing class, in part at least, was a reading class. One of the reasons which are generally said to have given the Southern members special influence in Congress before the war is that they read books, had libraries, and had wide knowledge of the experiments tried by earlier generations of mankind. Their successors rarely read anything but the newspapers. This is increasingly true, also, of other democratic countries. The old literary type of statesmen, of which Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton, Guizot and Thiers, were examples, is rapidly disappearing, if it has not already disappeared.

The importance of this in certain branches of public affairs is great, — the management of currency, for example. All we know about currency we learn from the experience of the human race. What man will do about any kind of money, — gold, silver, or paper, — under any given set of conditions, we can predict only by reading of what man has done. What will happen if, of two kinds of currency, we lower or raise the value of one, what will happen if we issue too much irredeemable paper, why we must make our paper redeemable, what are the dangers of violent and sudden changes in the standard of value, are all things which we can ascertain only from the history of money. What any man now thinks or desires about the matter is of little consequence compared with what men in times past have tried to do. The loss of influence or weight by the reading class is therefore of great importance, for to this loss we undoubtedly owe most of the prevalent wild theories about currency. They are the theories of men who do not know that their experiments have been tried already and have failed. In fact, I may almost venture the assertion that the influence of history on politics was never smaller than it is to-day, although history was never before cultivated with so much acumen and industry. So that authority and experience may fairly be ruled out of the list of forces which seriously influence the government of democratic societies. In the formation of public opinion they do not greatly count.

The effect of all this is not simply to lead to hasty legislation. It also has an injurious effect on legislative decision, in making every question seem an “ open " or “large” question. As nothing, or next to nothing, is settled, all problems of politics have a tendency to seem new to every voter. — matters of which each man is as good a judge as another, and as much entitled to his own opinion ; he is likely to consider himself under no special obligation to agree with anybody else. The only obligation he feels is that of party, and this is imposed to secure victories at the polls rather than to insure any particular kind of legislation. For instance, a man may be a civil service reformer when the party takes no action about it, or a gold man when the party father favors silver, or a freetrader when the party advocates high tariff, and yet be a good party man as long as he votes the ticket. He may question all the opinions in its platform, but if he thinks it is the best party to administer the government or distribute the offices, he may and does remain in it with perfect comfort. In short, party discipline does not insure uniformity of opinion, but simply uniformity of action at election. The platform is not held to impose any line of action on the voters. Neither party in America to-day has any fixed creed. Every voter believes what is good in his own eyes, and may do so with impunity, without loss of party standing, as long as he votes for the party nominee at every important election.

The pursuit of any policy in legislation is thus, undoubtedly, more difficult than of old. The phrase, well known to lawyers, that a thing is “ against public policy ” has by no means the same meaning now that it once had, for it is very difficult to say what “public policy ” is. National policy is something which has to be committed to the custody of a few men who respect tradition and are familiar with records. A large assembly which is not dominated by a leader, and in which each member thinks he knows as much as any other member, and does not study or respect records, can hardly follow a policy without a good deal of difficulty. The disappearance from the governments of the United States. France, and Italy of commanding figures, whose authority or character imposed on minor men, accordingly makes it hard to say what is the policy of these three countries on most questions. Ministers who do not carry personal weight always seek to fortify themselves by the conciliation of voters, and what will conciliate voters is, under every democratic régime, a matter of increasing uncertainty, so free is the play of individual opinion.

Of this, again, the condition of our currency question at this moment is a good illustration. Twenty-five years ago, the custody and regulation of the standard of value, like the custody and regulation of the standard of length or of weight, were confided to experts, without objection in any quarter. There was no more thought of disputing with these experts about it than of disputing with mathematicians or astronomers about problems in their respective sciences. It was not thought that there could be a “ public opinion ” about the comparative merits of the metals as mediums of exchange, any more than about the qualities of triangles or the position of stars. The experts met now and then, in private conclave, and decided, without criticism from any one else, whether silver or gold should be the legal tender. All the public asked was that the standard, whatever it was, should be the steadiest possible, the least liable to fluctuations or variations.

With the growing strength of the democratic régime all this has been changed. The standard of value, like nearly everything else about which men are concerned, has descended into the political arena. Every man claims the right to have an opinion about it, as good as that of any other man. More than this, nearly every man is eager to get this opinion embodied in legislation if he can. Nobody is listened to by all as an authority on the subject. The most eminent financiers find their views exposed to nearly as much question as those of any tyro. The idea that money should be a standard of value, as good as the nature of value will permit, has almost disappeared. Money has become a means in the hands of governments of alleviating human misery, of lightening the burdens of unfortunate debtors, and of stimulating industry. On the best mode of doing these things, every man thinks he is entitled to his say. The result is that we find ourselves, in the presence of one of the most serious financial problems which has ever confronted any nation, without a financial leader. The finances of the Revolution had Alexander Hamilton, and subsequently Albert Gallatin. The finances of the civil war had first Secretary Chase, and subsequently Senator Sherman, both of whom brought us to some sort of conclusion, if not always to the right conclusion, by sheer weight of authority. To Senator Sherman we were mainly indebted for the return to specie payment in 1879. At present we have no one who fills the places of these men in the public eye. No one assumes to lead in this crisis, though many give good as well as bad advice, but all, or nearly all, who advise, advise as politicians, not as financiers. Very few who speak on the subject say publicly the things they say in private. Their public deliverances are modified or toned down to suit some part of the country, or some set or division of voters. They are what is called “ politically wise.” During the twenty years following the change in the currency in 1873 no leading man in either party disputed the assertions of the advocates of silver as to the superiority of silver to gold as a standard of value. Nearly all politicians, even of the Republican party, admitted the force of some of the contentious of those advocates, and were willing to meet them halfway by some such measure as the purchase of silver under the Sherman Act. The result was that when Mr. Bryan was nominated on a silver platform, his followers attacked the gold standard with weapons drawn from the armory of the gold men, and nearly every public man of prominence was estopped from vigorous opposition to them by his own utterances on the same subject.

