Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XV: public opinion - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XV: public opinion - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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All power springs from the People. This axiom accepted, the question follows: How is the People to exercise its power? By what means shall its mind and will he delivered? The answer given in all constitutional countries is, By Voting, i.e. or, as J. R. Lowell said, by counting heads instead of breaking them. Voting, an invention of the ancient Greek and Italian republics, has been adopted in all civilized States, whether, as in Switzerland and in many States of the North American Union, it is used to express directly the people's judgment upon a proposition submitted by Initiative or by Referendum, or is applied to the choice of persons to represent the people in an assembly, or to act on their behalf as officials.1
But voting, though everywhere practised, has nowhere given complete satisfaction. The faults charged on it as a method of applying the popular will to self-government may be summarized as follows.
The purposes of the people cannot be adequately expressed through persons chosen to represent them, for these persons may innocently misconceive or dishonestly misrepresent the wishes of the people, nor can any instructions given by the people remove this danger. Moreover, any election of repreresentatives is an imperfect expression of the views on public policy of the voters, because it turns largely on the personal merits of the candidates, not on the doctrines they profess.
There may, moreover, be among the voters many who, having no mind of their own to express, give their vote at the bidding or under the influence of other persons. Some may have been intimidated or bribed. Some take no interest in the matter and, in default of personal knowledge, merely obey their party organization. Thus what purports to be the will of the people is largely a factitious product, not really their will.
In voting, every vote has the same effective value. One man may have conscience, knowledge, experience, judgment. Another may lack all these, yet his vote counts for just as much in the choice of a representative or the decision of a momentous issue. The wisest and the most foolish are put on the same level. Opinions are counted, not weighed.
Is there any answer to these criticisms or remedy for these alleged evils?
The first criticism is accepted as valid by that large body of opinion which, advocating direct popular voting on as many questions as possible, seeks to have the Initiative and Referendum methods adopted wherever constitutional government exists. Others, emphasizing the risk that representatives may fail to give effect to the people's wish, desire to make the mandate delivered at an election imperative and precise, and to give the people a power of recalling a representative whose action they disapprove.
The second evil has been in many countries reduced by laws against bribery and intimidation, but where these tangible offences are absent, no remedy seems possible, for how can any one know how far a voter has a mind of his own, or is merely an instrument in other hands? He may not himself know.
The third objection taken goes down to the root difficulty of democratic government, and has been made the ground of the severest arraignments of the People as a Ruling Power. An attempt was made in some of the ancient republics to give proportionately greater weight in voting, not indeed to virtue and wisdom, but to property and (implicitly) to education, by dividing the citizens into classes or sections, and allotting to each a single collective vote, determined by the majority within the section. The richer sort were placed in several of such sections and the poorer in others, each of these latter containing a larger number of voters than the sections of the richer citizens. Thus the votes of the richer sections balanced those of the poorer, i.e. the voting power of numbers was balanced by the power of voting wealth. Similarly, by the constitution of Belgium persons possessing certain property or educational qualifications were formerly given three or two votes each, the ordinary citizen having only one. This Belgian plan has now been abolished; and is not likely to be tried elsewhere. It was proposed in England many years ago, but then rejected on the ground, inter alia, that the rich had various means of exerting influence which other classes did not possess.1 Whatever objections may be taken to a method which gives an equal voice to the wisest and most public-spirited citizen and to the ignorant criminal just released from gaol, no one has yet suggested any criterion by which the quality of voters should be tested and more weight allowed to the votes of the fittest. Equal suffrage as well as Universal Suffrage has apparently to be accepted for better or worse.
Is there then no other way in which the people can express their mind and exert their power? Can any means be found of supplying that which elections fail to give? Is the judgment delivered by polling, i.e. the counting of heads, the same thing as public opinion? Polling is the only explicit and palpable mode yet devised of expressing the people's will. But does a judgment so delivered necessarily convey the opinion of the thoughtful element among those who vote, and may not that opinion be able to exert a moral authority at times when no legal opportunity is provided for the delivery of a judgment at the polls?
