Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXXI: public opinion - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XXXI: 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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The public opinion of a people is the expression (as applied to politics) of the intelligence and taste, the temper and the moral feelings of the individual citizens. In trying to understand Swiss opinion we must therefore begin from the Swiss citizen.
How are we to form any general estimate of character of a nation composed of very different elements? Race differences go deep: we see that in Spain. Religious differences go even deeper: we see that in France, where they divide the stream of opinion at its source. Nevertheless in countries where racial distinctions are so marked as in Great Britain, and even in a vast country like the United States, in the northern, southern, and western parts of which men live tinder widely diverse economic conditions, there may be a general and pervasive opinion which expresses the national thought and purpose, creating out of the various elements that temper one another a real and fruitful unity. This is the case in Switzerland. The majority of the people are of Teutonic stock, the minority of Celtic or Italic. There is a Protestant majority and a Roman Catholic minority, with the recollection of an acute conflict only seventy years behind. Yet religious antagonisms have softened, and racial differences cause no enmity, but may even seem to give a greater variety and breadth to the character of the people. The Allemanic or German-speaking part of the population has a steady and persistent German thoroughness, with rather less sentimentality and certainly more independence than characterize the typical Middle German, as, for instance, the Rhine-lander or Thuringian or Saxon. The French-speaking population has a Burgundian strain, which gives it less mobility and vivacity than one finds in natives of Southern and West Central France. Still, though the contrast between the French-speakers of Vaud and Geneva and the German-speakers of Zurich and Luzern is less marked than is the unlikeness of the German of Cologne to the Frenchman of Lyons, a certain contrast remains. In turning from a journal of a German city like Basle to a journal of Lausanne one perceives a difference deeper than that of language, a difference in mental habits and attitude.1 Each element does of course modify the other, but apparently less by personal contact than through and by literature. This was to be expected. What is more remarkable is that the new cantons, French and Italian, have appropriated the historical traditions of the original cantons, which were all Germanic. The children of those who two centuries ago were held as subjects have inherited the glories of those who ruled their forefathers. This is a fruit of Liberty and Equality.
Let us see now what all Swiss have in common, whether through the influence of history, institutions, and literature, or from any other source.2
They are all alike imbued with the spirit of liberty, not only in the sense of civil, religious, and political liberty, but in the sense also of individual independence. The peasant or workman stands on bis own feet and goes his own way. He may be led, but he will not be driven. He has also learnt the two first lessons freedom ought to teach, respect for the rights of others and the correlation of Duties with Eights. Thus he is generally tolerant of opposition, not hurried into violence, open to argument, ready to consider a compromise. Nowhere so fully as here (except perhaps in the United States) has what may be called the fusing power of free institutions shown itself so powerful. Diverse as are the human beings in other respects, they have been, for the purposes of politics, melted together in one crucible and run into one mould.
Another spirit common to both sections of the nation is the spirit of rural conservatism. A large majority of the French-speakers, a considerable though diminishing majority of the German-speakers, live by agriculture or by pastoral pursuits. The habits of such a life, secluded and touched by few new ideas, make men averse to change, and resentful of any attempt to hustle them. This quality, combined with the tolerance already referred to, produces a cautious moderation of temper which would be stolid if it were stupid. The Swiss peasant, however, though less intellectually alert than the Italian, is slow rather than stupid. His views may be narrow, like the valley whose steep sides pen him in. But he can think, though it may take some time to set his thoughts going in the direction desired. Alpine climbers, British and American, have often noted the intelligence of their guides, sometimes well-read men, from whom one can learn much in conversation.
That taste and capacity for local self-government which began with the old rural cantons has passed into the whole nation, strengthening independence, intelligence, and the sense of civic duty. They have formed the habit of judging everything upon its merits, and this has contributed to reduce the influence exerted by individual leaders. Though it has produced some remarkable statesmen, the history of the country is the history of the people, not of its foremost figures, and could not be written in a series of biographies, as one might write the history of England or Scotland or France. No single man since Zwingli has exerted any decisive influence on the fortunes of the nation or become a great European figure. Geneva was not in Calvin's time, nor in Rousseau's, a member of the Confederation, though in close relations with it. No one has been even so much of a hero as Ferdinand Lassalle was to the German Socialists forty years ago. This feature of Swiss character, taken along with its coolness and comparative insensibility to rhetoric, makes the country no good field for the demagogue. A few such have occasionally figured in Cantonal, but none in Federal politics. They would be discounted. If sweeping economic changes come, it will be by appeals made to self-interested cupidity or to the doctrine of human equality in its extreme form, not through any personal fascination or oratorical arts that may be used to recommend them.
