Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV: the people - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER XIV: the people - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Sovereignty of the People is the basis and the watchword of democracy. It is a faith and a dogma to which in our time every frame of government has to conform, and by conformity to which every institution is tested. We shall have, in the course of our examination of the working of many forms of government, to observe in what ways doctrine is applied to practice, and how far each of the methods of applying it gives good results. It is therefore worth while to begin by enquiring what that sovereignty imports, and who are those that exercise it?
What is the People? The word has always had a fascination. It appeals to the imagination by suggesting something vast and all-embracing, impersonal and intangible. We are in the midst of a multitude and a part of it, and yet we do not know its thoughts and cannot forecast its action, even as we stand on the solid earth and cannot tell when it will be shaken by an earthquake; or as we dwell under and constantly watch the sky yet can seldom say when tempests will arise and lightnings flash forth, or as we live in the midst of the vibrating ether and have no sense-perceptions of its presence. There seems to be something about the mind and will of the People so far transcending human comprehension as to have a sort of divine quality, because it is a force not only unpredictable but irresistible. It has the sacredness of an oracle. The old saying, Vox populi, vox Dei, was meant to convey that when the People speaks, it speaks by that will of the Higher Powers which men cannot explain but are forced to obey.
This kind of feeling seems grounded, consciously or unconsciously, on an assumption that the People cannot go wrong. Wisdom must dwell in it because it includes all the wisdom there is in the nation, and Justice must dwell in it because it includes all there is of justice; and Justice must be present even more certainly than wisdom, because the injustice and selfishness of individuals and groups, each of which has its own conflicting interests, will be swallowed up in the justice which is the common interest of all. Moreover, man is naturally prone to worship Power. That is an impulse that underlies all religion. To-day the people are the ultimate source of Power. Their will, be it wise or unwise, must prevail. Just as an individual man is carried away by the passion that sways a vast crowd filled by one emotion and purpose, so when that purpose is universalized to embrace the nation of which he and all the others in the crowd are a trifling part, he realizes the insignificance of each and the grandeur of all. He is awed by something mystical in the conception. That which was once the divine Right of the king has become the overriding Majesty of the People.
Passing from these abstractions, let us see what in various concrete cases the term People has been taken to mean, and what questions have arisen as to the persons or classes included under it Does it in any given country cover, or ought it to cover, the whole population or only those who are legally “citizens,” i.e. entitled to share in the government by expressing their mind and will on public questions? In the ancient world the right of governing went with the obligation to fight. That obligation fell upon all free adult males, so that the army meant in practice the voters, and the voters (subject to exceptions hardly worth noting) meant the army. Duty and power went together. This view would not be accepted now either in countries which have extended the suffrage to women, or by those persons who deny that there should be any general obligation to serve the country in arms. Are resident aliens part of the people, or ought they to be deemed such, at least so far as to have a right to be after a time admitted to citizenship? Even if they are not permitted to vote how far are their wishes to be regarded?1 If there is any distinct section of a nation few of whose members concern themselves with public affairs, is it to be deemed a part of the people for political purposes? If most of the members of such a section have no political opinions, can they be said to share in Popular Sovereignty, whether or no they vote, for if they do, they vote as others bid them? This question was much discussed in England and America before women were admitted to the suffrage; and in France it is still under discussion. Where a racially distinct body of unwilling subjects is included within a State, as were the Poles in the German Empire before 1919, or the German-speaking Tyrolese in the Italian kingdom since 1919, are they to be reckoned as part of the people? Where a race, confessedly backward, remains socially distinct from the rest of the population, is it to be counted as a part of the people, or if some few of its members are admitted to share in power as voters, does that imply that the whole body shall be so counted? This point is raised by the position of the Kafirs in the Union of South Africa, of the Chinese in Australasia, of the negroes in the Southern States of America. They are so sharply differentiated from their white neighbours by the fact that their chief interest is not in the general welfare of the country but in obtaining for themselves an equal status and the effective protection of the law that their wishes and hopes do not move on the same plane. When a white orator in Louisiana talks of “our people” he is thinking of whites only; but if he is speaking in Ohio, are negroes included? 1
Further questions arise when we consider how the people has to express its will. This, formerly done by a shout of the assembled freemen, now takes the form of voting. In voting, as normally in fighting, that oldest method of settling differences, numbers prevail. The majority is taken to speak for the whole. This need not be the majority of the whole nation, for the votes may be taken in some artificial divisions, as in the Roman Republic it was in “centuries” or in “tribes,” and as it is in the American Republic (at a presidential election) by States. Whatever be the mode, the greater number must, in any ordered State, prevail, and the lesser must submit. But although the legal authority goes with the majority, does the moral authority of the people go with it? What presumption is there that the majority, especially if it be small, is right? Is there likely to be any more wisdom in the Yeas than in the Nays? If it be true that most men are governed by emotion, and few men by reason, a cynic might argue that the presumption was the other way. Can one say that because the people are always right a decision reached by a majority of five in a body of five hundred will be right? In the General Councils of the mediaeval Church it was asked whether when a point of doctrine had to be decided by a vote, infallibility dwelt in the odd man, and whether, if so, it would not have been quite as easy, and much more impressive, for Divine Providence to arrange that the majority should be larger.
