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chapter 75: What the People Think of It - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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What the People Think of It
The European reader who has followed thus far the description I have attempted to give of the working of party politics, of the nominating machine, of the Spoils System, of elections and their methods, of venality in some legislative and municipal bodies, may have been struck by its dark lines. He sees in this new country evils which savour of Old World corruption, even of Old World despotism. He is reminded sometimes of England under Sir Robert Walpole, sometimes of Russia under the czar Nicholas I. Assuming, as a European is apt to do, that the working of political machinery fairly reflects the temper, ideas, and moral standard of the governing class, and knowing that America is governed by the whole people, he may form a low opinion of the people. Perhaps he leaps to the conclusion that they are corrupt. Perhaps he more cautiously infers that they are heedless. Perhaps he conceives that the better men despair of politics and wash their hands of it, while the mass of the people, besotted with a self-confidence born of their rapid material progress, are blind to the consequences which the degradation of public life must involve. All these views one may hear pronounced by persons who have visited the United States, and of course more confidently by persons who have not. It is at any rate a plausible view that whatever public opinion there may be in America upon religion, or morality, or literature, there can be little public opinion about politics, and that the leading minds, which in all countries shape and direct opinion, have in America abdicated that function, and left the politicians to go their own way.
Such impressions are far from the truth. In no country is public opinion stronger or more active than in the United States; in none has it the field so completely to itself, because aristocracies like those of Europe do not exist, and because the legislative bodies are relatively less powerful and less independent. It may seem a paradox to add that public opinion is on the whole wholesome and upright. Nevertheless, this also is true.
Here we are brought face to face with the cardinal problem of American politics. Where political life is all-pervading, can practical politics be on a lower level than public opinion? How can a free people which tolerates gross evils be a pure people? To explain this is the hardest task which one who describes the United States sees confronting him. Experience has taught me, as it teaches every traveller who seeks to justify when he returns to Europe his faith in the American people, that it is impossible to get Englishmen at any rate to realize the coexistence of phenomena so unlike those of their own country, and to draw the inferences which those phenomena suggest to one who has seen them with his own eyes. Most English admirers of popular government, when pressed with the facts, deny them. But I have already admitted them.
To present a just picture of American public opinion one must cut deeper than the last few chapters have done, and try to explain the character and conditions of opinion itself beyond the Atlantic, the mental habits from which it springs, the organs through which it speaks. This is what I propose to do in the chapters which follow. Meanwhile it is well to complete the survey of the actualities of party politics by stating in a purely positive, or as the Germans say “objective,” way, what the Americans think about the various features of their system portrayed in these last chapters, about spoils and the machine, about corruption and election frauds. I omit attempts at explanation; I seek only to sum up the bare facts of the case as they strike one who listens to conversation and reads the newspapers.
Most of it the people, by which I mean not the masses but all classes of the people, do not see. The proceedings of Congress excite less interest than those of legislative chambers do in France or England. Venality occurs chiefly in connection with private legislation, and even in Washington very little is known about this, the rather as committees deliberate with closed doors. Almost the only persons who possess authentic information as to what goes on in the Capitol are railroad men, land speculators, and manufacturers who have had to lobby in connection with the tariff. The same remark applies, though less forcibly, to the venality of certain state legislatures. A farmer of western New York may go through a long life without knowing how his representative behaves at Albany. Albany is not within his horizon.1
The people see little and they believe less. True, the party newspapers accuse their opponents, but the newspapers are always reviling somebody; and it is because the words are so strong that the tale has little meaning. For instance, in a hard fought presidential contest charges affecting the honour of one of the candidates were brought against him by journals supporting the other candidate, and evidence tendered in support of them. The immense majority of his supporters did not believe these charges. They read their own newspapers chiefly, which pooh-poohed the charges. They could not be at the trouble of sifting the evidence, against which their own newspapers offered counter arguments, so they quietly ignored them. I do not say that they disbelieved. Between belief and disbelief there is an intermediate state of mind.