Social Equality has been long established, and the attachment to it has become a part of national character. It is, as already observed, compatible with a respect for ancient lineage, and does not make the peasant or workman aggressively hostile to the richer class, as the latter is in France to the so-called “bourgeois.” There is neither subserviency nor self-assertion: each man is taken for what he is worth, not in money, but as a citizen. Life is plain and frugal in all classes. The ostentatious luxury of the rich foreigners who flaunt themselves at Luzern or Zurich would be censured in a native Swiss.
How, then, does Social Equality affect the relations of the people to the politician? Does he play down to them by an affection of rustic simplicity, as often happens in the United States? Do they distrust him if he is better off or better educated? Do the compliments paid to the “practical common-sense “and “great heart “of the people, usual in all democratic countries, give them a conceit of their universal competence and extinguish any deference to special knowledge or long experience?
There is something of all this, but less than might be expected in a country so pervaded by the spirit of equality, for the practice of self-government seems to have worked to temper the theory of popular sovereignty. The citizen has so long been accustomed to the former that the strong wine of the latter does not go to his head. He has perhaps too little sense of the value of technical knowledge, especially when he is asked to pay for it, does not realize the intricacy of modern economic problems, cares little for shining qualities and might resent any assumption of superior capacity. But he knows the worth of good men, desires his community to retain their services, respects the opinion of those who impress him as honest and thoughtful. A Swiss professor 1 once told me that having delivered an address in a village on some current question that was to come before the people for their decision, an old farmer came up to him after it was over and said, “Don't suppose that we agriculturists think poorly of you learned men. We like to see you and to hear you: you have things to tell us we don't know.”
All classes are less prone to be moved by abstract ideas than either the French or the Germans. Though Rousseau was a Genevese, his doctrines were making more impression in France, and even in North America, than his own city, till its government, with genuinely oligarchic folly, ordered the Contrat Social to be publicly burnt. In the first years of the French Revolution Geneva saw a popular outburst, which overwhelmed the aristocracy and spread into West Switzerland. But this was due rather to the contagion of France than to Rousseau's teaching; nor has any subsequent dissemination of ideas ever lit such a blaze. The Socialism of German-speaking Switzerland is comparatively recent and due to the Marxian propaganda from Germany, strengthened by the immigration of German working-men, most of whom, however, have not become citizens. A like immigration from France and Italy has had a similar, though less marked, effect in the western cantons. More prudent than the Americans, the Swiss are chary in admitting aliens to full civic rights.1 They are, moreover, not of a speculative turn of mind. They have produced great mathematicians like Euler, great moralists and critics like Vinet, but no first-rate metaphysicians or political philosophers. Nevertheless the dogma of popular sovereignty, coinciding with the love of equality and the practice of local self-government, has counted for more in recommending the Referendum and Initiative than have any actual grievances those institutions might have served to abate.
As the habit of following public affairs with personal interest is more widely diffused in Switzerland than in other European countries, so it seems probable that they fill a larger space than they do elsewhere in the mind of the average citizen. This is partly due to the small size of governmental areas, the Commune, the Canton, the Confederation itself, but something may be attributed to the comparative absence of sources of interest present in other countries. Commerce, manufactures, finance have been on a small scale, except in a very few urban centres. Athletic sports do not occupy the thoughts of the youth as in England and America. Competitions in rifle-shooting rouse some interest, but this, from its connection with the army, is a form of patriotism. Among the richer people there are hardly any devoted, like so many Englishmen, to some form of “sport,” hunting, shooting, horse-racing; nor has amusement become a passion among the less affluent. Life, though it grows more strenuous, is more sedate, and the eagerness for new sensations less acute, than in the cities of France, Germany, or America. Even gaiety takes quiet forms. There is some leisure for thinking, and some perception of the relative importance of public duty and private self-indulgence.
Let us see how far these features of national life and character tinge, or are reflected in, the opinions of the people on political subjects.
They are averse both to centralization and to State socialism, yet willing to take a step in either direction when a tangible and tolerably certain benefit is set before them. Cantonalist feeling seems almost as strong as State feeling was in the United States before the Civil War, and rather stronger than it is there now.
They are parsimonious, unlike in this respect to all other democracies, except those of the two South African Republics in their days of independence. Life has been hard for the peasant, his income small, his taxes, light as they are, an appreciable part of his expenditure. Proposals which could raise taxation are prima facie repellent, except to those Socialists who regard progressive taxation as a step towards communism. Religious partisanship exists, but in a mild form, milder than in any other country (except Hungary) where there is a strong minority of one faith opposed to a majority of another. Protestant hatred of the Jesuits and fear of other religious orders is a dislike of what may become a political power working in secret, rather than an expression of intolerance. Nevertheless the instance of the Initiative vote against the Jews in 1893 (see above, p. 403) shows that it is possible to arouse and play upon religious or racial prejudices.