What is Public Opinion? The term is commonly used to denote the aggregate of the views men hold regarding matters that affect or interest the community. Thus understood, it is a congeries of all sorts of discrepant notions, beliefs, fancies, prejudices, aspirations. It is confused, incoherent, amorphous, varying from day to day and week to week. But in the midst of this diversity and confusion every question as it rises into importance is subjected to a process of consolidation and clarification until there emerge and take definite shape certain views, or sets of interconnected views, each held and advocated in common by bodies of citizens. It is to the power exerted by any such view, or set of views, when held by an apparent majority of citizens, that we refer when we talk of Public Opinion as approving or disapproving a certain doctrine or proposal, and thereby becoming a guiding or ruling power. Or we may think of the Opinion of a whole nation as made up of different currents of sentiment, each embodying or supporting a view or a doctrine or a practical proposal. Some currents develop more strength than others because they have behind them larger numbers or more intensity of conviction; and when one is evidently the strongest, it begins to be called Public Opinion par excellence, being taken to embody the views supposed to be held by the bulk of the people. Difficult as it often is to determine the relative strength of the different streams of opinion — one cannot measure their strength as electric power is measured by volts — every one admits that when one stream is distinctly stronger than any other, i.e. when it would evidently prevail if the people were called upon to vote, it ought to be obeyed. Till there is a voting, its power, being open to doubt, has no legal claim to obedience. But impalpable though it may be, no sensible man disputes that power, and such governing authorities as ministries and legislatures are obliged to take account of it and shape their course accordingly. In this sense, therefore, the People are always ruling, because their will is recognized as supreme whenever it is known, and though it is formally and legally expressed only by the process of counting votes, it is frequently known for practical purposes without that process.
What I am trying to convey may be illustrated from phenomena perceived by any one who sits in a deliberative assembly such as the British House of Commons. In that body, which is a sort of microcosm of the nation, the opinion of the House, as pronounced in a division and recorded in the division lists, is not the same as that opinion gathered from the private talks which members have with one another. Many propositions which are carried on a division would be rejected if the members were free to express by their votes exactly what they think. Their judgment, formed after hearing all that can he said on both sides, is frequently different from, and sounder than, that which they deliver by their votes. The members are not to blame for this. It is incident to their position. They are required, not only by the pledges they have given to their constituents, but by the system of party government which could not be worked if every one was to vote exactly as he thought, to give votes not consistent with their personal views. Everybody knows this, and a ministry often feels it so strongly that it drops a proposal which it could carry if it put full pressure on the party loyalty of its adherents. The case of a nation differs from the case of a parliament, because the voters are not bound by pledges or by allegiance. They have only their own consciences to obey. But the cases are in this respect similar, that opinion as declared by voting may differ widely from that which would be elicited by interrogating privately (were it possible to do this on a large scale) those citizens who have what can be called an opinion: and the latter opinion so elicited would be more likely to be right than the former.
How is the drift of Public Opinion to be ascertained? That is the problem which most occupies and perplexes politicians. They usually go for light to the press, but the press, though an indispensable, is not a safe guide, since the circulation of a journal does not necessarily measure the prevalence of the views it advocates. Newspaper accounts given of what men are thinking may be coloured and misleading, for every organ tends to exaggerate the support its views command. Neither are public meetings a sure index, for in populous centres almost any energetic group can fill a large hall with its adherents. Stray elections arising from the death or retirement of a legislator or (in the States of the North American Union) of an elected official, are much relied on, yet the result is often due rather to local circumstances than to a general movement of political feeling. There is, moreover, such a thing as an artificially created and factitious opinion. The art of propaganda has been much studied in our time, and has attained a development which enables its practitioners by skilfully and sedulously supplying false or one-sided statements of fact to beguile and mislead those who have not the means or the time to ascertain the facts for themselves. Against all these sources of error the observer must be on his guard.