The habit of hearing charges promiscuously bandied to and fro, but seldom probed to the bottom, makes men heedless. So does the fact that prosecutions frequently break down even where there can be little doubt as to the guilt of the accused. A general impression is produced that things are not as they should be, yet the line between honest men and dishonest men is not sharply drawn, because those who are probably honest are attacked, and those who are almost certainly dishonest escape punishment. The state of mind of the average citizen is a state rather of lassitude than of callousness. He comes to think that politicians have a morality of their own, and must be judged by it. It is not his morality; but because it is professional, he does not fear that it will infect other plain citizens like himself.
Some people shrug their shoulders and say that politicians have always been so. Others, especially among the cultivated classes, will tell you that they wash their hands of the whole affair. “It is only the politicians—what can you expect from the politicians?” Leaving out the cynics on the one side, and the perfectionist reformers on the other, and looking at the bulk of ordinary citizens, the fair conclusion from the facts is that many do not realize the evil who ought to realize it and be alarmed, and that those who do realize it are not sufficiently alarmed. They take it too easily. Yet now and then when roused they will inflict severe penalties on the receivers of bribes, as they did on the New York aldermen who were bribed to grant the right of laying a streetcar line in Broadway. The givers of bribes are apt to be more leniently dealt with.
As these are offences against popular government and injure the opposite party, they excite stronger, or at least more general disapproval than do acts of venality, from which only the public purse suffers. No one attempts to palliate them; but proof is difficult, and punishment therefore uncertain. Legislative remedies have been tried, and fresh ones are constantly being tried. If people are less indignant than they would be in England, it is because they are less surprised. There is one exception to the general condemnation of the practice. In the Southern states Negro suffrage produced, during the few years of “carpetbagging” and military government which followed the war, incredible mischief. When these states recovered full self-government, and the former “rebels” were readmitted to the suffrage, the upper class of the white population “took hold” again, and in order, as they expressed it, “to save civilization,” resolved that come what might the Negro and white Republican vote should not, by obtaining a majority in the state legislatures, be in a position to play these pranks further. The Negroes were at first roughly handled or, to use the technical term, “bulldozed,” but as this excited anger at the North, it was found better to attain the desired result by manipulating the elections in various ways, “using no more fraud than was necessary in the premises,” as the pleaders say. As few of the Negroes are fit for the suffrage, these services to civilization have been leniently regarded even at the North, and are justified at the South by men quite above the suspicion of personal corruption.
The perversion of rings and bosses of the nominating machinery of primaries and conventions excites a disgust which is proportioned to the amount of fraud and trickery employed, an amount not great when the “good citizens” make no counter exertions. The disgust is often mingled with amusement. The boss is a sort of joke, albeit an expensive joke. “After all,” people say, “it is our own fault. If we all went to the primaries, or if we all voted an independent ticket, we could make an end of the boss.” There is an odd sort of fatalism in their view of democracy. If a thing exists in a free country, it has a right to exist, for it exists by the leave of the people, who may be deemed to acquiesce in what they do not extinguish. Nevertheless, the disgust rose high enough to enable the reformers to secure the enactment of the new primary laws, which represent a real effort to smash the machine.
The Spoils System.
As to spoils and favouritism in patronage, I have already explained why the average citizen tolerates both. He has been accustomed to think rotation in office a recognition of equality, and a check on the growth of that old bugbear, an “aristocracy of officeholders.” Favouritism seemed natural, and competitive examinations pedantic. Usage sanctioned a certain amount of jobbery, so you must not be too hard on a man who does no more than others have done before him.
The conduct, as well as the sentiment, of the people is so much better than the practice of politicians that it is hard to understand why the latter are judged so leniently. No ordinary citizen, much less a man of social standing and high education, would do in his private dealings what many politicians do with little fear of disgrace. The career of the latter is not destroyed, while the former would lose the respect of his neighbours, and probably his chances in the world. Europe presents no similar contrast between the tone of public and that of private life.
There is, however, one respect in which a comparison of the political morality of the United States with that of England does injustice to the former.
