doubts about democracy -- 1/21/21

Today's encore selection -- from American Colossus by H.W. Brands. From the earliest days after the American Revolution to the present, there have been doubts and criticisms about the effectiveness of a democratic government. These became especially pronounced during the late 1800s -- the so-called Gilded Age -- when capitalism roared to prominence within America and suffrage became increasingly universal. Many prominent critics doubted the people's ability to be thoughtful and effective voters, and equally doubted capitalists' ability to vote for any interest other than their own:

"With more than a few of his contemporaries, [famed author Mark] Twain despaired of democracy's ability to deliver good government. The scandals of the Gilded Age -- the title [of Twain's book] caught on though the book itself soon faded from view -- suggested that the greed to which capi­talism appealed was more than most people could put aside when they turned to politics. ...

Mark Twain

"Others took up the cudgels against democracy, at least as currently practiced in the United States. Henry Adams [himself a descendent of presidents and a famed author and statesman] devoted an entire 1880 novel, straightforwardly called Democracy, to lam­pooning the habits of Americans in the political arena. Adams's politicians were venal and vulgar, his voters silly, stupid, or self-interested. Like Twain, Adams thought discretion the better part of critical valor and declined to put his name on his work; the secret of his authorship held for decades. John Hay, former per­sonal secretary to Abraham Lincoln and future secretary of state to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, was no less criti­cal of American democracy in his 1884 novel, The Breadwinners. But he was even more cautious, refusing till death to acknowledge writing such a scathing attack on the practice, if not the principle, of popular government.

"[Historian and social commentator] Francis Parkman frankly avowed his anti-democratic opinions. Writing under his own name in the North American Review in 1878, the historian (and botanist: his Harvard appointment was in horticulture) described what he morosely called 'the failure of universal suffrage.' Susan B. Anthony and other feminists would have disputed Parkman's premise that universal suffrage existed in America, as would the growing number of disfranchised Afri­can Americans in the South, but Parkman thought the franchise had spread quite far enough already. 'The transfer of sovereignty to the people, and the whole people, is proclaimed the panacea of political and social ills,' he said, 'and we are but rarely reminded that popular sovereignty had evils of its own, against which patri­otism may exercise itself to better purpose. Here and there one hears a whisper that perhaps the masses have not learned to use their power; but the whisper is greeted with obloquy.' Americans had dethroned King George only to enthrone a new monarch, King Demos, who had begun as 'a reasonable and sensible mon­arch who had a notion of good government, and ruled himself and his realm with wisdom and moderation,' but who had degen­erated till 'he begins to lose his wits and forget his kingcraft.'

Henry Adams

"More than Twain and some other critics of democracy, Park­man faulted not democracy per se but democracy's perversion by capitalism. ... The effects of capitalism spread insidiously across the land.

Population increased, wealth grew apace; men became rabid in making money, and women frivolous in spending it. ... A vast industrial development, an immense prosperity rested safely for a while on the old national traditions, love of country, respect for law, and the habit of self-government. Then began the inevitable strain. Crowded cities, where the irresponsible and ignorant were numerically equal, or more than equal, to the rest, and where the weakest and most worthless was a match, by his vote, for the wisest and best; bloated wealth and envious poverty; a tinseled civilization above, and a discon­tented proletariat beneath -- all these have broken rudely upon the dreams of equal brotherhood once cherished by those who made their wish the father of their thought, and fancied that this favored land formed an exception to the universal laws of human nature. ...

"Advocates of democracy argued that education was the answer to democracy's ills. Parkman thought the problem wasn't simply intellectual. 'It consists also in the want of feeling that his own interests are connected with those of the community, and in the weakness or absence of the sense of moral and politi­cal duty.' Immigrants lacked this feeling on arrival, and little in their experience caused it to grow. 'It may be doubted, as a gen­eral rule, whether the young Irish-American is a better or safer citizen than his parent from Cork. He can read, but he reads nothing but sensation stories and scandalous picture-papers, which fill him with preposterous notions and would enfeeble a stronger brain than his and debauch a sounder conscience. He is generally less industrious than his sire, and equally careless of the public good.'

"Parkman had no easy answer to the problem he described. In fact he had no real answer at all. Democracy was too entrenched as an ideology, and capitalism too powerful as a practice. He advocated reforming higher education. 'What we need most is a broad and masculine education, bearing on questions of society and government; not repelling from active life, but preparing for it and impelling toward it. The discipline of the university should be a training for the arena.' ... 'Universal suf­frage is applicable only to those peoples, if such there are, who by character and training are prepared for it.' Masses of Americans lacked the preparation, rendering the failure of universal suffrage inescapable."



H.W. Brands


American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900


Anchor Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2010 by H.W. Brands


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