The best way in which the tendencies at work in any community can be discovered and estimated is by moving freely about among all sorts and conditions of men and noting how they are affected by the news or the arguments brought from day to day to their knowledge. In every neighbourhood there are unbiassed persons with good opportunities for observing, and plenty of skill in “sizing up” the attitude and proclivities of their fellow-citizens. Such men are invaluable guides. Talk is the best way of reaching the truth, because in talk one gets directly at the facts, whereas reading gives not so much the facts as what the writer believes, or wishes to have others believe. Whoever, having himself a considerable experience of politics, takes the trouble to investigate in this way will seldom go astray. There is a flair which long practice and “sympathetic touch “bestow. The trained observer learns how to profit by small indications, as an old seaman discerns, sooner than the landsman, the signs of coming storm.
There have doubtless been some remarkable instances in which English party managers anticipated success at a general election and encountered defeat. But these instances, like that of the prophets who bade Ahab go up against Ramoth Gilead, are explained by the propensity of party agents to find what they set out to seek, and to prophesy smooth things when it is anywise possible to do so.
How does public opinion grow, and how can the real volume and strength a view possesses be distinguished from those artificial and delusive appearances which politicians are obliged to present as true, each party wishing to pose before the public as the majority?
Three classes of persons have to do with the making of public opinion. There are the men who seriously occupy themselves with public affairs, whether professionally, as members of legislatures or journalists or otherwise actively engaged in politics, or as private persons who care enough for their duty as citizens to give constant attention to what passes in the political world. These persons are, taken all together, an exceedingly small percentage of the voting citizens. It is they, however, who practically make opinion. They know the facts, they think out and marshall and set forth, by word or pen, the arguments meant to influence the public.
The second class consists of those who, though comparatively passive, take an interest in politics. They listen and read, giving an amount of attention proportioned to the magnitude of any particular issue placed before them, or to the special interest it may have for them. They form a judgment upon the facts and arguments presented to them. Their judgment corrects and modifies the views of the first class, and thus they are, though not the originators, yet largely the moulders of opinion, giving to a doctrine or a proposition the shape it has to take if it is to succeed. Most of them belong to a party but are not so hotly partisan as to be unable to consider fairly both sides of a case. In countries accustomed to constitutional government, and when not swept off their feet by excitement, such men have the qualities of a good juryman and deliver a sensible verdict. What they think and feel is the opinion of the nation as a whole. It is Public Opinion.
The third class includes all that large residue of the citizens which is indifferent to public affairs, reading little and thinking less about them. So far as it has any opinion, it adopts that which prevails in the place where it lives, or in the social class or industrial milieu to which it belongs. Men of this type will now and then be attracted by a personality, and follow him irrespective of his politics, because some of his qualities, not always his better qualities, appeal to certain tastes of their own. Though they neither make opinion as thinkers nor help to mould it as critics, they swell its volume, and form, in some countries, a considerable proportion of those whom a party can enrol as loyal supporters, all the more sure to be loyal because they do not reflect, but are content to repeat current phrases. The proportion of this class to the total adult population varies in different countries, but is everywhere larger than is commonly supposed. It has been much increased in countries which have adopted universal suffrage. Smallest in Switzerland, it is small also in Scotland and Norway and New Zealand, and would be small in the United States but for the presence of eleven millions of negroes and some millions of recent immigrants.
