Shadow of the Man on Horseback

JANUARY 1932

VOLUME 149

BY JAMES TRUSLOW ADAMS

JUST a century ago, after one of the fiercest political struggles in the history of Parliament, the great English Reform Bill of 1832 was finally passed over the determined opposition of the House of Lords and against the convictions of much of the best and soundest opinion in England. In 1830, the restoration of the Orléans monarchy in France had been accepted only with a theoretical basis of democratic equality before the law and on condition of transferring most of the powers of government to the popular branch of the Legislature. By 1828, in the United States, all the Northern States had adopted manhood suffrage, and in that year Jackson had been overwhelmingly elected President on a surging wave of democratic enthusiasm. It is true that the English Reform Bill merely enfranchised the middle classes, and it was not until our own century, either in England or in the United States, that practically universal suffrage, including all classes and both men and women, became an accomplished fact, after passing through many stages.

Yet it is not wholly inaccurate to speak of the last hundred years as the first century of democracy, although perhaps the term ‘liberalism’ would be more just. The historic process is continuous and knows no dates, but for our convenience we have to use them, and the struggle over the Reform Bill does mark very definitely the turn in the tides of the modern political world toward Bentham’s ideal of ‘one man, one vote,’ and the bestowing of political power upon the entire people.

It is hard for us to-day to ‘recapture the first fine careless rapture’ of the great democratic advocates of the 1830’s, and to accept their assertion that with universal suffrage our political immorality and corruption would cease, and the people would provide for themselves a wise and frugal government in the interests of all. It is equally difficult to accept their belief that with universal education all men would be able to judge rightly of what was for their own good, and that they would follow it. There was something charmingly naïve in this faith of the time that one had only to transfer power to the people at large to find them using it

Copyright 1931, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

wisely and unselfishly, and that by the simple process of counting noses we could automatically reach right conclusions.

Why did they believe so fervently then that if only control of government could be transferred from a king, an aristocracy, or an electorate with a property qualification, somehow the millennium would come when the men who were at the bottom of the scale socially, economically, culturally, were put in the seats of the mighty? Why have we ceased to believe it to-day?

The latter question is perhaps easier to answer than the first, except in so far as each generation reacts against the particular evils of its own time and seeks regeneration in mere change. In some respects the earlier period was much like our own — one of vast ferment. Only fifteen or a dozen years earlier the peoples had emerged from the colossal wars of the Napoleonic era. England was burdened with a debt almost as crushing as that of to-day. It would be easy to run a parallel.

But there were also great differences. Religion and morality were still compelling forces and ideas in the 1830’s, and democracy, however disconnected with religion in the mind of the individual man, had sprung straight from the great religious movement of the Reformation. The claimed Protestant right of each man to interpret the Bible for himself, to judge of creeds and ceremonies, to erect his own church and elect his own pastor, had been the solvent which had undermined thrones and the old belief in divine right. The Protestant leaders had not believed in democracy, but their doctrines had led to it with complete inevitability. The early nineteenth century was still deeply religious, and the environment in which democratic ideas were coming to fruition was largely unaltered from that which had given them birth. Science was beginning to open limitless vistas of possible improvement to man without yet having reached the point of disillusioning him of his religious beliefs. It was a period, for enthusiastic souls, of apparently boundless possibilities in the future, emphasized in the American case by our vast westward expansion. Uncritical optimism was rampant.

To-day all is changed. Science still promises possible extraordinary advances in the control of our physical environment, but for whole sections of the people it has destroyed old religious beliefs. Religion and morality as moulding forces on our ideas have given place to science and efficiency. We have glimpsed the millions of years it has taken man to rise to what he is, instead of the four thousand given to him in the 1830’s, and we realize that perfectibility is not to be attained in a generation.

But most of all, in looking back over the last century, we find that the high hopes entertained in the first part of it have not been fulfilled. On the contrary we see that many forces then expected to work out only for good have worked also for ill. It has been said that to-day democracy is on trial.

I do not think it is so much on trial as that it is passing into something quite different, wholly without control by any of us.

