Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXXVI: leadership in a democracy - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXXVI: leadership in a democracy - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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leadership in a democracy
We have seen that the quality of the leaders in a democracy is no less important than the quality of the people they lead. the conduct of affairs by the Few being a necessary condition in every government, no matter in whom State power is legally vested. The chief difference is that in an Oligarchy, where legal supremacy belongs to the Few, it is only they and those who are closest to them that guide the course of events, whereas where legal supremacy belongs to the multitude actual power is exerted not only by the persons to whom it delegates its legal authority, but by those also who can influence the multitude itself, inducing it to take one course or another, and to commit executive functions to particular persons. Whoever, accordingly, can sway the minds and wills of the sovereign people becomes a Leader, an effective factor in directing their action. Hence, while in a Monarchy or Oligarchy the ruling Few are to be looked for only in the small class in whom legislative and administrative functions are vested, one must in a democracy go further afield and regard not only ministers and legislators but also the men who are most listened to by the citizens, public speakers, journalists, writers of books and pamphlets, every one in fact who counts for something in the formation of public opinion.
In a Democracy every one has a chance — not of course an equal chance, for wealth and other adventitious advantages tell — of stepping out of the ranks to become a leader. The people are on the look out for men fit to be followed, and those who aspire to leadership are always trying to recommend themselves for the function.' What, then, are the qualities which fix the attention and win the favour of the people?
Two are of especial value. One is Initiative. Leadership consists above all things in the faculty of going before others instead of following after others; that is to say it is promptitude in seeing the next step to be taken and courage in taking it. It is the courage which does not merely stand firm to resist an approaching foe but heads the charge against him. Nothing so much disposes men to follow as the swift resolution of one who is ready to take risks, the courage which makes one captain take his ship out from a lee-shore, under full steam, against a hurricane, while other captains are hesitating and trying to calculate the danger.
The other quality is the power to comprehend exactly the forces that affect the mind of the people and to discern what they desire and will support. These two gifts are precious because they are rare: they bring a man to the front under all kinds of popular governments, and by them, if he possesses the more ordinary gifts of a ready and telling speech, as well as industry and honesty — or the reputation of it — he can usually hold the place he has won.
Eloquence in some forms of government counts for more than in others. Where popular assemblies have to be frequently addressed it is indispensable, as in the Greek republics and at Rome. It is valuable in countries like Trance, Italy, and England where unending battles go on in representative assemblies, and is needed not only in the form of set speeches on the greater occasions, but in cut-and-thrust debates where a sudden onslaught or a telling repartee makes a member valued as a party fighter. Where, as in the United States, the Administration does not hold office at the pleasure of the legislature, neither the arts of debate nor those which enable a parliamentarian to wriggle out of a difficulty and to play upon the personal proclivities of individual supporters or opponents, are so much needed, and it is enough if a leader can deliver a good set oration, even if he reads it from notes. Nevertheless, in all countries that genuine eloquence which can touch the imagination or fire the hearts of a popular audience has often brought its possessor to the front, endearing him to the people, and perhaps concealing a lack of steadfastness or wisdom. France and Australia are the countries in which debating power most frequently brings men forward, while in Switzerland and New Zealand plain clearheaded good sense has been sufficient.
It is an old reproach against democracies that they are readily moved by a plausible tongue, and are beguiled by those who have, ever since the republican days of Greece, been called Demagogues (leaders of the people), furnishing a term of abuse freely applied in many a modern struggle. In current usage the Demagogue is one who tries to lure the people by captivating speech, playing upon their passions, or promising to secure for them some benefit. Such persons must obviously be expected in all countries where power lies with the people; and they may spread their nets by the press as well as by the voice, reaching larger numbers by the former method, and dangerous because often irresponsible, raising expectations which they are seldom called on to find the means of gratifying. Why they should have been, as is sometimes said, more frequent in Germany, Italy, and England than in France or the United States is an interesting question into which I must not digress.
