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The Anatomy of Democracy

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

Landscape of Freedom, The Story of Personal Liberty in America. By Mauritz Hallgren. Howell, Soskin and Company. $3.50. The Majority of the People, A Grammar of Democracy. By Edwin Mims, Jr. Modern Age Books. $2.75. Modem Democracy. By Carl L. Becker. Yale University Press. $2.00. America Is Worth Saving, By Theodore Dreiser. Modern Age Books. $2.50.

Through the accidents of editorial courtesy and simultaneous publication I am asked to review together four books that represent complementary approaches to those problems which in their total impact constitute what is called “the present emergency.” The first of these books is a narrative account of the conflicts in America between the appetites, interests, and opinions of individuals or minorities and the moral, religious, and political authorities of the community. The second and third examine the fundamental meaning of American democracy. The fourth addresses itself to the predicament of a democracy which is called upon to defend itself from external attack in the midst of its unfinished task.

In the “Acknowledgments” which preface Mauritz Hall-gren’s “Landscape of Freedom,” the author distributes his thanks to those who have put at his disposal “much of the factual and anecdotal material upon which the merit of the book really rests.” Whether the factual material is or is not factual is impossible for the reader to determine from the text itself, since its statements are commonly made without documentation, and its citations without references. The book is not a work of scholarship, in the sense of fundamental research, or in the sense of induction and generalization, or in the sense of objectivity. It is anecdotal and ecu parte—four hundred pages of incidents, extending from colonial times to

1940,  embracing religious persecution, Sabbatarianism, witchcraft, slavery, sex taboos, prison abuses, Mrs. Grundy and Anthony Comstock, restrictions on academic freedom, prohibition, censorship, sedition, the exploitation of labor, conscription, and every other conceivable clash between the stabilizing and the eruptive forces of American society. The style is racy and the content is spicy. The book makes good light reading, but very light. There is no historical perspective, no attempt to discover causes or to measure change. There is no conclusion, except for the author’s belief, as of

1941,  that “so long as the Constitution remained in being there was definite hope, come war or what may, that personal liberty would survive.”

That Mr. Mauritz A. Hallgren wants liberty in his landscape is to be inferred not from any reasoned discourse but from the tone of his vocabulary. Restricters of liberty are called “bigots,” “fanatics,” “prudes,” “persecutors,” “witch-hunters,” “spies,” or “patrioteers” who “bawl lustily for German blood.” If the author’s pamphleteering had been governed by the opposite animus he would have referred to libertarians as “licentious,” “lawless,” “seditious,” “indecent,” “godless,” or as “inflammatory rabble rousers.”

Edwin Mims, Jr., in his “The Majority of the People” and Carl L. Becker in his “Modern Democracy” move on a different semantic level. Their purpose is to throw light on the meaning of liberty by a historical and critical examination of democratic doctrine.

The theme of the first of these books is the antithesis between the principle of majority rule, with its appeal to “numbers,” and the “philosophy of constitutional sovereignty and judicial constitutionalism,” with its insistence on “minority rights.” The first is the authentic American democracy, proclaimed by Locke and Rousseau and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence; the second is a veiled totalitarianism in which, with a mere lip service to the people, political sovereignty is lodged in government itself—nominally in a body of fundamental organic law, actually in a majority of those whose office it is to interpret the law. Using this antithesis as a key, Professor Mims interprets sovereignty, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, law, liberty, the individual, property, equality, and the people; and with the same antithesis as a test he puts the leaders of American political thought each in his place—Hamilton, the Adamses, Madison, Jefferson, Marshall, Jackson, Calhoun, Taney, and Field, not to speak of Roberts, Frankfurter, and Dorothy Thompson. The book is in the best tradition of Anglo-American scholarship, and at the same time lucid and vigorous in style.

Although Professor Mims, with commendable boldness, affirms the principle of numerical majority to be the basic premise of democratic thought, it is difficult to believe that he can really mean it. William James once invited us to consider the hypothesis of a world in which “millions [were] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture.” The repugnance of such a situation to conscience conveys the essential meaning of minority rights. The rights of the minority, whether a minority of one or of forty-nine per cent, represent, not rights peculiar to the minority, but those universal rights—or rights of every man qua man—which still remain to those who are excluded from the majority. The theory or fiction of compact signifies the same principle, that the state is based on an agreement embracing every member of society. To invest a majority with the moral right to rule over the minority it is necessary to suppose that the minority consents to be so ruled, in which case majority rule becomes not the basic premise of democracy, but a mechanism by which political action can as nearly as possible, in the long run, and indirectly if not directly, represent agreement,

To equate democracy with majority rule is to neglect the difference between a present majority and a succession of majorities of differing composition to one of which every individual has a chance in turn to belong. This, indeed, is Professor Mims’s final view of the matter:

Never before has it been so important, as in the midst of our present panic over dictatorship . . . to keep reminding ourselves, in the spirit of Rousseau and our own pioneer constitutionalists, that the true alternative to the corporate will of the prince is the general will of a public-spirited patriotic majority whose power is limited only by the stipulation that minority individuals shall not be restrained in their efforts to form a new majority.