II

The very corner stone of democracy was thought to be education. In 1830, a workingmen’s meeting in Philadelphia declared that there could be no real liberty until ‘equal instruction shall be equally secured to all,’ and such was the universal opinion among the democrats. There seemed to be no hesitant doubts about all men being able to be equally benefited by education and equally anxious to secure it in a real sense. We have now had several generations submitted to the process of universal education and can begin to test the consequences a bit. It may be admitted that comparatively few have had a genuine education, that most have merely learned to read, write, and cipher, and got a smattering of a hodgepodge of facts, soon forgotten. It must be recalled, however, that, even with a good system, a real education in the modern sense can only be acquired by a good mind willing to work hard over it. Most people do not have good minds and most of them are not willing to work intellectually; and these facts are quite apart from any opinion we may hold that the democratic system of education is bad.

It is not easy to say just what our so-called education has done for the individual. It has, of course, opened unlimited opportunities for some. It has increased smug self-satisfaction as well as worthy self-respect. On the other hand, it may be questioned whether it has not weakened the power to think. A farmer who tries to work out logically just what it is that has made his car stop is probably doing more to make his mind an efficient instrument of thought than he is by reading the papers for a week and swallowing their opinions uncritically. Our problem, however, is not with education in regard to the individual, but with education as the fundamental basis for a sound administering of the State based on universal suffrage.

Instead of bringing about a healthy cleansing of our political life, education and suffrage would seem to have had unexpected results quite contrary to this. For one thing, a literate public of millions has brought into being the popular press, and what that is after a century of democracy needs no long description. I need not refer to the standards of taste exhibited by either the newspapers or the films which cater to the largest audiences. What I have in mind is not taste, but the enormous power of the popular press over its readers and creators. The lowest common denominator of humanity is raw emotion, and it is that to which the press, reaching toward ever wider circulation, tends to cater, whether in murders or international relations. It had been hoped, for example, that great democracies would become peaceloving and internationally-minded. On the contrary, the century of democracy has witnessed that very rise of excessive and exacerbated nationalism which, in a world economically intertwined, is one of the greatest menaces to the peace of the world to-day. This, I think, can be attributed to the fact that the press appeals to emotion in order to secure circulation among the democratically ‘educated’ masses.

At present, I am reading the French papers daily, and, as if on one string, they play in every issue on hatred of Germany. A few days ago Le Figaro, for example, published a large map on its first page purporting to show what was intended against France. Germany had advanced westward over nearly a third of French territory. England had become possessed of all the seacoast along the Channel and on the Bay of Biscay except the point of Brittany, which was shown as belonging to the United States for a naval station. The Mediterranean coast had been taken by Spain, and France was depicted as shrunk to a little interior country with only a corridor to the sea at one point. Such propaganda as that, going through a whole country, carries far more weight than would have been carried by the voice of an orator before a single audience in old illiterate France. The mere fact that it is in print seems to give it a certain authority which the human voice of a Jean or a Jacques known to his hearers would not have had.

In so far, then, as democratic education was to have made the masses fit to govern themselves and others wisely, that education has lamentably failed. Without will to think, without strength of mind to study documents or close reasoning, yet with the ability to read, the masses have raised up the cheap press of wide circulation to mislead them into misleading others.

On the other hand, universal suffrage has developed a new type of politician who only too readily uses the press as his organ. He realizes also that his power and influence do not depend upon reason, but on his appeal to emotion in his electorate, whether that emotion be nationalism, class feeling, or mere greed. My housemaid in London, for example, is a bright girl of her sort. She has had the full education given here in what we should call the public school. She has the vote. But she knows so little of what is going on in the world that when the late government fell in August and I spoke to her of it she asked, ‘It has been a Labor Government, has n’t it?’ Yet she is one of the democratic rulers of the British Empire. At times of great excitement, such as in the ‘Khaki Election’ of the Boer War or the recent one in England, it is impossible to tell how such a mind will react to the prejudices that are played upon. One of the chief of these in this century is nationalism, and this emotion may be made to carry either unwise and popular issues or wise and unpopular ones. It was for this reason that, as soon as England’s immediate crisis of August was surmounted in an undemocratic way, it was decided to hold an election while the wave of nationalistic emotion, evoked by the sudden fall in the prestige of England, was at its height, and before it had had time to cool down.