Self-confidence, if it does not pass into the vanity which offers an easy target to ridicule, helps a bold man to make his way. To speak with an air of positive assurance, especially to a half-educated crowd already predisposed to assent, is better than to reason with them. A prominent statesman of our time, on being asked by a member of his party what arguments he had better use on behalf of the cause they were advocating replied, “I sometimes think that assertion is the best kind of argument.”
There are other ways besides eloquence by which leadership is won. Journalism, a form of persuasive rhetoric which may be called oratory by the pen, has sometimes been an avenue to power in France and in the United States — even in Russia under the Tsars Katkoff was an effective force half a century ago. Benjamin Franklin exercised enormous influence by his writings, though he took little to do with the politics of his State. A book, coming at an opportune moment, may diffuse ideas which have their immediate reaction on popular opinion and so dispose sections of a nation to follow, perhaps for many years, the path it pointed out. Tolstoi, the latest of the prophets, told profoundly on the thoughts of his time, though how far he affected politics it is not yet easy to determine. Not to speak of Rousseau and Tom Paine, the writings of Karl Marx told upon a circle far wider than that of his associates in revolutionary agitation. Authorship gave to Henry George, the writer of Progress and Poverty, an influence which lasted through his life, though he never cared to enter either national or Californian politics. Deeds as well as words, and deeds in war even more than service rendered in peace, have shed on some figures unversed in statecraft a lustre which led them to the highest posts. Generals Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, T. H. Harrison, and US. Grant all owed their Presidencies to their military fame. There are among American Presidents many instances, like that of Jefferson, to prove that a man may be a popular favourite without eloquence.
When any one has risen high enough to be trusted with administrative work, his capacity is put to a new test, since some measure of honesty, industry, tact, and temper is required, and if it is a first-rate position, carrying leadership with it, he must show himself capable of inspiring confidence and attaching men to himself.1 What, then, of that higher kind of wisdom which looks all round and looks forward also? It is not what the people chiefly seek for or often find: they and their representatives have generally to be contented with some one, be he forceful or seductive, who can meet the calls of the moment. The busy life of a modern statesman leaves no time for reflection, and the partisans whom he has to please think of high statesmanship in the terms of a party platform.
Taking the gifts aforesaid to be those which attract the people, by what means do their possessors win the people's praise and confidence? In Parliamentary countries the easiest way to prominence lies through the legislature, where influence is quickly won by effectiveness in debate, more slowly by a reputation for knowledge and diligence and judgment. The chiefs of parties come in these countries from the Chambers, and if there is a scarcity of first-rate talent among the party chiefs, it is because too little talent has found its way into the Chambers, as Talleyrand replied, when asked why the Generals of the time were not better: “Because they are chosen from the Colonels.”
In the United States and in Switzerland men may become known by their work in local government or in some high executive office, such as is, in America, the Mayoralty of a city or the Governorship of a State. But the most potent help to advancement in the earlier stages of a career is the Party. In America, where it nominates the candidates for every office as well as for seats in legislatures, it shows little wish to find and push men of talent, reserving its favour for those who have worked hard for the party and are sure to be “solid” with it; and all the more pleased when they are rich enough to contribute to election funds. This was also, mutatis mutandis, the attitude of the Central Office of the political parties in England from 1850 to 1900, for they seldom cared to bring into Parliament men who could serve the party by intellect, preferring the local wealthy man who, not liable to the aberrations of youth and originality, could be trusted to give a steady and, if possible, a silent vote. Even the Parliamentary heads of the British parties did less than might have been expected in this direction. The one merit of the otherwise grotesquely indefensible system of pocket boroughs lay in its bringing forward, now and then, new men of conspicuous promise like Canning and Gladstone. In Switzerland, Canada, and New Zealand party organizations have little to do with these matters, but in Australia the Labour candidate has usually earned his selection by the work he has done in his Union or in his Political Labour Leagues.