The English have two moralities for public life, the one conventional or ideal, the other actual. The conventional finds expression not merely in the pulpit, but also in the speeches of public men, in the articles of journalists. Assuming the normal British statesman to be patriotic, disinterested, truthful, and magnanimous, it treats every fault as a dereliction from a well-settled standard of duty, a quite exceptional dereliction which disentitles the culprit to the confidence even of his own party, but does not affect the generally high tone of British political life. The actual morality, as one gathers it in the lobbies of the legislative chambers, or the smoking rooms of political clubs, or committee-rooms at contested elections, is a different affair. It regards (or lately regarded) the bribery of voters as an offence only when detection has followed; it assumes that a minister will use his patronage to strengthen his party or himself; it smiles at election pledges as the gods smiled at lovers’ vows; it defends the abuse of parliamentary rules; it tolerates equivocations and misleading statements proceeding from an official even when they have not the excuse of state necessity. It is by this actual standard that Englishmen do in fact judge one another; and he who does not sink below it need not fear the conventional ideality of press and pulpit.
Perhaps this is only an instance of the tendency in all professions to develop a special code of rules less exacting than those of the community at large. As a profession holds some things to be wrong, because contrary to its etiquette, which are in themselves harmless, so it justifies other things in themselves blamable. In the mercantile world, agents play sad tricks on their principals in the matter of commissions, and their fellow merchants are astonished when the courts of law compel the ill-gotten gains to be disgorged. At the University of Oxford, everybody who took a Master of Arts degree was, until 1871, required to sign the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Hundreds of men signed who did not believe, and admitted that they did not believe, the dogmas of this formulary; but nobody thought the worse of them for a solemn falsehood. We know what latitude, as regards truth, a “scientific witness,” honourable enough in his private life, permits himself in the witness box. Each profession indulges in deviations from the established rule of morals, but takes pains to conceal these deviations from the general public, and continues to talk about itself and its traditions with an air of unsullied virtue. What each profession does for itself most individual men do for themselves. They judge themselves by themselves, that is to say, by their surroundings and their own past acts, and thus erect in the inner forum of conscience a more lenient code for their own transgressions than that which they apply to others. A fault which a man has often committed seems to him slighter than one he has refrained from and sees others committing. Often he gets others to take the same view. “It is only his way,” they say; “it is just like Roger.” The same thing happens with nations. The particular forms in which faults like corruption, or falsehood, or unscrupulous partisanship have appeared in the recent political history of a nation shock its moral sense less than similar offences which have taken a different form in some other country.
Each country, while accustomed to judge her own statesmen, as well as her national behaviour generally, by the actual standard, and therefore to overlook many deflections from the ideal, always applies the conventional or absolute standard to other countries. Europeans have done this to America, subjecting her to that censorious scrutiny which the children of an emigrant brother receive on their return from aunts and uncles.
How then does America deal with herself?
She is so far lenient to her own defects as to judge them by her past practice; that is to say, she is less shocked by certain political vices, because these vices are familiar, than might have been expected from the generally high tone of her people. But so far from covering things up as the English do, professing a high standard, and applying it rigorously to other countries, but leniently to her own offspring, she gives an exceptionally free course to publicity of all kinds, and allows writers and speakers to paint the faults of her politicians in strong, not to say exaggerated, colours. Such excessive candour is not an unmixed gain. It removes the restraint which the maintenance of a conventional standard imposes. There is almost too little of make-believe about Americans in public writing, as well as in private talk, and their dislike to humbug, hypocrisy, and what they call English pharisaism, not only tends to laxity, but has made them wrong in the eyes of the Old World their real moral sensitiveness. Accustomed to see constant lip service rendered to a virtue not intended to be practised, Europeans naturally assume that things are in the United States several shades darker than they are painted, and interpret frankness as cynicism. Were American politics judged by the actual and not the conventional standard of England, the contrast between the demerits of the politicians and the merits of the people would be less striking.
Supplementary Note to Editions of 1910 and 1914
REMARKS ON THE GROWTH OF PARTY: ITS PERVERSIONS AND THE REMEDIES APPLIED
It may be well to add here a few further observations, suggested by recent events, on the party system.