Even so, the maid I mentioned, as well as both the others in the house, refused to vote at all on the ground that they did not know what it was all about. Nor can they be too heavily blamed. Merely to keep track of what is going on to-day calls for the expenditure of a good deal of time in reading. To have a really intelligent opinion about the acts of a government and the policies it has pursued or ought to pursue requires an amount of time, hard intellectual work, and ability that few of us have. Think of the questions that have been debated in America within the past few months — the Farm Board and what it has been doing, the tariff, unemployment and possible forms of relief, banking reform, the Shipping Board, old-age pensions, and dozens more. I sometimes wonder whether most of us are more thoroughly grounded in these matters than my housemaid on the MacDonald ministry.

III

All this would not make so much difference if we had not abandoned the old doctrine of representation for the democratic one of mandates. In the old days the members of Parliament, did have to see that the interests of the landed class were taken care of, but beyond that they were independent to do what seemed best. To-day, however, no member of Parliament, no Congressman, can do anything of which his constituents do not approve. Ears have to be kept to the ground every instant, A Congressman, however able or honest, who runs counter to the passing whim or emotion of even a minority in his district, if a noisy one, will be dropped at the election, and his usefulness ended. The other day in England the constituency of the Prime Minister, objecting to what he was doing to save the nation and without even waiting for him to get a breathing moment to go down and address them, demanded not simply that he should not be reëlected, but that he should immediately resign.

Universal suffrage, combined with the democratic doctrine of mandates to legislators and with the fact that citizens cannot know about all governmental problems at once or take an interest in all of them, has resulted in Parliaments and Congresses whose members no longer represent the country, but must obey the behests of minority groups. This is working out to some extent differently in the two great democracies of America and England. We need not dwell on how such a body as the Anti-Saloon League brings its pressure to bear on candidates for office or on the men already in. It is only one of the innumerable ‘pressure groups’ which make the life of a legislator miserable and cause jumbled legislation of the most vicious sort.

We can imagine a member of a legislature, viewing the whole national field, trying to pass wholesome measures that will take account of all the conditions. Soldiers’ bonuses in his mind will necessarily be linked with a Treasury deficit. Or we can imagine an ideal citizen having the knowledge and the fairness to view things as a whole in the same way. But in practice the citizen does not view things so. He has his particular field of knowledge or his own axe to grind. He is interested in Prohibition, in the bonus, in a tariff rate, in any one of dozens of things. He and his fellows join in a pressure group, and Congress passes legislation that expresses the resultant stresses and strains of all these pressures. Except perhaps for a few Senators, an American legislator does not openly represent, as yet, any one group. He represents them all (supposedly all citizens), so that his tortuous course can never be plotted in advance. It will depend upon multitudinous pressures, visible and invisible to the general public.

In England the tendency is in another direction. In the last Parliament, for example, the Miners’ Federation had forty-three members of Parliament who owed their office and allegiance not to the nation but to the Federation. And so with other trades-unions. At the height of the August crisis, the Prime Minister and Cabinet were forced to consult the Council of the T. U. C. (Trades-Union Congress) as though that body were part of the regular machinery of government coordinate with the House of Commons. It is perfectly true that special economic interests have always been represented in legislatures, but the point is that democracy, so far from having brought about a genuine representation of us all in a government thinking in terms of the nation, has merely succeeded in making our legislatures the recording instruments for all sorts of pressures from all sorts of groups, as with us, or is tending toward a sort of Sovietism, as in England, where members of Parliament are coming to represent directly single groups, such as railwaymen or miners, instead of cross sections of the community as a whole.

IV

It may be said that in the old days only certain classes or groups had representation, and legislated for their selfish benefit. Quite true, but there is a difference in our new system. The old American or English system did not consider sufficiently the rights of every class, but it did not, and would not if the legislators could prevent it, ruin the entire nation. Their own property, for one thing, was at stake. They were, also, a limited class, and even the loot of the politicians under a George III was trifling as compared with the loot now demanded by the democratic masses. Our pension scandals, and what promise in time to become even greater bonus scandals, make the looting of a politician of the aristocratic régime look like a subway ticket. In the old days the country might have to allow exorbitant grants or sinecures to a few, but when those who demand the same sort of thing to-day are the masses by the million, I do not say it is any less moral, but it is immensely more of a burden to the nation — a burden under which England has almost collapsed. Democracy has not at all done away with bribery or corruption. It has merely turned it into a business of mass production, under which the finances of the strongest nation may give way.

