The Flight From Reality: 13. The Democratic" Elite
OCTOBER 01, 1965 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
Mr. John A. Sparks, a student at Grove City College, assisted with the research for this article.
Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College,
There have been strange and inconsistent developments in the movement toward what is billed as democracy in twentieth century
Yet these democrats appear to have developed myopia where certain kinds of distinctions are concerned. This is most pronounced where the presidency of the
Closely related to this is the employment of an extensive Secret Service to guard the President. Millions of dollars are spent annually to this end, and the amount has been recently greatly increased. Lengthy lists of potential assassins have been compiled, and a concerted effort is being made to make the list as complete as possible. The men assigned to guard the President are expected to serve as human shields of his body if the occasion warrants such action.
It is not my purpose here to make any evaluation or judgment of such actions. They may or may not be justified. However, it would be difficult to do so from a "democratic" or equalitarian standpoint. If all men are equal, what would justify giving more protection to one man than another? Why should a guard place himself between the President and an assassin’s bullet? Is it a more heinous crime to kill a President than it is to kill anyone else? If not, why should it be made a Federal crime to do so? In short, the attention and care lavished upon the President is hardly in keeping with the democratic ethos.
Here is another anomaly. Supreme Court decisions are made in the name of democracy and hailed as being "democratic." For example, the famous decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et. al. was preceded by the following argument, among others, by lawyers for the appellants (who were seeking a decision for integration of the schools in question):
The importance to our American democracy of the substantive question can hardly be overstated. The question is whether a nation founded on the proposition that "all men are created equal" is honoring its commitments to grant "due process of law" and "the equal protection of the laws" to all within its borders when it, or one of its constituent states, confers or denies benefits on the basis of color or race.¹
Mr. Chief Justice Warren, who gave the opinion for a unanimous court, declared: "Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society."²
Again, it is not my purpose to evaluate the decision in question. My concern is with the use of the words "democracy" and "democratic" in connection with it. No branch of the general government is so remote from popular control as is the judiciary. It is the least "democratic" of all the branches. The members of the courts are appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. They have life tenure in their offices, and can only be removed from office by actions taken in both houses of Congress. The special function of the courts is to maintain a government of laws, and it was thought by the Founders that they would be more likely to do so if they were not subjected to popular pressures.
Federal court decisions, by their nature, are authoritarian and autocratic. That is, they are supposed to be made on the basis of the authority of the Constitution and precedent. They are autocratic in that ordinarily the members of the courts are not answerable to anyone for the decisions that they make. Their powers are not absolute, but they are as near to it as any granted under the Constitution. On the face of it, "democracy" is not a word one would associate with the Supreme Court.
A third strange development should be described also. As
Changing the Meaning
These anomolies can best be cleared up by an understanding that "democracy" is used largely as a word cover for an ideological thrust. Melioristic reformers have been bent upon remaking society along certain lines. They have used the materials at hand to effect their ends. The belief in democracy by Americans was a major constituent element of the materials at hand. A new conception of democracy, however, had to be developed and propagated before it could be used in this way. It had to be wrested from its individualistic context and collectivized. It had to be changed from a means into an end. It had to be instrumented to the purposes of reform.
It is tempting to charge the reformers with the cynical manipulation of a hallowed concept, with the malicious bending of words to their own ends. It is a temptation, however, that should be resisted. To appearances, at least, reformers have quite often been as confused as those they were drawing into their confusion. The intellectuals who provided the theories of reform were on a flight from reality. They were cut loose from methods of analysis and thought which would have enabled them to think clearly. It may be more accurate to think of them as feeling their way to usages of democracy that would accord with their ideological aims than to conceive of them as coldly planning linguistic coups.
At any rate, the idea of democracy was confused from the outset in the
The general will was not simply the wishes of a majority of the electorate; it was that which all would wish for themselves if they but knew what they willed. No method was ever agreed upon for discerning the general will, but here was a fruitful idea that could be used, with variations, by dictators, majoritarians, technocrats, and assorted democrats. All modern notions of democracy are freighted with mystical and intellectually impenetrable conceptions.
Building on Illusions
Reformers took over the existing illusions about democracy in
Perhaps the most important illusion added by the reformers is that socialism can be democratically achieved. There is some evidence that many reformers believed this in the early years of the movement in
Some major changes were made in consequence of these efforts. The Seventeenth Amendment, ratifled in 1913, provided for the direct election of Senators. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, extended the vote to women. Some local governments and states adopted the initiative and referendum procedures for some matters, and a goodly number of states provided for presidential primaries.