The government of the United States, and of every state, and of every city, was originally intended and expected to be conducted by the people as a whole through their elected representatives, who, being the best and wisest, were to act for the whole people in their common interest. But, within a few years of its establishment, the government, both in the nation and in the states, and subsequently in the cities also, was seized upon by party, which has ever since controlled it and worked it, so that no other way of working it has even been thought of, or can now be easily imagined. Out of party there naturally grew the machine, i.e., an elaborate system of party organization created for the purpose of selecting candidates and securing their election by the people. The machine is the offspring of two phenomena, both natural, though both unforeseen. One was the deficiency of public zeal among the citizens, a deficiency not indeed more marked here than in other countries but here more unfortunate. The other was the excess of private zeal among the politicians, who perceived that public work could be turned to private gain. Thus the Spoils System sprang into being, office being the prize of party victory.
But the action of these factors was mightily increased by the influence of democratic theory pushed to extremes. The doctrine of human equality was taken to imply that one man was just as good as another for public office. The doctrine of popular sovereignty was applied by giving the election of nearly all officials in state, county, and city to the voters and by choosing the officials for very short terms. The consequence of this was that it became impossible for the voters, in such large communities as states and great cities, to know who were the fittest men to choose for the large number of elective offices. Hence the action and power of the machine became inevitable. Since the voters could not possibly select the numerous candidates needed, it stepped in and selected them. Since the incessant elections required a great deal of work, it stepped in and conducted the elections.
These evils grew with the increasing size of the communities and the increasing wealth of the country, which threw into the hands of legislatures and officials immense opportunities for bestowing favours on unscrupulous groups of men bent on gain. It is easy for such men to influence a legislature, and it was well worth their while to do so.
At last a point was reached at which the evils aroused the public conscience and were felt to be injuring the whole community. How were they to be dealt with? Human intelligence, by a sort of natural law, chooses the path of least resistance, and instead of trying to root out an evil altogether, oftens seeks to discover some expedient which will get round the evil and avoid its worst consequences. So in this instance the voters, instead of destroying the machine or setting it right by ejecting the professionals and making a party organization truly represent the whole party and the principles the party stands for, resorted to the plan of creating statutory primaries, that is to say, of duplicating elections by holding a party election to choose candidates as preliminary to the general election for choosing officials. Already, instead of trying to reform the legislatures, which had largely lost public confidence by their subservience to the machine and to powerful private interests, they had limited the powers and shortened the sittings of the legislatures; and were turning to the state governor whenever he happened to be a strong and upright man, encouraging him to lead and restrain the legislature so far as his legal powers went. And now at last they have begun to supersede the legislature by taking to themselves the direct power of lawmaking through the institution of the referendum and the initiative, these being in their essence an effort to get rid, not only of the evils incident to the selfishness of legislatures and their amenability to improper influences, but also of party itself, as a force which divides the people and prevents them from taking the shortest way to accomplish their will.
All this beautiful series of constitutional developments in state and city government has evolved itself naturally and logically within little more than a century. The constant element in the series has been democractic theory, i.e., the faith in unlimited and direct popular choice and the doctrine that one man is as fit for public office as another. These doctrines, largely abstract in their origin, rooted themselves in mens’ minds, under conditions which made them seem reasonable, in small communities, where the citizens were nearly on a level in education and intelligence, and where the questions of government that arose were within the range of an ordinary man’s knowledge. When such notions came to be applied to huge communities like the states and the vast modern cities, their inapplicability was manifest, while at the same time the need for an organization to work the party system became more evident. Improvements in the representative system might have seemed to be the obvious remedy, but unfortunately the same changes had so injured, and at last discredited, the legislatures of states and cities that the efforts for reform took a different line.
Since 1894, when the preceding chapters on the party system were last revised, public opinion has become more impatient of the rule of the machine, and more sensitive to scandals, while “good citizens” have begun to show more activity in their campaign for purity. “Boss rule” seems to be losing its hold in some of the cities, and the tendency to emancipate them from the state legislatures and stimulate the inhabitants to frame better schemes of government and take a more constant interest in their working has gained ground. Accordingly, although the facts set forth above are still so far generally true that the statements can properly be allowed to stand, it may safely be said that the sky is brighter in 1914 than it was in 1894.
 This remark does not apply to the malversations of officials in cities like New York or Philadelphia. These nobody can help knowing.