There is another difference between the old graft or bribery or bonuses and the new. A large grant to a successful general or leader of some sort did have a tendency to develop leaders and to stir ambition, by making one who had greatly served a nation distinguished and independent for life. But the new mass grants or bonuses, although casting an infinitely heavier weight on the nation, have no such effect. In England, for example, the knowledge that a title and a half million might await the general who could win a war had a very different effect on ambition from the scattering of a few hundred dollars each among millions of ex-service men, often utterly without reason or need on their part. In the World War I was an officer. I had my officer’s pay and an independent income in civil life, yet both the United States Government and New York State offered me bonuses and compensation. The billions spent in democracies to buy votes on a gigantic scale can ruin a State as the old grants to individuals, even those who did not deserve it, could not; and the nation gets far less out of giving Tom Jones two or three hundred dollars of ‘adjusted compensation’ to buy a car with than the old State did out of giving the general his title and half million. I do not mean that the old grants were always well given. They were not. Nor that all pensions, such as those to the really wounded or incapacitated, are not well given. But the comparison I make is, on the whole, just.

We have discovered that under democracy, just as under any other form of government, most men prefer their private profit to the public good. Morally the private citizen who calls himself a king in virtue of democracy is no more to be trusted to look at national interests before his own than was the old king — perhaps even less. The king at least had always before his eyes the danger of losing his throne if he went too far. The modern democratic citizen, bent on ‘getting his’ somehow out of the national purse, has no throne to lose. All he can get is clear gain, a national breakdown seeming inconceivable to him so long as a lot of people have more money than he has. He gets most of his information from the sort of press which the education that was to make democracy workable has brought into being by the sort of education that has actually been achieved. The bringing of legislators close to the people by the mandate system instead of the representative has merely brought them close to groups bent solely on getting something for themselves irrespective of the general effect on the nation.

It may be freely admitted that the position of the working classes has greatly improved in the last century. That is a fundamental advantage for any people and something to be set to the credit of any system. But several questions at once arise as to this. One is, how much of this improvement is due solely to suffrage, and how much to the liberal spirit of the nineteenth century; how much to workmen’s extra-political organizations, and how much to applied science and the workings of business? Undoubtedly much of it, but far from all, is due to the political pressure brought about by the vote.

But this brings us to another question, the one I have raised elsewhere of the law of diminishing returns in social institutions. Before the Reform Bill of 1832 the landed interest was supreme in Parliament. By that measure (which, by the way, was intended to act as a dam against the democracy engendered by the French Revolution and not as a measure to promote it) the balance of power was transferred in England to the middle class — the business men, small shopkeepers, and others. It was more than thirty years later that the suffrage was extended more widely, and not till another fifty years after, in 1918, that it included women. May it not well prove to be the fact that there is a point up to which too exclusive a franchise works harm to certain excluded classes; that at a given point of proportional representation good results are obtained for all; and that after that point has been passed, and the suffrage is still more widely extended, harm may be worked on sections of the community, spreading in time to the whole of it, and resulting in collapse or change in the form of government?

V

It seems to me that the history of England in the last century — the best to study for the rise and fall of liberalism — indicates this. In 1832, the working class suffered at the expense of the aristocratic; in 1932, the entire nation is beginning to suffer from the control of the working class, which, if it had had its way in those fateful weeks of last August, would clearly have ruined the whole national structure rather than give up a tittle of what it thought it had won, with no realization that, if the business structure had collapsed, this class would have suffered more severely than any other.

In that crisis England had to be saved by scrapping democracy for the moment and resorting practically to a dictatorship. The Labor Government, after pursuing its policies for several years, had at last brought the nation to the very brink of ruin. Two or three of its very ablest leaders, such as MacDonald and Snowden, who were responsible with the rest for the plight of England but who did at the very last minute see what had happened, wished to make desperate efforts to save the situation. They were repudiated by the other members of their Cabinet, by the trades-unions and the Labor Party at large. With a huge unbalanced budget and the imminent danger of going off the gold standard (a catastrophe which would have been far more colossal than it was, had it come before the budget had been balanced and with a Socialist Party in power), there was not an instant to lose. At that moment, the state of public opinion and knowledge being what it was, a general election was considered by all who knew the conditions, including MacDonald himself, as spelling disaster. Yet under the democratic system there seemed nothing else for it, and MacDonald wished to resign.