Extending the Electorate
But these populistic devices only partially solved one of the problems of reformers. A wider suffrage did enable them to elect reformers to office—sometimes. Even this was not an unmixed blessing, as reformers were shortly to learn. The electorate sometimes displayed strange tastes. They preferred an experiment in national prohibition to participation in a
Nor is the reason far to seek. The more extensive the electorate the more readily can it be swayed by demagoguery. If the property less can vote, they are more apt than those who have property to favor assaults upon it. The less the electorate is restricted to those who have demonstrated practical judgment, the more readily will it adopt or favor impractical schemes.
Centralization of Power
Even so, the major obstacle for social reform was not surmounted. The extension of the suffrage and the adoption of populistic devices did not mean that government would be by the people. There were still the governors and the governed. Indeed, most of the populistic devices—such as the initiative and referendum—, if they had been adopted, would have made socialistic reforms impractical to carry out, if not impossible. Reformers envisaged a planned, controlled, and directed economy. This required the centralization of power, the concentration of authority, and centralized direction. Democracy would tend to diffuse power, to locate decision-making with the numerous individuals who compose the electorate, and to make extended concerted action in a particular direction exceedingly unlikely.
Moreover, the reconstruction of society is a complicated and delicate undertaking. As Fabians (to use the term generically) have conceived the matter, it is to be done slowly. This would mean with a tenacity and with eyes fixed on distant goals which few men demonstrate. In short, the ordinary run of men cannot direct the government in this undertaking. One writer put the matter succinctly some years ago:
The task of the government of a democratic society implies a wisdom and understanding of the complicated life of modern societies very far removed from the simple "horse sense" which is sufficient for the running of small and simple democracies. It is clear that a modern state can do its job only with a lot of expert help, expert statesmen, expert administrators. We must nowadays go on and say "expert economists and expert scientists." Perhaps we must go further and say "expert sociologists."3
To state it less obliquely, democracy and socialism are antithetical goals. More precisely, democratic means are not suited to the achievement of socialistic ends.
Transforming Means info Ends
Yet the thrust toward the realization of an ideology which should be called socialism has been carried on in the name of democracy. Two things were done to make it possible to avoid confronting this anomaly, to keep the name while working for and accepting the substance of something else. First, democracy was transformed into an end. Second, the business of government was increasingly turned over to an elite.
It may be regrettable, but there is nothing particularly unusual about means being transformed into ends. People do it regularly, and in numerous instances. A house is a thing to live in, an automobile a conveyance to get one from one place to another, money a means of acquiring goods. Yet men will quite often treat these as ends in and for themselves. There may even be something wholesome and preservative in this tendency. Certainly, a house should become a home—something that has value and meaning beyond its accommodative usefulness. Things need much care and attention, and it may be that if we think of them only as means we will neglect them.
Voting Becomes an End in Itself Rather than a Means of Choosing
It would hardly be worthy of comment, then, if all that were involved were the transformation of democracy from a means into an end. Any such transformation does, of course, tend to lead away from reality. But the transformation of democracy involved a second remove from reality. As we have seen, the
Some examples will help to clarify this. Voting is a very important practice within the American system of government. In this way, many of those who govern are chosen. They are limited in their exercise of power by the fact that they must stand for election from time to time if they are to continue in office. Not only is government limited in this way, but it receives popular consent for action by this device. Nothing should be clearer than that voting is a means for making choices, giving the consent of the electorate, and limiting those in power. But it is often treated as an end today. Spot advertisements on radio and television, notices in newspapers, and posters and billboards exhort Americans to vote, though it does not matter for whom they vote. This is to treat voting as if it had meaning in and for itself, as if it were an end, not a means.
The abstraction is taken a step farther when this "democratic" procedure is taken from its governmental context and extended to the action of voluntary groups. The following actually occurred. Someone rose in a faculty meeting and made a motion that each member of the faculty should pay a certain amount into a flower fund, this amount to be withheld from the paychecks. The motion was seconded, and after some little discussion the motion was acted upon favorably by the faculty. The action was later nullified when an alert business manager pointed out that the enforcement of this act would be illegal. In fact, the faculty had assumed governmental powers, the powers of taxation.
But, one might object, the procedure was democratic, was it not? It certainly was, but it was not action in accord with the American system. If the faculty assumed the powers of taxation, there was no limit to the extent of such powers, no constitutional authorization, no independent judiciary, no procedure for investigations and hearings, no veto powers to prevent precipitate action. This was an excellent example of the abstraction of procedures from their whole context.
Actually, though, such pseudo-governments do exist in
It may be that men have a tendency to turn means into ends, but this development in democracy was not simply the result of some inclination rooted in human nature. It served a purpose. It was promoted and propagated. Reformers articulated a vision of democracy as a goal or an end. Many men contributed, first and last, to this development but none more consistently and vigorously than John Dewey. Note how, in the following, he makes democracy an end and a goal:
… A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.4
More,... A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.5
In short, democracy is not only an end, but it has an end or aim—social control and social reconstruction.