The cynic already referred to goes a step farther, and asks what ground there is for the trust reposed in the justice and wisdom of the People. “Why should they be less liable to error than monarchs or oligarchies? What is there in a nation of twenty or forty or one hundred millions of men, women, and children except so many individual human beings? Whence does there come into this mass any more wisdom or goodness than exists in these individuals, a large number of whom we all know to have little knowledge and less wisdom? The collective wisdom of the People is but the sum of their individual wisdoms, its excellence the sum of their excellences. A thing does not become different because you call it by a collective name. The Germans, a philosophical race, no doubt talk of the State as not only grander but also wiser than the individuals who compose the State, but that may be because their government took pains to gather as much trained wisdom as possible into the service of the State, so that the bureaucracy became a treasure-house of knowledge and experience beyond what any individuals can command. The State, they argued, is wiser than its component parts, because those who administer it are the refined quintessence distilled from all the sources of individual wisdom. Democratic nations do not attempt thus to concentrate knowledge and skill in a body of State servants; they put their faith in the individuals who come to the polling-booth. It is not true, as is alleged, that the selfishnesses of many individuals cancel one another, so as to produce a general unselfishness; rather may it be said that the selfish aims of men and sections of men are the materials with which the crafty politician plays, turning them to his own ends, giving to each section favours pernicious to the whole community.
“Every crowd poses as the people, and affects to speak in its name. The larger the crowd, the less is it guided by reason and the more by its emotions. The First Crusade was determined by a gathering at Clermont in Auvergne, when the mighty multitude is said to have shouted 'Deus id Vult.' But no one had weighed the difficulties of the enterprise, and sixty thousand of those who were the first to start perished long before they had approached the goal of pilgrimage. Have we not all seen how often the people err in their choice of representatives and how often their representatives err in their decisions on matters of policy? They admit their errors by frequently reversing those decisions.
“The people generally mean well. But what is the people for practical purposes when it comes to vote? Many, in some countries one half, and at some elections even more, abstain. How many of the thousands or tens of thousands who come to the polling-booths have any real acquaintance with the issues they are to decide, or with the qualities and the records of the candidates from among whom they are to choose their representatives and officials? How many, on the other hand, are voting merely because some one has brought them and told them that A, or B, is their man? Could the minds of most be examined, we should find that the vote cast did not express their individual wills, but rather the will of a group of leaders and wire-pullers who have put out the' party ticket' A decision no doubt there must be, and this may be the only way of getting it. But why bow down and worship the judgment of the people unless they are to be deemed to act, like a General Council of the Church, under Divine guidance? Is this the meaning of vox populi, vox Dei?”
Some of the questions raised by the critics whose views I have stated will be found, when we proceed to consider the practical working of popular government, to have been answered by the nations that have adopted that government, each for itself in its own way. But it is worth while to consider the causes which have given power to that faith in the people which has been for several generations a potent and pervasive force in politics.
It began as a combative and reforming force, a protest against monarchical government and class government. Men who saw the evil wrought by the overbearing arrogance of a ruling class saw the remedy in the transfer of authority to the whole body of a nation. Exclusive or even predominant power was a temptation to selfishness. Power shared by all would be honestly exercised for the benefit of all.