It will be noted that majority rule is here bound by deeper obligations. It must be “public-spirited and patriotic”; that is, it must look beyond the interests of its own members. And it must provide conditions under which non-members may in turn acquire power. In other words, a majority may not be selfish or self-perpetuating—otherwise it loses its title to sovereignty. To say that minorities have rights is, then, only another way of saying that the just power of government lies not in numerical superiority, but in all the people.

Professor Carl L. Becker knows his eighteenth century so well, and loves it so well, that he has earned the right to poke fun at it. He has taught us to believe that it was naively Utopian, and used the reason on which it prided itself to rationalize its own prejudices. But in his “Modern Democracy” his eighteenth century appears, albeit in abbreviated form, in an opening chapter entitled “The Ideal.” It is “laid away in heaven,” and “its earthly counterpart resembles it but slightly.” Nevertheless it is the ideal of modern democracy; and, to judge by the remainder of the book, Professor Becker’s ideal. “A democratic government,” he tells us, “has always meant one in which the citizens, or a sufficient number of them to represent more or less effectively the common will, freely act from time to time, and according to established forms, to appoint or recall the magistrates and to enact or revoke the laws by which the community is governed.” Modern democracy, as distinguished from earlier democracies, is optimistic; and in the eighteenth century this optimism was based on a divine world-order, designed to secure the happiness of all its parts, and revealed to man in the form of enlightened self-interest.

The “reality,” as this emerged in the nineteenth century, was very different. It appeared that man’s confidence in a constitutionally harmonious nature, an automatically beneficent self-interest, and an inherent disposition to rational self-regulation was misplaced. Men found that a hands-off policy of government permitted the rise of new forms of oppression, especially in the economic field. The present problem is to reconcile greater restraint of economic liberty with the retention of the essential political and intellectual liberties. In other words, “can the flagrant inequality of possessions and of opportunity now existing in democratic societies be corrected by the democratic method?” Although conceding that this program will encounter resistance on the part of the privileged class, Professor Becker is not without hope that it can be realized without a violent revolution. That hope rests upon the possibility that “in some favored parts of the world” the human mind may remain unshackled, and prove capable of subordinating material power to “the achievement of rational and humane ends.”

But if these favored parts are to pursue rational and humane ends they must be permitted to do so, and so Professor Becker recognizes that war, although “the negation of the democratic idea,” may very well be necessary—as “the only means of safe-guarding the independence of those countries where democratic institutions exist.” Not so Mr. Theodore Dreiser, who thinks that “America Is Worth Saving,” but appears to be unaware of the external dangers that threaten her. “Does freedom of assemblage,” he asks, “rest on loans or outright grants to Britain?” To the author this is a rhetorical question, to which the answer is self-evidently “No!” But the fact is that the answer may be “Yes,” since freedom of assemblage in America is conditioned by the independence of America, and that, in turn, would be seriously jeopardized by the destruction of the British Empire. Mr. Dreiser taunts those who would save America by saving Britain with having “little faith in the durability of democracy.” But even Mr. Dreiser’s faith will avail little if it is not associated with a willingness to pay the price of independence.

The title of this book belies its content. The greater part of it is devoted not to proving that “America Is Worth Saving,” but to proving that Britain is not worth saving. On the evidence of this book, the author’s hate is stronger than his love. With the thoroughness and ferocity of a prosecuting attorney he builds up his case against the defendant, gathering from the history of the past every incident which will blacken the record, omitting all evidence to the contrary, and, whether it be defending Poland, or failing to defend Czecho-Slovakia, whether it be a Labour Government or a Tory Government, whatever the act and whatever the agency, provided only that it be British, finding an evil motive. Goebbels himself could not have done a better job.

As to the America that is “worth saving,” Mr. Dreiser appears to have two standards of judgment: “It Does Move” and the Declaration of Independence. Whether, when things move, they always move towards freedom, is not so clear. Mr. Dreiser apparently thinks so—the normal movement being a sort of upheaval from the bottom. Nevertheless, for some unaccountable reason the movement which the author both approves and regards as inevitable has a strange nostalgic reference to the past, and even to the homeland of John Locke.

It is striking that these four books, so uneven in quality, and so different in method and point of view, should nevertheless agree in identifying modern democracy with the ideology of the American Revolution. If this common position be justified by history, by the analysis of American institutions, and by the American moral consciousness, it is profoundly reassuring. It implies that we need not be fundamentally divided, either from our past or from one another. It justifies neither complacency nor despair, but continued effort in the line already defined. It means that we have a double task: to carry through, and to carry on. To carry through, we must apply the maxims of liberty, equality, general well-being, and popular government to modern conditions, and in particular to modern economic conditions. We must so far realize the original democratic aspirations as to confirm conviction by experience. To carry on, we must be strong enough to protect ourselves against the impact of hostle forces. We must be strong enough to repel every threat, however remote or insidious, to our democratic vocation. There must be no alien will strong enough to impose itself on our will and prevent our completing the task entrusted to us. There must be no spirit of defeatism towards avowed aggressors, and no spirit of passive acquiescence in the drift of the times. We must make our own future fulfil the promise of our own past.


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