Emphasis on Quality
In particular, the end of democracy has been most often thought of as equality. That is, democracy has often been defined as equality, and programs for providing equality have been described as democratic. One writer described the phenomenon, with obvious approval, in this way some years ago:
There is excellent historical and psychological ground for the supposition that democracy, whatever it may mean of fraternity, must at least be an effort to embody equality in action. American modifications made in the democratic form may be interpreted as approach toward or recession from equality. What we have only now been considering in
One may take issue with his use of "liberty" in connection with these developments, but he has aptly described the animating aim of the programs.
The provision of equality could, and has, become an all embracing goal. When governments are used to do this, they must engage in innumerable activities. Wealth must be more or less redistributed; production and distribution of goods must be directed; prices must be more or less controlled; individuals and groups must be regulated so as to prevent discrimination, and so on. Such a goal as actual equality, if it could be achieved, could only be reached by the extended and concentrated effort of those who were acting with the force of an all powerful state. It would require the location of such power in the hands of men, and it would have to be centrally directed.
Steps toward Control
Several things had now been done to "democracy" by these abstracting processes. First, the methods associated with it had been made into ends—voting for the sake of voting, for instance. Second, it had been changed into a substantive goal, more or less divorced from its procedural methods. That is, if "true democracy" is equality, the methods of democracy are surely secondary. Third, the achievement of this goal required extensive and extended social reform. Fourth, the reforms required by "democracy” would be themselves "democratic." It follows, then, that whatever has to be done to achieve the goals is "democratic," however far removed it may be from democratic procedures.
As a writer observed in an earlier quotation, the effort must be directed by experts—by an elite, if you will. The above is the line of reason, or unreason, by which something so uncongenial to democracy as an elite could be justified. But government by an elite was not only uncongenial to democracy; more important, it was also uncongenial to the American way, and to Americans. Americans liked to manage their own affairs, both private and public. The notion of having their affairs managed by experts might not be expected to be too popular. Still, it has come to pass that an elite increasingly governs, and their responsibility to the populace is often quite indirect, if not nonexistent.
The Theory of an Elite
Elitist ideas have been very prominent in European thought for the past century. As one historian says, "The ideal of an elite guiding mankind toward a better life in a new society has played a role" in many social theories. "Marxism had its elite in the Communist Party, and Nietzsche longed for an elite of individualistic supermen."7
Perhaps the most extensive theory of an elite set forth was by Vilfredo Pareto in a three-volumned work called A Tract of General Sociology. He held that man is fundamentally irrational—or that most men are—, that he is governed by "residues" and "derivations"—residues being, roughly, inherited beliefs, and derivatives being particular formulations from these which serve to motivate behavior and attitudes. An elite could govern through its knowledge of the psychology of the masses. "The main business of this elite must be to manipulate residues through controlling their derivations. Here propaganda came into its own, for the residues were irrational and thus the derivations had to appeal to the irrational in man… Thus if meat inspection was desired, the appeal could not be to civic pride but instead to the fear of death through poisoning."8
The "Soft Sell" in
Of course, American reformers did not generally openly advocate government by an elite, or press for the formation of a technocracy. Instead, they acclimated Americans to the idea in a more piecemeal fashion, and talked in terms of more congenial ideas. They spoke of leadership, of experts, of civil service, and of public administration. Americans were, and are, much devoted to things scientific, and it was convincing to appeal for experts and technicians in government affairs. Indeed, in the 1920′s, the introduction of such methods in government was often referred to as being businesslike.
The simplest illustration of the application of these ideas to government can be found at the local level of government. The city manager system was a direct outgrowth of the idea of having experts govern. The movement for city manager systems got underway in the early twentieth century, and was part of the general reform movement led by Progressives. The system is well described in the following words by an enthusiastic advocate:
… A small council is elected at large and chooses a city manager. It may dismiss him but may not control his acts. The manager appoints the necessary city officers and acts for the city in much the same way that the general manager would for an ordinary corporation. He is responsible only to the council manic directors…. The amateur administrator, chosen on political grounds, is displaced by the expert brought in from the outside to manage the city.