Among the conditions requisite for the formation of a wise and tolerant public opinion the intelligence of the people and the amount of interest which the average citizen takes in public affairs are the most important. Another is the extent to which agreement exists upon certain fundamental political doctrines. In the United States everybody is attached to the republican form of government: everybody assumes the complete separation of Church and State and the exclusion of eeclesiasticism from politics. In France, on the other hand, the chasm between Roman Catholics and the opponents of Christianity is deep; and there are still many who desire some form of government which, whether or not monarchical in name, shall be monarchical in substance. In Canada and South Africa differences of race prevent the existence of a homogeneous public sentiment, for they may tend to make men judge a proposal not so much by its value for the community as by its probable effect on their own section. So if social classes are unfriendly, suspicion is rife, and agreement becomes difficult even on questions, such as those of foreign policy, which scarcely affect domestic interests.1 Where marked incompatibilities of thinking or of feeling, whatever their source, breed distrust, that useful process of gradual assimilation and half-conscious compromise by which one general dominant opinion is formed out of the contact and mixture of many views works imperfectly. A truly national patriotism stills domestic discords at moments of danger, and helps to keep some questions above party even in quiet times. But such a patriotism needs to be strengthened and enlarged in each country by a better understanding among the citizens of one another's characters and aims, and a better sense of what each class or section gains by the others' prosperity, than most nations possess.
Now let us, returning to the point whence this discussion started, compare that influence upon the conduct of public affairs which is called, somewhat loosely, the Rule of Public Opinion, with the direct control exerted by the citizens when they vote either on a question submitted (Referendum) or for a candidate. The action of Opinion is continuous, that of Voting occasional, and in the intervals between the elections of legislative bodies changes may take place materially affecting the views of the voters. In France, where the duration of a Chamber is four years, in England where it is five, they cannot be assumed to be of the same mind after two years. At elections it is for a candidate that votes are given, and as his personality or his local influence may count for more than his principles, the choice of one man against another is an imperfect way of expressing the mind of a constituency. In countries which (like Britain and the British self-governing Dominions) allow a ministry to fix the date for a general election, a moment may be seized when the people are stirred by some temporary emotion which prevents a considered and temperate expression of their will. Such a “snap election” may misrepresent their more deliberate mind.
The result of an election may be determined by the action of an insignificant knot of voters specially interested in a question of slight importance. Anti-vaccinationists, or a few dozens of government employees demanding higher wages, have thus turned elections in English boroughs where parties were of nearly equal strength. The result seemed to give a victory to one political party, but the real victory was that of the little knot and more pliable candidate, with the result that the rest of the electors were debarred from delivering the judgment of the constituency on national issues.
Note also that in elections the spirit of party or of class, and the combative ardour which such a spirit inspires, cloud the minds of many voters, making them think of party triumph rather than either of a candidate's merits or of his principles. A large percentage of the votes are given with little reference to the main issues involved. It is the business of the managers to “froth up” party feeling and make excitement do the work of reason.1
In all the points just enumerated Public Opinion, when and in so far as it can be elicited, is an organ or method through which the People can exert their power more elastic and less pervertible than is the method of voting. It is always operative: its action changes as the facts of the case change and keeps pace with them. It sets the larger and the smaller issues in their true perspective. It reduces petty “fads” or selfish groups to insignificance. It relies, not on organization and party drill, but on the good sense and fairness of the citizens as a whole. It expresses what is more or less thought and felt in all the parties by their more temperate and unbiassed members. It is a counterpoise to the power of mere numbers. At a poll one vote is as good as another, the ignorant and unreflecting counting for as much as the well-informed and wise, but in the formation of opinion knowledge and thought tell. The clash and conflict of argument bring out the strength and weakness of every case, and that which is sound tends to prevail. Let the cynics say what they will, Man is not an irrational animal. Truth usually wins in the long run, though the obsessions of self-interest or prejudice or ignorance may long delay its victory. The turbid fluid is slowly clarified as the mud sinks to the bottom, and the liquid is drawn off pure from the top of the vessel. Voting, though indispensable as a means of determining the view of the majority, is a mechanical operation, necessarily surrounded with legal forms, while in the formation and expression of opinion the essential spirit of democracy rises above the machinery and the trammels which machinery imposes and finds a means of applying its force more flexible, more delicate, more conciliatory and persuasive than is a decision given by the counting of votes.
