Limiting the Sum of Lincoln’s “Some:” Democracy, Mobocracy and Majority Rule.
Abraham Lincoln and Democracy as a Fools’ Paradise?
Abraham Lincoln famously said that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. This is, I think, a great formulation of political wisdom, and the conclusion that you can’t fool everybody all of the time has been taken as an expression of hope for the world. Demagogues and shysters may have their way for a while, Lincoln conceded, but we cannot all be fooled by them all of the time. So, his is a statement of hope for democracy, but it is also a statement of concern. Lincoln’s underlying concern lies in the word “some” that appears in the first two clauses of his statement, that you can fool everyone some of the time and you can fool some of the people all of the time. The word “some” in these clauses begs the question as to how long can you fool all of the people, and what proportion of the population can be perpetually fooled? Most important, Lincoln leaves us with the all-important question of how can we minimize the sum of these “somes?” How can we minimize number of people who are fooled and the duration of their being fooled? That was one of Lincoln’s main concerns for American democracy, and remains a concern for us today.
To be foolish is to think that you are expert in something that you know little about, and to think that you are wise in ways that you lack good sense. It is a failing to which most of us all-too-easily fall prey. Most people are knowledgeable about things with which they are regularly involved, their jobs for example. People are generally willing and able to think about such things in complex terms and to reach nuanced conclusions. At the same time, most people know very little about things with which they are not regularly involved, for example politics and government. But that does not stop them from thinking that they need to know all about those things, or that they do. What most people do in that situation is to insist that things about which they are ignorant are really quite simple, and to latch onto some simplistic slogans that supposedly embody the truth about those things. With respect to government and politics, for example, they may latch onto Fox News talking points about government and politics.
The tendency of people to think simplistically about politics and government is a problem in a democracy such as ours. As citizens of a democracy, we are all supposed to participate in choosing our government, deciding what actions it should take, and monitoring its performance. Few people, however, actually know anything about how government works. They don’t study it, and they don’t have government jobs that might familiarize them with the workings of government. Their personal contacts with government are minimal and usually involve unpleasant matters, such as paying taxes and traffic tickets and complaining when something goes wrong. At the same time, most people take for granted the services that government routinely and regularly provides, such as clean water, paved roads, street lights, etc. They assume those things are simple, and many don’t even realize they are a product of government. It is this ignorance of how government works, coupled with the arrogance of thinking that government is simple, that leaves people open to being fooled by demagogues and shysters who preach bumper sticker slogans and sell simplistic half-truths.
How can democracy function with a public that can be fooled in total some of the time and in part all of the time? That is the gist of Lincoln’s concern.
Edmund Burke and the Conservatives’ Case against Democracy.
Edmund Burke, who is generally considered the father of modern conservatism, believed that the general public was not capable of playing a constructive role in government. That is why he favored an aristocratic and elitist form of government over democracy. Cultivate an elite class of leaders, Burke claimed, give them the reins of government, and all will be well. Give power to the people, and you will end up with what we might today call a mobocracy — violent and oppressive rule by the ignorant masses. Burke warned that the ignorance and impatience of the masses would leave them open to demagoguery — the simplistic sloganeering of malicious leaders who appeal to peoples’ fears and hatreds. Subservience to demagogues would lead the masses to violence and society to ruin. In this context, Burke railed against the mobocracy that he claimed was destroying France during the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.
Burke was particularly opposed to majority rule. Majority rule, he warned, can quickly devolve into mobocracy in which racial, religious, ethnic and political majorities oppress minorities, impose the majority’s ideas on everyone else, and give no one else a chance for power. This is a significant issue for us today. We have seen in recent years many countries around the world where dictatorships have been succeeded by mobocracies which, in turn, may soon be succeeded by new dictatorships. This was a vicious cycle of dictatorship and mobocracy that worried many of the ancient Greeks, and that worried Burke about democracy.
Burke was also concerned about destructive social changes that he thought would inevitably result from democracy. The masses, he warned, would be misled by ideologues and demagogues into supporting first one and then another futile radical reform. This is also a significant issue for us today. Burke claimed that the ability of humans to predict and control the consequences of their actions was limited, and that the potential for unintended negative consequences outweighed the potential for positive consequences in any radical reform. Burke was, therefore, unwilling to support radical reforms that proposed to make things better because he believed the resulting unintended negative consequences were likely to make things worse. He was not, however, opposed to all social change, and he was willing to support modest social reforms that were intended to ameliorate hardship and keep a bad situation from getting worse.
Burke was a pragmatic conservative. He was not a right-wing ideologist of the sort that today parades as conservative, but is actually radically reactionary and regressive. Self-styled Tea Party conservatives, religious conservatives, and social conservatives of today want to radically change society back to ways that they believe were better in days long past. They are not conservatives but radical right-wingers, ideologues and demagogues of the sort Burke feared would dominate in a democracy. Burke would likely cite their popularity as proof of his arguments against democracy. Burke and conservatives since his time have generally claimed that liberty and equality, and freedom and democracy, are distinct and incompatible. Liberty, freedom, minority rights and social stability are safe, they say, only in the hands of an entrenched and enlightened elite. In a democracy, demagogues of the left and right will invariably take advantage of the masses to destroy liberty, and to wreak havoc on society.
The Founders’ Democratic Faith.