Politics is adjourned. At least this is the hope.’°
Without perceiving the irony of it, this writer says: "The return to simplicity is hopeful whatever may be its details. The earliest type of city government in the
City Planning Developed
A corollary movement was the city planning movement. The aim was centralized control of the development of cities and the drawing up and execution of master plans. One advocate stated the aims in this way:
In a big way, city planning is the first conscious recognition of the unity of society. It involves a socializing of art and beauty and the control of the unrestrained license of the individual. It enlarges the power of the State to include the things men own as well as the men themselves, and widens the idea of sovereignty so as to protect the community from him who abuses the rights of property….¹2
These wonders were to be achieved by expert planners:
City planning involves a new vision of the city. It means a city built by experts, by experts in architecture, in landscape gardening, in engineering, and housing; by students of health, sanitation, transportation, water, gas, and electricity supply; by a new type of municipal officials who visualize the complex life of a million people as the builders of an earlier age visualized an individual home.¹3
Extending the Pattern to the National Level
This vision was, of course, transplanted to the nation as a whole. The idea of governing by an elite of leaders and experts was transferred there also. The President has most often been conceived of as the leader. The constitutional role of the President is considerable, but the office has grown mightily in power and prestige in this century. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson contributed to its stature. Theorists have come forward, too, to proclaim the role of leadership inherent in the office.
The following, written in 1921, exemplifies the tenor of such thought:
Thus the President is the one official whose position marks him at the present time as the national leader. Any man, no matter how obscure he may be to-day, will on the morrow of his election to this high office step into the blinding radiance of universal scrutiny.
The writer continues:
The legal functions of the President’s office are so eminent that he cannot escape the responsibilities of executive action, however much he may be inclined to avoid them. His constitutional powers alone make him the pivot upon which all the administrative machinery operates. He appoints all the heads of departments and may direct their major policies. His power of appointment to all the greater offices is far-reaching. He can recommend, shape, and veto legislation…. In short, he is the most potent constitutional functionary in the world.14
All these constitutional powers have been vastly augmented by practice and custom. The President today can do innumerable things that George Washington or Thomas Jefferson would never have dared do even if they had thought of them. The constitutional conception of the President is that of a chief executive, an administrator; custom has added to this conception that of leadership, of initiation.¹5
Already, then, the idea of presidential leadership had taken shape, an idea which has been used to provide a head for the exercise of centralized authority.
Experts Turned Bureaucrats
The President was to be assisted, of course, by numerous scientists, social scientists, experts, and technologists. Charles A. Beard made what well may be the classical argument for the use of technologists in 1930. Arguing in the manner of the historicist, he maintained that conditions of life had changed in
Under the pressure of new forces, government itself has become an economic and technical business on a large scale. It comes into daily contact with all industries, sciences and arts. As a purchaser of goods…, operator of battleships, arsenals, canals and wireless stations…, regulator of railways, telegraph lines and other means of transportation and communication, it must command… competence equal to that of corporation managers….16
Thus, he concluded, "Few indeed are the duties of government in this age which can be discharged with a mere equipment of historic morals and common sense." 17
The matter is not one for despair, however. "Fortunately, in introducing these bewildering complexities into government, technology has brought with it a procedure helpful in solving the problems it has created: namely, the scientific method…. Though undoubtedly limited in its application, the scientific method promises to work a revolution in politics no less significant than that wrought in society at large by mechanics." ¹8 The mechanics of the scientific method in government would be, of course, experts turned bureaucrats.
We now have the key for solving the problems originally posed in this article. Namely, how could the Supreme Court make "democratic" decisions? How could proponents of democracy and equality promote a privileged position for the President? How could centralized government be advanced in the name of democracy? On the face of it, these are incongruities. An explanation has been made, however, and it remains only to sum it up. Democracy was transformed into an end. As an end, government was to act to realize it. All actions that have as their end the effecting of democracy are then democratic. Thus, however autocratic the exercise of authority by the Supreme Court, if it helps to realize an equality of condition, it is "democratic." The realization of "democracy” requires central direction; hence, a leader. The President is that leader in the
More broadly, "democracy" was instrumented for social reform. Indeed, social reform was justified because it was supposed to bring about democracy. Thus, men have yielded up the control of many of their affairs in the name of democracy. Local governments have lost many of their prerogatives in the name of democracy. An ubiquitous bureaucracy makes numerous rules and regulations affecting the lives and liberties of Americans. But it is staffed by a "democratic" elite.
The next article in this series will have to do with "Capturing the Hearts of Men."
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1 Quoted in Benjamin M. Ziegler, ed., Desegregation and the Supreme Court (
2 Ibid., p. 78.
3 A. D. Lindsay, The Modern Democratic State (London: Oxford University Press, 1943), p. 267.
4 John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), p. 101.
5 Ibid., p. 115.
6 T. V. Smith, The Democratic Tradition in
7 George L. Mosse, The Culture of
8 Ibid., p. 295.
9 Thorstein Veblen, The Engineers and the Price System (New York: Viking, 1921), p. 82.
¹º Lindsay Rogers, "Government by City Managers," World’s Work, XLIV (September, 1922), 519.
11 Ibid., p. 524.