The newspaper press has become so effective an agency in helping politicians to get on and to stay in, that some one has well said that politics has in democracies become a branch of the science and art of Advertisement. In certain countries there have been persons, even among leading statesmen, who felt it so necessary to keep their names before the public that they not only cultivated the goodwill of editors and proprietors, but took pains to have their every daily act of life recorded, thinking, perhaps correctly, that the way to success is to fascinate everybody by making him believe that everybody else has been fascinated. Keep yourself at all hazards always before the public as if you were a patent medicine: on the principle of the painter who said to the newspaper critic, “If you cannot praise my picture, abuse it: silence is the only thing I fear.” These tactics succeed, though of course, like well-advertised brands of tobacco, only if the article has some merit. Great is the power of iteration.
That publicity which the press alone can confer may everywhere do much to harm a politician, and still more to push him forward, but its power is not everywhere the same. In a small country like Switzerland the people have a personal knowledge of their prominent figures which relegates the newspapers to a secondary place. In a vast country like the United States the abundance of newspapers, and the restriction to certain areas of even the most important, prevents the people from falling under the sway of any, and forms in them the habit of judging men not by the praise or blame of contending journals, but by their acts, so though some may get more and others less credit than they deserve, still in the large majority of cases justice is done.
He who asks whether democracies have shown discernment in their choice of leaders must remember how different are the qualities of nations. Gifts that would commend a man in Italy might be less attractive in Switzerland or Holland. Some are more fastidious than others in their moral judgments, though generally disposed to pardon any means by which success has been secured. Some put reason above amusement, some reverse the order, but crowds seem everywhere to relish high-flown moral platitudes. In the small city republics of antiquity and of the Middle Ages the opportunities for personal knowledge were so abundant that we are not surprised to find that while the conspicuous figures were always men of some sort of brilliance, yet those whose power was merely rhetorical were seldom trusted with high office and did not hold their influence for long together. In large modern countries, where the citizens have to form their opinion from what they see in print, the task is hard, so much is there of misconception as well as of deliberate misrepresentation. How seldom are men correctly judged even by those who have good opportunities for judging and are not heated partisans! Even in a popular assembly it may be only the most intimate colleagues who are in a position to form a correct estimate of a man's real character;1 who have learnt to appreciate and rely upon the honour and chivalry and goodness of heart and courage in emergencies of a man too modest or too proud to play for popularity; or who have to work with another colleague in whom they must tolerate self-ishnesses and self-deceptions, pettinesses and lapses from truth, and posings before the public. It has been well said that you never really know any one till you have been his partner in business, or his companion on a long journey through a wild country. The peoples, however, need not know all these things — some of them are best left unrecorded — and may be well content if they can judge ability, courage, and honesty. Taking the six democracies already described, those which judge most shrewdly are Switzerland and the United States, and next after these, Canada.1 The French are of course the keenest of critics, but the vehemence of partisanship is such as to make the estimate of a statesman's personal qualities unduly tinged by the attraction or repulsion of his opinions.
The charge of ingratitude so often brought against democracies finds little support in history.2 Even among the volatile Greeks, where popular assemblies were often swept by gusts of passion, we are more often struck by their adherence to those they had once trusted than by their occasional anger at a general who had failed. In the annals of the United States there is scarcely an instance of any statesman who lost his hold upon the people save by his own errors, and very few who did not even after those errors retain a fair measure of support. In Canada, Australia, and New Zealand what surprises the observer is the undue indulgence extended to men whose faults ought to have brought their public career to a close. Monarchs have been more ungrateful than free peoples.1 Compare the treatment of Benedek by the Hapsburg Court after the war of 1866 2 with the fine loyalty of the Southern men in America after the fall of the Confederacy not only to the noble figure of Robert E. Lee, but even to others who might well have been censured for mistakes.
It is often said that every country has the leaders, like the newspapers, which it deserves. This is not altogether true. Fortune takes a hand in the game, and takes it for evil as well as for good, sometimes sending, perhaps from an unexpected quarter, a man of gifts which quickly raise him to an eminence he may use or abuse with consequences fateful for the future. The people who welcome and follow an Alcibiades or an Aaron Burr cannot be expected to know his capacities for evil. The people who welcomed and trusted the rail-splitter from Illinois thanked Providence for the unlooked-for gift of one who was exactly fitted for the crisis and gave him their loyal trust thereafter. That which we call Chance — it is the only available word where causes are un-discoverable — has had more to do with the course of events than the builders of scientific history have generally liked to recognize.