It is easy to see that under circumstances like these a policy about finance — the most important matter in which a nation can have a policy — is hardly possible. There are too many opinions in the field for the formation of anything that can be called public opinion. And yet, I cannot recall any case in history, or, in other words, in human experience, in which a great scheme of financial reform was carried through without having some man of force or weight behind it, some man who had framed it, who understood it, who could answer objections to it, and who was not obliged to alter or curtail it against his better judgment. The great financiers stand out in bold relief in the financial chronicles of every nation. They may have been wrong, they may have made mistakes, but they spoke imperiously and carried their point, whatever it was.

Whether the disposition to do without them, and to control money through popular opinion, which seems now to have taken possession of the democratic world, will last, or whether it will be abandoned after trial, remains to be seen. But one is not a rash prophet who predicts that it will fail. Finance is too full of details, of unforeseen effects, of technical conditions, to make the mastery of it possible, without much study and experience. There is no problem of government which comes so near being strictly “ scientific,” that is, so dependent on principles of human nature and so little dependent on legislative power. No government can completely control the medium of exchange. It is a subject for psychology rather than for politics. Democracy has apparently been taken possession of by the idea, either that a perfect standard of value may be contrived, or that the standard of value may be made a philanthropic instrument. But in view of the incessant and rapid change of cost of production which everything undergoes in this age of invention and discovery, gold and silver included, the idea of a perfect standard of value must be set down as a chimera. Every one acknowledges this. What some men maintain is that the effects of invention and discovery may be counteracted by law and even by treaty, which is simply an assertion that parliaments and congresses and diplomatists can determine what each man shall give for everything he buys. This proposition hardly needs more than a statement of it for its refutation. It is probably the most unexpected of all the manifestations of democratic feeling yet produced. For behind all proposals to give currency a legal value differing from the value of the marketplace lies a belief in the strength of law such as the world has never yet seen. All previous régimes have believed in the power of law to enforce physical obedience, and to say what shall constitute the legal payment of a debt, but never until now has it been maintained that government can create in each head the amount of desire which fixes the price of a commodity.

In short, the one thing which can be said with most certainty about democratic public opinion in the modern world, is that it is moulded as never before by economic rather than by religious or moral or political considerations. The influences which governed the world down to the close of the seventeenth century were respect for a reigning family, or belief in a certain form of religious worship and horror of others, or national pride and corresponding dislike or distrust of foreigners, or commercial rivalry. It is only the last which has now much influence on public opinion or in legislation. There is not much respect, that can be called a political force, left for any reigning family. There is a general indifference to all forms of religious worship, or at least sufficient indifference to prevent strong or combative attachment to them. Religious wars are no longer possible ; the desire to spread any form of faith by force of arms, which so powerfully influenced the politics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has completely disappeared. It is only in Spain and in Turkey that this feeling can now be said to exist as a power in the state.

The growth of indifference to what used to be called political liberty, too, has been curiously rapid. Political liberty, as the term was understood at the beginning of this century, was the power of having something to say in the election of all officers of the state, and through them of influencing legislation and administration ; or, in other words, of enforcing strict responsibility for its acts on the part of the governing body towards the people. There is apparently much less importance attached to this now than formerly, as is shown by the surrender of the power of nomination to “ the bosses ” in so many States ; and in New York by the growing readiness to pass legislation without debate under direction from the outside. Similarly, socialism, which seems to be the political creed which has strongest hold on the working classes to-day, is essentially a form of domination over the whole individual by the constituted authorities, without consulting him. The only choice left him is one of an occupation, and of the kind of food he will eat and the kind of clothes he will wear. As there is to be no war, no money, no idleness, and no taxation, there will be no politics, and consequently no discussion. In truth, the number of men who would hail such a form of society with delight, as relieving them from all anxiety about sustenance, and from all need of skill or character, is probably large and increasing. For similar reasons, the legislation which excites most attention is apt to be legislation which in some way promises an increase of physical comfort. It is rarely, for instance, that a trades union or workingman’s association shows much interest in any law except one which promises to increase wages, or shorten hours of labor, or lower fares or the price of something. Protection, to which a very large number of workingmen are attached, is only in their eyes a mode of keepingwages up. “ Municipal ownership ” is another name for low fares ; restrictions on immigration are a mode of keeping competitors out of the labor market.

All these things, and things of a similar nature, attract a great deal of interest ; the encroachments of the bosses on constitutional government, comparatively little. The first attempt to legislate for the economical benefit of the masses was the abolition of the English corn laws. It may seem at first sight that the enactment of the corn laws was an economical measure. But such was not the character in which the corn laws were originally advocated. They were called for, first, in order to make England self-supporting in case of a war with foreign powers, a contingency which was constantly present to men’s minds in the last century; secondly, to keep up the country gentry, or “ landed interest,” as it was called, which then had great political value and importance. The abolition of these laws was avowedly carried out simply for the purpose of cheapening and enlarging the loaf. It was the beginning of a series of measures in various countries which aim merely at increasing human physical comfort, whatever their effect on the structure of the government or on the play of political institutions. This foreshadowed the greatest change which has come over the modern world. It is now governed mainly by ideas about the distribution of commodities. This distribution is not only what most occupies public opinion, but what has most to do with forming it.

E. L. Godkin.