Then what happened? The King, who had been on holiday in Scotland, hurriedly returned to London. He summoned the leaders of all three parties, MacDonald, Baldwin, and Samuel, to Buckingham Palace. This much was in all the papers. What was not in the papers, but what is generally reported in London to have happened, was briefly this. The King greeted the three men, and then remarked that the nation appeared to have got into an extremely bad mess, and that at the instant an election could only make it worse. ‘Therefore,’ he is said to have added, ‘I have asked you three gentlemen as leaders of the three parties to meet here. I shall retire to the other room for ten minutes. When I return I shall expect you to have found a solution.’ When he did return, he was told that the three had agreed to postpone the election, sink party differences, and form an emergency Cabinet.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the precise details of this version of the interview which is current in the London clubs; but something of the sort happened. The point is that at one of the great crises in England’s history democracy broke down in its ordinary workings. The electorate at that time was not to be trusted to vote wisely. The Prime Minister’s Party and Cabinet had been completely disrupted. The other parties could not get together, and the nation hung suspended over the abyss. Had it been ruled over by a President who was himself the creature of a party, it would have fallen headlong into it. It was saved by having at its head a ruler who is above and outside of all parties, and who was also strong enough in the crisis to bring order out of impending chaos. In other words, democracy had not saved itself, but had been saved by the monarch.

Nor should the welcome result of the election held after two months of education and fervent appeals to national honor and the national spirit blind us to what would have happened in August, or might happen again. Just as our electoral system in the United States sometimes places in the White House a President who has received only a minority of our votes, so the English system may bring surprising results. The Nationalist Government has won the astounding majority of 490 seats in Parliament, but this figure completely distorts the recorded opinions of the people, 6,800,000 of whom voted against the Nationalists while 14,400,000 voted for them. The Nationalists will be ten to one in Parliament, whereas they were only two to one at the polls.

The overturn was very great, and fortunate, but we must recall certain facts. It required two months after the actual crisis to make any election safe. When it was held, the Nationalists had the advantage of the wave of patriotic sentiment they had counted on. And, lastly, it was not an election in the ordinary sense, for by previous arrangement two and a half parties combined to fight a half party; that is, the Conservatives, Liberals, and part, of the Socialist Party, including its ablest and best-loved leaders, combined to defeat the remaining rump of the Socialists. That even under those conditions, with the very life of the nation at stake, over 6,000,000 out of 21,000,000 voted against the combined forces is a matter for serious thought rather than jubilation. As one of the leading financial papers said next morning, ‘if the pendulum can swing with such violence in one direction, may it not later swing equally violently in the other?’ And, ‘with our modern electorate and its tendency toward violent convulsions of this sort, is there not a fresh case for consideration of “ proportional representation’ ’ ?’

This is a lesson which the century of democracy teaches us, that in every crisis democracy has to give way to autocracy or a dictatorship. It had to do so in our Civil War when Lincoln was made practical dictator and the constitutional guarantees were suspended ‘for duration.’ It happened again in the last war, when Wilson had to be made even a more complete dictator than Lincoln. It happened in every European country at war. It is happening again in England in time of peace; and with the growing complexity of modern life, and the recurring of crises, it is likely to happen more often. Our crises of the future are not likely to be all military.

Personally I do not like dictatorships, whether of Mussolini, the Russian proletariat, or the Anti-Saloon League. I like freedom of the press, of speech, of the palate. But my individual likings have nothing whatever to do with the cosmic process. It is useless to sit in an casy-chair in a study and talk of substituting something for democracy, even if we think it has failed. We cannot disenfranchise any class that has been enfranchised, even if they want the vote as little as most women seem to. There will always be a noisy minority who will make a racket, and legislatures never will be oblivious of noise and card catalogues made by persistent minorities. Things will develop as they will.

