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Alfred de Grazia:

PUBLIC & REPUBLIC : Political Representation in America



During the greater part of the nineteenth century and up to the present time, many men combined a love of individualism with a fear of majority excesses. They believed in social democracy, but in terms of opportunity and charity rather than in terms of leveling and conformance. And they were reconciled to the inevitability of the state. In fact, in some cases, a respect for the capacities of individual men led them to feel that a state might be positive in nature and assume a virtuous role in the education of men.

Their heydey, of course, was the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, when they were not yet consciously aware that the automatic workings of social laws might not produce the best economic and political system ever known. But gradually they were offended and perturbed by the fragmentation of society into many interests and by the amoral strivings of many isolated individuals and baseless groupings in that society. Both Adam Smith's and John Locke's simple stratagems for politics began to wear at the edges. New classes arose and crystallized, and inventions and industries turned competition into monopoly. "The cult of incompetence" seemed to be the object of demagogic leaders; the majority principle grew from an "experiment" into a "fetish."

Yet the hold of the Age of Reason remained strong. Religion was still consigned to the Middle Ages; science was the touchstone of progress in human affairs as in industry. Politics, therefore, required only the aggregate modicum of intelligence found in many individuals. As men cast off the garments of ancient prejudice and outmoded institutions, they would grow strong in the sun of individual exertions.

So long as there was this compelling faith in reason and so long as the idea of reason was in itself a psychological concept connected with the philosophy of individualism, a slanted idea of representation was likely to result. The philosophy of rationalism makes of reason more than a tool. It posits reason as a goal of society. Representative institutions should be so constructed as to lead to the fulfillment of the process of political reason. Furthermore, when belief in reason is belief in the collective reasons of separate individuals - that is, when there is rational individualism - representative institutions must have not only a common objective of finding the final political reason, but if they are to accomplish their task, they must also be constructed in an individualistic fashion which will allow individual rather than group processes to work freely toward the goal of reason.

A distinction must be found between the two modern branches of the ideas of direct representation described in the last chapter and the ideas with which this chapter is concerned. The first distinction, that between the more traditional mass democrats and those individuals considered as "enlightened individualists," can turn on the position of the majority principle. If we examine the political behavior of the direct democrats since their first manifestations, we find at all times a transcendent faith in the majority principle as the resolvent of political conflicts and the means of moving forward. On the other hand, no such faith is entertained by the "enlightened individualist." Rather, he is concerned with discovering the "reason" in society and giving that reason a secure and powerful place in representation. The rights of minorities consequently are of great importance to him, and the institutions that contribute to the irrational organization of political life he views with regret.

The second distinction, that between the automatic market adjustment idea of representation and "enlightened individualism," is based on the end toward which political activity is directed. If it must be conceded that rational legislation is the object of the representative process, the workings of the free market in ideas and interests will hardly possess a reason fulfilling the requisite. Each "deal" has a reason peculiar to itself. All the "deals" which make up the history of a campaign, a session, or a program have no joint interconnecting reason either. The general interest, then, becomes a term whose only meaning is a transient, ad hoc description of "what is." Representative devices, like the railroads or the postal system, are judged not by what they carry, but by how they carry it. The sociology of free-market representation maintains that the aim of representation is to keep the boat afloat, not to steer it.

Yet the three ideas posses certain characteristics in common. All three lack class-consciousness, and are therefore unlike the ideas of John Adams, Madison, and Hamilton. All three are individualistic and atomistic in their conception of society, tending to regard each individual as a law unto himself and to disregard the ever-growing group controls and ever-present, socially communicated patterns of action and belief.

The two principal beneficiaries of enlightened individualism in the history of representation are the theory of the representative executive and the theory of proportional representation. Otherwise, the spokesmen of enlightened individualism have tended to exhaust their energies in urging "active citizenship" and "idealistic leadership" upon unwilling and apathetic audiences.

Many Americans have believed that political problems might be overcome if enough individuals were appealed to on grounds of conscience and public morality. No one denied individual free will and many thought that, if only the individual might be startled out of his lethargy, the problem of the relationship between people and their representatives might be solved. It would be useless to satirize the generations of American moralists who had the habit of urging people to "be good citizens." Many novelists and critics have sapped that approach to its core.

John Dewey defined it accurately enough for our purpose in his work on Human Nature and Conduct.

The notion that an abstract, ready-made conscience exists in individuals and that it is only necessary to make an occasional appeal to it and indulge in occasional crude rebukes and punishments, is associated with the causes of lack of definitive and orderly moral advance. For it is associated with lack of attention to social forces.[1]

It is a type of conduct familiar to most persons, for it is encountered in their experiences with American religion, the press, and political writing. What is significant for us is not that such behavior is fruitless and miscalculated, but that it occurs because others forms of constructive political education are wanting, or if available, are frowned on socially. If one were to search for evidence on this point in the newspapers, books, and speeches of the last century, he would find it wherever education was considered necessary -- be it etiquette, alcohol, religion, or politics.

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