Notwithstanding such an instance as that of Abraham Lincoln, the first man who had ever risen from such small beginnings to the headship of a nation, it must be admitted that universal suffrage and the growth of equality in opportunity have done less than was expected to bring to the service of the State men of statesmanlike ability. Those who have compared the public life of France from 1815 to 1875 with its public life from 1870 to 1920, and that of the United States of the years 1850–1900 with that of later years, seem disappointed with the results. Similar complaints are heard from those who in England set the generation of Burke, Pitt, and Fox, and that of Peel, Disraeli, and Gladstone beside the England of later years. If the alleged inferiority exists, it can be explained without attributing the paucity of brilliant figures to any deficient capacity of democracies for recognizing talent and virtue when they appear. The cause may lie rather in changed economic conditions, and in the indisposition of the class from which statesmen used to be chiefly drawn to throw themselves into public work in the spirit of their grandfathers. Still the fact is there.
The predominance of Party in democracies has made us, when we talk of leadership, think primarily of the militant function of the general who directs a political campaign and bears, like the champions in ancient warfare, the brunt of battle in his own person. But the best kind of leader has a duty to the whole people as well as to his party. If he is in power, he must think first of the national welfare; if he is in opposition he has nevertheless the responsibility of directing the minds and wills of a large section of the people, and of aiding or resisting the policy of the Administration. In both cases his actions, as well as his views and arguments and exhortations, have weight with the whole nation for good or for evil; and this, most conspicuously true of the head of a party, is true more or less of all those to whom the nation is accustomed to listen. It used to be said of the British House of Commons that its tone and taste rose or fell with the Prime Minister who was guiding its deliberations. This applies to the body of the people also. A great man may not only form a school who assimilate and propagate his ideas, but may do much to create a pattern for the people of what statesmanship ought to be. If his honour is unblemished, his ideals high, his temper large, tolerant, and sympathetic, his example is sure to tell. Others try to live up to it. He may, without being a Washington or a Lincoln, a Pitt or a Fox, not only deserve to be gratefully remembered as a light of his time, but may, like Lord Althorp and Peel in one way, Cobden and Bright in another, so influence his younger contemporaries as to strengthen the best traditions of public life and maintain its standard.
So much is in our own time spoken and written on all the great questions before civilized nations that leaders are not expected to become, and indeed cannot for want of leisure become, students or philosophers, creators of new ideas or schemes. It is enough if, availing themselves of what the students produce, they can apply their experience to discern which of the many doctrines and projects that are seething up all around like bubbles in a boiling spring are most fit to be made the basis of wise legislation. Their function is to commend the best of these to the people, not waiting for demands, not seeming to be bent merely on pleasing the people, but appealing to reason and creating the sense that the nation is not a mere aggregate of classes, each seeking its own interests, but a great organized whole with a life rooted in the past and stretching on into the illimitable future. A democracy is tested by the leaders whom it chooses, and it prospers by the power of discernment which directs its choice.
Leaders of this type stand in a wholesome and profitable relation with the average citizen, who, despite all the flattery he receives, is generally a sensible man, not conceited, willing to listen and learn. In Switzerland and America, though of course much influenced by his neighbours, he wishes to be independent and tries to form an opinion for himself. But independence is compatible with deference to the opinion of those who know more and have had a longer experience. Independence qualified by deference, an independence springing from the sense of personal responsibility, a deference rendered to moral as well as intellectual authority, creates the best relation between the leader whom it steadies and the citizen whom it guides.
As this chapter closes the comments to be made on the working of Governments in the Six Democratic countries described, I may here, before passing on to the present aspects of democracy over the world, sum up in a few propositions certain broad conclusions that may be drawn from a review of modern popular Governments. They are stated subject to certain exceptions, already mentioned, in the case of particular countries.