In the course of efforts to get rid of class rule, the contrast drawn between the enfranchised classes and the unenfranchised mass outside made men think of the latter as “the people,” giving the word a significance almost equivalent to what it is now the fashion to call the “proletariate.” This was the more natural because that part of the nation was the more numerous part. To it the more enthusiastic reformer attributed those virtues in which the rich had been found wanting. It was believed that by sinking a deep shaft into the humbler strata of society the springs might be tapped of a simple honesty and sense of justice which would renovate politics. The association of poverty with simplicity and of luxury with corruption is an old one. In the Golden Age there was no wretchedness because there were no rich. Virgil, who talks of the city crowd as an ignobile vulgus, tells us that when Justice quitted the earth her last footprints were among the tillers of the soil. The latest echo of the old sentiment is found in the pastoral poetry of the eighteenth century. Yet those who thus idealized the hand-workers and thought first of them when they talked of “the people,” did not mean to represent them as a class which should predominate and be deemed, because it was the largest, entitled to be the exponent of the national will. Rather was it thought that the intermingling in political action of all classes would give unity and strength to the nation as one body, because each would make its own contribution. Harmony would give solidity. When men were thinking not of class interests but of the national welfare, there would be less discord. Classes are naturally selfish; the People cannot be, for it is the welfare of all that they must desire. The generation in which these ideas sprang up and prevailed were influenced by abstract ideas and optimistic theories. As their experience extended only to cases in which a small privileged class had abused its authority to the prejudice of the whole community, it did not occur to them that a single class which constituted a majority of the whole might be possessed by a similar self-regarding spirit. They would indeed have grieved to think that this could happen, for they hoped to be rid of classes altogether, popular rule being to them the antithesis to class rule.
With these conceptions there went a belief in him whom they called the “common man,” or, as we should say, the average man. He is taken to be the man of broad common sense, mixing on equal terms with his neighbours, forming a fair unprejudiced judgment on every question, not viewy or pedantic like the man of learning, nor arrogant, like the man of wealth, but seeing things in a practical, businesslike, and withal kindly, spirit, pursuing happiness in his own way, and willing that every one else should do so. Such average men make the bulk of the people, and are pretty sure to go right, because the publicity secured to the expression of opinion by speech and in print will supply them with ample materials for judging what is best for all.
The experiences of recent years have dimmed the hope that class antagonisms would disappear under the rule of the People as a whole, and that the admission of all to a share in power would make every element of a nation rely on constitutional methods for curing whatever evils legislation can cure. Faith in the people was meant to be faith in the whole people, and must suffer when a people is distracted by class war. Yet whatever cynical critics may say, there remains a large measure of truth in that faith as it inspired the poets and philosophers of democracy a century ago. Where rights and duties are shared by all, there is full opportunity for ideas to make their way, for arguments to be heard, for projects to be considered. The unrestricted interchange of thought works for good. In the intermixture and collision of views a breadth of result is attained. Truth and wisdom have their chance, and truth, in an intelligent people, has a better chance than error. That Average Man to whom we recur when we talk of the People is in most countries neither captivated by theories nor swept off his feet by passion. If he does not, as some have fancied, become by the grant of citizenship fit for the functions of citizenship, he is usually raised to a higher level by the sense of a duty thrown on him, and has a sense of justice and fairness sometimes wanting in members of a privileged class. He may have limited knowledge and no initiative, yet be able to form, especially if he has a chance of seeing them at close quarters, a shrewd judgment of men. His instincts are generally sound, nor is he insensible to high ideals when presented to him in a form which makes them plain to him. What he lacks in knowledge he often makes up for by a sympathetic comprehension of the attitude of his fellow-men. Thus there is a sense in which the People are wiser than the wisest person or group. Abraham Lincoln, whom no one ever surpassed in knowing how to deal with men, summarized the results of his observation in the famous sentence, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.”
If this dictum of the great President seems severe in its recognition of the risk that the people may hastily commit a fatal error, it is none the less a tribute to their open-mindedness, to the value of an abounding variety of views and of free criticism, to the probability that with due consideration things will go well. Where the people rule, you cannot stifle independent views. You cannot presume on the ignorance of the people, nor on the appearance of apathy they may show, nor on the power party organization may acquire over them. If you can get at the people — for that is the difficulty — things will usually go well. But the people must have time.
It might be argued that those aliens who are taxed ought to be represented. The question is usually unimportant, but there is one European country (Switzerland) in which aliens constitute 15 per cent of the population; and the exclusion of foreigners from the suffrage in the Transvaal was the chief grievance out of which the South African War arose in 1899.
There is a constantly recurring fallacy which makes men unconsciously think of the majority as if it were the whole. When we talk of “the American people,” we forget the many millions of non-Americanized immigrants; when we talk of “the English people” we forget the non-English elements in Britain; when we talk of “the Irish people “we forget the inhabitants of Ulster; when we talk of “the people of Ulster” we forget that large section which is politically and religiously out of sympathy with the majority.