The Founders of this country agreed with Burke about the dangers of majority rule, but rejected his vision of democracy. Democracy as it was envisioned by them, and embodied in the Constitution, is more properly conceived of as majority rule with minority rights, with the most important of these rights being the right of the minority to someday become the majority. Guaranteeing the right of minorities to freely function and someday possibly become the majority was a key concern of the Founders, and is the underlying rationale for the Bill of Rights. While the Founders believed in government of the best and brightest, they also believed that ordinary people could and would recognize and choose the best and brightest as their leaders. And they believed that the constitutional system they had established provided an institutional framework for successfully combining liberty and democracy.
At the same time, the Founders did not think that the history of democracy in the United States would be an easy progression. They anticipated a perpetual struggle over the terms and practices of democracy, and they provided in their Constitution for the ways and means of amendment and interpretation that would embody that struggle in what they hoped would be peaceful conflict. Things did not always work the way the Founders hoped, as exemplified by the Civil War, the various Red Scares and other episodes of intolerance and oppression of minorities in our history. But as the Founders expected, there has been an ebb and flow of liberty and democracy in the history of this country.
Conventional History, History as Choice and the Case for and against Democracy.
You would not, however, get from conventional histories of the United States the impression that democracy has been a highly contested term and precarious practice. To the contrary, while conventional histories generally admit that the country has moved from being less democratic to being more democratic, they generally describe American history as an inevitable march toward democracy. And in so doing, most histories simplistically define democracy as majority rule, and describe the rise of American democracy simplistically in terms of the rise of majority rule. This is a one-dimensional definition and a one-dimensional narrative that not only makes for bad history, it is undemocratic history.
The problem is that conventional history is essentially winners’ history. It focuses almost solely on what happened, and leaves out what could have happened. It provides you with little idea of what the various options were in any given situation, why a given option was chosen over the others, and what might have happened if a different option had been chosen. The losers are lost in this sort of history. The minorities who did not prevail are dismissed. This sort of history does not portray the struggle over democracy, or the struggles within a democratic system. It provides people with little education in how politics and government actually work, and how they might go about making choices as democratic citizens. And it plays into the sort of one-dimensional ideological narratives promoted by right-wing and left-wing demagogues.
History as choice resurrects the options, debates, choices, consequences (both intended and unintended), and alternative possibilities of the past, and portrays a multi-dimensional past that looks and feels like the multi-dimensional present. In so doing, it recognizes the importance of the losers in history, the minorities who may eventually became the majority, sometimes for the better — as in the case of the civil rights advocates who lost in the 1860’s-1870’s, but came back to win during the 1960’s-1970’s — and sometimes for the worse – as with laissez-faire economics which was completely discredited and discarded during the early twentieth century, but has regained credibility and influence during the early twenty-first century. Approaching history in this way helps you to understand how government and politics work, and helps prepare you for the choices that you need to make as a democratic citizen today.
History as Choice and Limiting the Sum of Lincoln’s “Some.”
But history as choice is not simple or simplistic. And most people do not have the time or energy to engage in complex historical studies. Which brings us back to Burke’s challenge to democracy. How can we expect ordinary people to be informed and intelligent citizens? How can we minimize the sum of perpetual fools that worried Lincoln? What is to be done? I can suggest at least three things:
First, I think that those of us who are students and teachers of history have an obligation to approach history in ways that I characterize as approaching history as choice. This method is by no means unique to me. Even the phrase “history as choice” is used by many others, and is the way that most students and teachers approach history when they are doing what they consider their best work. Studying history can and should be practice for living in a democratic society.
Second, I think that we all have to recognize and acknowledge that we cannot know everything about all the things we want and need to know about. We have to rely for most things in this world on the experience and expertise of others. That does not mean we have to depend on a permanent class of elite leaders as Burke would have us. The democratic alternative to elite leadership is revolving leadership in which those in the know on a given issue can and will be allowed to take the lead on that issue. But those who lead on one issue may not necessarily lead on the next issue. On the next issue, different leaders may emerge.
In this context, possibly the most important question that we all have to answer in deciding most issues is “Whom do we trust?” And a key to answering that question is to look for people to trust who neither claim that things are simple nor provide simplistic answers. You would not rely on a doctor who merely mouthed the advertising slogans for medicines that you see on TV. So why would we want to rely on politicians who do likewise? We should look, instead, for people who approach problems pragmatically rather than dogmatically, deal with them in depth, and provide more than bumper sticker solutions. Studying history as choice can help us develop the skills needed to identify those who can be trusted to lead on important issues.
Third, while Franklin Roosevelt may have exaggerated when he claimed that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” the politics of fear and hate is the province of demagogues who appeal to our lowest emotions in order to fool and manipulate us. We must, instead, look for ideas, policies and leaders that emphasize the politics of hope, inclusion and cooperation. Studying history as choice can help us to distinguish the politics of hope from the politics of fear. We must understand how and why sometimes bad options are chosen with good options ignored, and vice versa. We must understand how and why sometimes bad people flourish, but other times good people do. We must explore the ways in which sometimes losers become winners, and winners become losers. This is the ebb and flow of our daily lives and of history, and these studies can help us distinguish between what we should fear and what we can hope and trust. Yes, there are things to fear, but fear is the worst of these things, and the thing we should fear the most. That we can overcome our fears and our ignorance is the hope that Lincoln left us with, and the best way to meet Burke’s challenge to democracy.
What do you think?
Postscript: For further discussion of history as choice and democracy see my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).