Voting, I repeat, is indispensable, for it is positive, giving an incontrovertible result. But voting is serviceable just in proportion as it has been preceded and prepared by the action of public opinion. The discussion which forms opinion by securing the due expression of each view or set of views so that the sounder may prevail enables the citizens who wish to find the truth and follow it to deliver a considered vote. It is an educative process constantly in progress. In the intervals between elections it imposes some check on the vehemence of party spirit and the recklessness or want of scruple of party leaders, and restrains the disposition of party government to abuse its power. When a ministry or legislature feels the tide of opinion beginning to run against some of their purposes they pause. Many a plan has been abandoned without any formal declaration of popular disapproval because disapproval was felt to be in the air. This is not to say that the current of opinion for the time being dominant is always right, any more than that the people voting at the polls are always right. The people may err, in whichever way its will may be expressed, but error is more probable at moments, such as elections, when the passion of strife is hottest. It may be suggested that when the citizen is called to deliver his vote he will be impressed by the seriousness of the occasion and have a specially strong sense of his responsibility. But those who know what is the atmosphere elections generate, and how many persons vote under the influence of misrepresentations contrived to mislead them at the last moment when any correction will come too late, how many pledges are recklessly given, and how hard it is afterwards to escape from the pledge, will have no implicit faith in an election as an expression of genuine popular will, still less of popular thought.
As the excellence of public opinion — its good sense, its tolerance, its pervasive activity — is the real test of a nation's fitness for self-government, so the power it exerts, being constantly felt as the supreme arbiter irrespective of electoral machinery, is the best guarantee for the smooth and successful working of popular government, and the best safeguard against revolutionary violence.
What does a nation need to secure that excellence and to enable Opinion to exert its power as supreme? Besides the conditions already enumerated, the things to be chiefly desired are:
The presence in the nation of many vigorous minds, constructive and critical, constantly occupied in the public discussion of the current problems of statesmanship. These are the minds already referred to as constituting that first and relatively small class which makes Opinion.
The preponderance in the rest of the nation of men of the second, as compared with men of the third, of the three classes aforesaid, i.e. persons whose sense of civic duty makes them give steady attention to public affairs, and who bring to their consideration a fair judgment and an insight into character which, unseduced by the demagogue, respects uprightness and capacity in the leader who has given proof of these qualities.
In countries like France, the United States, and Britain, men of the first class are never wanting. But a nation needs something more than the intellectual guidance which such men can give. Among them there must also be leaders of a firmness which will face opprobrium and defend causes for the moment unpopular. The chief defect of public opinion is its tendency in times of excitement to overbear opposition and silence the voices it does not wish to hear. Courage is the highest and perhaps the rarest quality among politicians. It is specially needed in democratic countries.
SOME DEMOCRACIES IN THEIR WORKING
The oldest method of ascertaining the wishes of the assembled people was by a calling for a shout of “Yea” or “Nay.” This custom continued at parliamentary elections in England till the Hustings were abolished by the Ballot Act of 1872, and it still survives in both Houses of the British Parliament, the Speaker calling for the “Ayes” and “Noes,” and ordering a division only when one or the other section challenges his statement that the “Ayes” or “Noes” (as the case may be) “have it.” In the House of Lords the words used are “Contents” and “Not Contents,” in the Convocation of the University of Oxford “Placet” and “Non placet.”
I do not forget, but cannot find space for an adequate discussion of, the other objections taken to a representative system which ignores minorities. Much light may be expected from the many experiments that are now being tried in various forms of Proportional Representation.
As to the influence of Public Opinion on international policy see Chapter on Democracy and Foreign Policy in Part III., post. It need hardly be said that Public Opinion cannot, and much less can Voting, pass judgment on details in legislation. Its action, both in that sphere and in foreign policy, deals with broad principles only.
The observations here made regarding voting at public elections or on questions submitted by Referendum or Initiative are equally applicable to votings in party gatherings or at the meetings of ecclesiastical or labour organizations.