VI

How will they? A prophet’s job is the worst-paid in the world, but we may note a few facts. For one, as we have said, democracy invariably breaks down in a crisis, and crises are likely to be more and more recurrent. A boat that can sail only in fair weather is likely to be sunk some day when an unexpected storm is worse than usual. The pressure of untaxed and more or less unpropertied millions on national treasuries inevitably leads to far more serious troubles than the raids of a few courtiers or placemen. The interest of the modern world is economic, not political. The average man is getting to be stirred little by talk of liberty so long as he is made more prosperous every year. The Roman plebs wanted bread and circuses, and to-day in Germany the demand for the coming winter is lower-priced bread and free seats in the cinema for the unemployed. The modern man in the street wants movies, a car, and what he calls his ‘standard of living.’ Political democracy has brought neither social nor economic equality. There is far more difference to-day between Ford with his $1,000,000,000 and the workman whom he turns off from a not very lucrative job whenever it suits him than there was in colonial days, when we had no democracy, between a rich man and an artisan. The citizen is getting fed up with having to have an opinion on every sort of complicated subject. As has been reported, ‘When Mussolini said that they, the people, might go back, stop governing, and go to work, — he would do it all, — it was almost as if all Italy sighed and said, “Amen.”’

Moreover, the old liberal spirit is dying everywhere. The failure of the New York World, like the failure of the Liberal Party in England, was merely another signpost pointing the way. Everywhere the extreme Right is coming to face the extreme Left. In the recent election in England all the parties standing for stability had to combine against the extreme Left Wing of the Socialist Party. As the papers pointed out next morning, the very fact that the Opposition Party, by chance, had dwindled to almost nothing made the formation of a new and reasonably powerful Opposition essential, and a far-reaching new alignment is looked for. When the present wave of popular nationalism passes, the third of the electorate who have found themselves cut off with only a tenth of the Parliamentary seats will not be content. They represent the extreme radical elements in the population. Polling one third of the vote under extraordinarily favorable circumstances for the conservative groups, they can be expected to poll more when the fear of a fatal crisis has passed, and from them should come the new Opposition, which would be so powerful that it might cause all conservative people to group themselves again into one party to oppose it. The election has saved the pound, but raised the most serious problems for the future. In that future, in England as elsewhere, it looks as though the middle-of-theroad liberals would everywhere lose their historic function of helping change to proceed on cushions. It looks as though, more and more, two extremist groups would confront one another, and out of that will come the danger of armed conflict. And out of that, again, comes the strong man who will save the little man and let him live his life as he wishes, though he may not be allowed to say all he thinks.

Imminent? No, I do not think it is; but a few generations are nothing in history, and I see nothing in the century of democracy to lead me to believe that the world has become static or discovered a mode of governing masses of men with conflicting emotions and desires, and of different ideals and planes of culture, which will never again have to be altered.

There are advantages as well as disadvantages in democracy, and in the last century it fitted in with our whole intellectual climate in general. We had had our religious phase and passed into what may have been only a temporary political one. The rights of man, natural rights, political equality, and other catchwords roused powerful emotions already beginning to be hard to stir again, ‘Natural rights’ do not seem as real to-day as a ‘ living wage’ or a ‘standard of living.’ Pope and reformer gave way to tyrant and patriot, and they are giving way in turn to Capital and demands of the ‘workers.’ Democracy was the mental mode that fitted the second phase. It had little obvious relation to the first and may have none to the third. Not only its slogans but its emotions may become obsolete. We may come to think it no more important to figure how big a majority ensures truth than how many angels could dance on the point of a needle.

Human history has been as changeable as weather. There have been devastating storms and long ‘bright intervals,’ as the English weather report calls them. There have been periods of liberty, of outbursts of art, of mental lethargy, of sudden advance, of slow germinating. Perhaps only one thing can be safely predicted, and that is that change is ceaseless. The democratic movement that was marked by the Reform Bill in England and the Jacksonian election in America is only a century old, yet it has been moving steadily. It was only a dozen or so years ago in both countries that it took in doubled numbers of voters by giving the franchise to women. It is no more static than anything else in human life. It is inconceivable that it will not change further, and, since we are not likely to enfranchise children and idiots, the change would seem to be indicated in some other direction. The age is economic above all else, and the shift will be along economic lines into some new form of governing.

England with its strongly developed social consciousness, its willingness to ‘muddle through,’ and its miners’ and railwaymen’s and other trade-union members of Parliament, looks toward Moscow. The United States with its sentimental devotion to leaders, its ‘Teddies’ and its ‘Cals,’ its love of efficiency and getting things done, looks toward Rome. But no one can say, except that life goes on and on, and institutions forever change.