The humanitarian sentiment characteristic of modern democracies led to the abolition of capital punishment by the Constitution of 1874, but was not strong enough to prevent the Constitution from being so amended as to permit a canton to restore that penalty, some shocking cases of murder having induced a reconsideration of the subject. Few cantons, however, have availed themselves of the permission. The tolerant spirit of “Live and let live “is exemplified in the scantiness of compulsive legislation, even as regards intoxicating spirits, though there exists a strong temperance party. One discovers no signs of that Tyranny of the Majority which Tocqueville discovered in America and which J. S. Mill feared as a probable feature of democracy everywhere. On the other hand, there is a willingness, surprising to English observers, to allow to the Executive, for the maintenance of public order and for dealing with suspected offenders, larger powers than English practice has shown to be sufficient.
In judging public men — and this is, after all, the most important of all the functions public opinion has to exercise — the Swiss are shrewd and on the whole fair and just. Confidence is not lightly given nor lightly withdrawn. The qualities most valued are those which characterize the nation — balance, caution, and firmness, coupled of course with integrity. The judgments which the people render are moral rather than sentimental. Newspaper criticism of leading politicians can be stringent, but it is more temperate than in any other democratic country, except perhaps Holland and Norway.
Here let the meed of praise be noted which foreign observers agree in bestowing on the Swiss press. It is well conducted, intelligent, tarnished neither by blackmailing nor by personal virulence. Four of the chief dailies, two published in French, two in German, are among the best in Europe. They do much to guide opinion and to sustain the level of political thinking. All classes read. In no European country are there so many journals in proportion to the population. No single paper, however, seems to exercise a political power such as some have done in Australia and as several now do in Argentina and Brazil. Some are keenly partisan, but none seems to be owned by, or devoted to the interests of, any particular statesman.
How far, then, for this is the point of moment, are we to say that public opinion governs Switzerland, and what relation does it bear to that method of direct legislation at the polls in which the popular will finds its most direct expression?
It might be unsafe to treat a vote on a Referendum or Initiative as exactly reflecting the popular mind, for, although it gives a better means of judging opinion than is found elsewhere in Europe, one must always allow for the influence of party, which can compress into a definite channel the wandering waters of half-formed notions and impressions. Many people can be made to vote, even in Switzerland, who do not contribute to the real opinion of the nation. When a conservatively minded peasant votes u No,” he may mean only that he is not yet prepared to say “Yes.” Views embodied in votes tell us less than we desire to know as to the trend of thought, but views publicly expressed have the effect which belongs either to the authority of the person they proceed from or to the intensity of conviction which will fight to make them prevail. Thus there are times when a skilled observer can discover that an opinion is already or may soon be dominant, though it does not secure a majority at the polls. It is nevertheless true that the Referendum comes nearer than any other plan yet invented to a method of measuring the public opinion of the moment, for it helps the statesman to discern what is passing in the popular mind. It supplies sailing directions by which he may shape his course, warns him off submerged shoals, indicates better than an election how far the education of the public mind upon a given subject has progressed.
The popular vote by which the people in May 1920 accepted the proposal of the Legislature that Switzerland should enter the League of Nations excited an unprece-dentedly and thoroughgoing keen discussion all over the country, and the voting upon it was the largest ever known, exceeding in six cantons 80 per cent of the qualified citizens.1 Both the earnestness with which the people approached their duty and the result of their thought on the subject were of good omen.
The German-speakers are said to be more prone to accept governmental direction, and to favour the extension of state functions than are the inhabitants of “Suisse romande,” who dislike “reglementation.”
I speak only of the native Swiss, not including the recent immigrants, mostly still unassimilated.
Dr. Karl Hilty, one of the sagest as well as one of the most lovable Swiss I have ever known. He died in 1908.
To be a citizen, one must be admitted to a commune, and though poor communes welcome rich applicants, all communes are careful not to burden themselves with those whom they might have to support.
A Swiss friend wrote to me during the progress of this contest: “Le paete de la Société des Nations est distribue à tous les citoyens avec diverses annexes. Les articles de journaux, les conférences se multiplient Dans la moindre auberge on entend des discussions acharnées sur tel ou tel article que des citoyens tout à fait simples savent par coeur tout comme ils connaissent et invoquent les commentaires qu'en ont donné les plus grand juristes J'ai été interpellé' dans la rue par des citoyens modestes qui exigaient de leur poche leur exemphcaire du paete tout erayonné des remarques et qui exigaient des explications détaillées surtel ou tel article.” The debates and the voting were an aid to political education such as no other European country has seen, and when the proposal, which was opposed by the Socialists and by the great bulk of the Conservatives in the German-speaking cantons, was carried by a majority of 414,000 to 322,000, the decision was at once accepted with a good grace by the minority.