Democracy has belied the prophecies both of its friends and of its enemies. It has failed to give some benefits which the former expected, it has escaped some of the evils which the latter feared. If the optimists overvalued its moral influence, the pessimists undervalued its practical aptitudes. It has reproduced most of the evils which have belonged to other forms of government, though in different forms, and the few it has added are less serious than those evils of the older governments which it has escaped.
I. It has maintained public order while securing the liberty of the individual citizen.
II. It has given a civil administration as efficient as other forms of government have provided.
III. Its legislation has been more generally directed to the welfare of the poorer classes than has been that of other Governments.
IV. It has not been inconstant or ungrateful.
V. It has not weakened patriotism or courage.
VI. It has been often wasteful and usually extravagant.
VII. It has not produced general contentment in each nation.
VIII. It has done little to improve international relations and ensure peace, has not diminished class selfishness (witness Australia and New Zealand), has not fostered a cosmopolitan humanitarianism nor mitigated the dislike of men of a different colour.
IX. It has not extinguished corruption and the malign influences wealth can exert upon government.
X. It has not removed the fear of revolutions.
XI. It has not enlisted in the service of the State a sufficient number of the most honest and capable citizens.
XII. Nevertheless it has, taken all in all, given better practical results than either the Rule of One Man or the Rule of a Class, for it has at least extinguished many of the evils by which they were defaced.
On what is the most important question of all, whether democratic governments have been improving during the last half century in their practical working and in their moral and intellectual influence on the peoples who have established them, it is hard to reach a conclusion, for the conditions of the last few years have been abnormal. In 1914 there were signs of decline in some countries where decline was hardly to have been expected, and of improvement in other countries, but nothing to indicate in any country either a wish to abandon democracy or the slightest prospect that anything would be gained thereby. Disappointment is expressed, complaints are made, but no permanent substitute has been suggested.
Mazzini described democracy as “the progress of all through all under the leading of the best and wisest.” “Authority,” he says elsewhere, “is sacred when consecrated by Genius and Virtue.”
There are, of course, cases in which the sterling qualities do win due recognition and secure for their possessor an unhesitating confidence. Mr. Gladstone was fond of telling how during the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832 a debate arose regarding the disfranchisement of a particular “rotten borough.” Many speeches were delivered making so strong a case for sparing it that the House of Commons was on the point of omitting it from the schedule of disfranchisements, when Lord Althorp, who was then leading the Ministerial majority, rose and said that he had unluckily forgotten to bring with him the evidence supplied to him against the borough, but that this evidence was so conclusive that he felt sure it would have convinced the House. The House trusted him so implicitly that the borough was forthwith disfranchised. I may perhaps be permitted to add that the qualities which distinguished Lord Althorp reappeared in his nephew, the late Lord Spencer, one of the most admirable figures in the public life of his time.
An interesting discussion of the causes which affect leadership in democratic countries may be found in an address by Mr. James A. Beck in vol. vi. pp. 1–23 of the American Journal of the National Institute of Social Sciences. He finds in the United States an excessive tendency to standardization.
This was the view of Machiavelli, who had good opportunities for observing both. He remarks (The Prince, chap, vi.) that the charges brought against the multitude might be equally well brought against all men and especially against princes. Similar deliverances are quoted from the Discorsi by Mr. Burd in his edition of The Prince. Machiavelli observes, “ Un popolo è piu prudente, piu stabile e di miglior giudizio che un principe.”
The critics of democracy have often drawn examples of its vices from the violence of city mobs which, like those of mediaeval Constantinople. turned furiously against dethroned sovereigns whom it had formerly treated like a god, but these cases furnish no evidence against democracy, because such mobs were composed of persons who had never shared the responsibilities of free self-government.
As described in Mr. Wickam Steed's book The Hapsburg Monarchy. Queen Elizabeth, like her father, behaved very ill to some of the Ministers who had served her faithfully.