Spencer on voting in elections as a screen behind which the wirepullers turn the sovereign people into a puppet (1882)

Herbert Spencer

During his tour of the United States in 1882 the English political philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was interviewed about his thoughts on American liberty and democracy. Among his very positive thoughts were some negative ones about the manipulation of the people by party bosses during elections:

You retain the forms of freedom; but, so far as I can gather, there has been a considerable loss of the substance. It is true that those who rule you do not do it by means of retainers armed with swords; but they do it through regiments of men armed with voting papers, who obey the word of command as loyally as did the dependants of the old feudal nobles, and who thus enable their leaders to override the general will, and make the community submit to their exactions as effectually as their prototypes of old. It is doubtless true that each of your citizens votes for the candidate he chooses for this or that office, from President downwards; but his hand is guided by an agency behind which leaves him scarcely any choice. “Use your political power as we tell you, or else throw it away,” is the alternative offered to the citizen. The political machinery as it is now worked, has little resemblance to that contemplated at the outset of your political life. Manifestly, those who framed your Constitution never dreamed that twenty thousand citizens would go to the poll led by a “boss.” America exemplifies at the other end of the social scale, a change analogous to that which has taken place under sundry despotisms. You know that in Japan, before the recent Revolution, the divine ruler, the Mikado, nominally supreme, was practically a puppet in the hands of his chief minister, the Shogun. Here it seems to me that “the sovereign people” is fast becoming a puppet which moves and speaks as wirepullers determine.

In this October 1882 interview which Spencer gave during his successful speaking tour of the United States he spoke about the very great positives which he saw coming out of the Amnerican experiment: he was impressed with the purposeful and entrepreneurial way in which its vast resources were being put to use, the inventiveness of the American people, and the excellent prospects in the future of American civilization. Nevertheless, he was very concerned about the gradual way in which the American people were losing their freedom (this in 1882!). Among these were the open manipulation of elections for private gain, the way in which the “paper constitution” was being undermined, and the propensity of Americans to put up with gradual violations of their liberties without much complaint.