Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Universal Suffrage

During the first ages of modern democracies it was commonly held that electors ought to be a selected group. Sex, property, and education were the grounds on which their selection was effected. Gradually, property qualifications came to be considered iniquitous; literacy came to be taken for granted; the political equality of the sexes was proclaimed. Exceptions to the principle of universal suffrage, though still very numerous, have, in our time, the character of abnormalities, and they are procured in most cases by fraudulent means. The principle of universal suffrage has won an almost axiomatic position in the political conscience of peoples. Modern dictatorships do not even try to dispense with it; they rather keep it within the limits of a farcical procedure. This double-sided fact has a twofold signification. It means, for one thing, that universal suffrage cannot be suppressed without a risky struggle against the forces of history, and dictatorships are unwilling to take such a chance. It means, secondly and more importantly, that, taken by itself, universal suffrage does not constitute a sufficient guaranty of democratic freedom. More than once men determined to crush democracy understood that universal suffrage, under appropriate management, would be more of an ally than a threat. True, what they retained and used for their purposes was an ungenuine process; but it is of great relevance to notice that sometimes such ungenuine processes can be substituted for genuine ones with striking success. Even though an election or plebiscite is known to have been thoroughly engineered by the men in power, a magical prestige attaches to a high ratio of "Yeas." The enemies of democracy who boast of the popular support allegedly evidenced by such elections and plebiscites pay tribute to the persistence of faith in universal suffrage. What would they be bragging about, if universal suffrage were known to be sheer deception, as they used to say? It seems that the principle of universal suffrage must be numbered among those propositions which, at a given moment of history, have got hold of the human conscience and, from then on, never can be rejected, though they may call for reinterpretation.

The stubborn assertion of the principle of universal suffrage is the more remarkable, since it is made in the face of weighty objections. Good government is the work of excellent wisdom; it demands unusual virtue, intelligence, some education, a great deal of experience, and many other qualifications which cannot be expected to be possessed by any great number of men. Universal suffrage, by giving all a share in the control of the government, makes it mandatory for every man to become a statesman. No wonder if most find themselves in no position to discharge the responsibility laid upon them. The effect is the prevalence, in all parts of society, of the dispositions which are known to characterize the tyrannical ruler -- frivolity, arbitrariness, the blindness of passion. During the great crisis of democratic faith -- say, from the end of the first World War to the violent suppression of most European democracies by the Nazis -- a few schools of thought specialized in showing that every misfortune or catastrophe happening in public life was traceable to the basic corruption born of universal suffrage; the arguments were, seemingly, very logical; they were easy to shape and to follow, their influence was huge. As a matter of fact, not a few persons were surprised to notice that the suppression of democracy was not as much of a solution to the problem of evil as they had expected it to be.

Criticism of democracy in the twentieth century has been constantly carried out in a context of pessimistic expressions. This can be readily understood, since modern democratic thought, in its early phases, bound up its destiny with the then popular belief in the shallowness of evil, the goodness of nature, the inescapability of progress, and the imminent triumph of the rational order in society. "Democratic faith," an expression still much in use, conveys a feeling of nostalgia for the good old days. The optimistic vindication of universal suffrage never went into a complete silence. It may once again play a role of major importance, as a result of a needed reaction against the so-called "pessimism" of our time -- gruesome, atheistic, putrid, histrionic. This vindication admits of three forms -- statistical, sociological, and romantic -- which generally, though not necessarily, operate as components of a single influence.


The statistical form of democratic optimism generally uses a metaphysical springboard and an a priori argument. Man's nature is held to be good, and, from the goodness of human nature, it is inferred that evil is comparatively rare in human action. To intrust government to a small minority, e.g., a family, a caste, a gang, or a clique, is risky, for evil may have a selective affinity for this minority and saturate it, while remaining infrequent in mankind at large. To intrust government, or at least the control of the governing personnel, to the whole multitude of citizens is safe, because in a great multitude evil is unlikely to command a majority. Experience, so it seems, confirms this expectation; monstrous characters, as compared with decent people, are few, and if they are interested in politics they have little chance to have more than a small number of candidates elected. They may hold a few seats in parliament at the extremity of each wing, make a nuisance of themselves, and do some good occasionally, through criticisms that more moderate persons would hesitate to voice; so long as the great number run the elections, government will be in decent hands.

This argument is made of heterogeneous elements and calls for attentive analysis. Let it be granted that human nature (in spite of what we know, by revelation, about its early adventures) is basically good. (How could it not be? A nature cannot cease to be good without ceasing to be identical with itself.){6} Now, from the intrinsic goodness of human nature, nothing can be inferred concerning the relative frequency of good and evil in the use of human freedom. Ontological optimism does not entail moral optimism. It certainly does not entail moral pessimism either. It does not procure even a suspicion of what the ratio of good and evil in human action may be.

But, as soon as the content of human nature is philosophically considered, pessimism colors a priori expectations. The analysis of human powers reveals the condition of extreme insecurity which is that of rational life in man. A high ratio of failures is likely. The issue is to be settled by experience, but extreme care is needed in the phrasing of the question that experience is supposed to settle.

Although moral goodness and badness admit of innumerable degrees, the division of men into the morally good and the morally bad makes sense. It may be difficult to say who is a good man, just as it happens to be hard to say who is a good musician; but, just as it is possible to define the good musician and often to recognize him, so it is possible to define and often to recognize the good man, i.e., the man who is good not (or not only) as a flute-player or as a shoemaker, etc., but, absolutely speaking, as a man. The definition of the good man is frightfully exacting, for goodness implies achievement, accomplishment, completeness, totality, integrality, plenitude; goodness demands much -- in a way, it demands all -- but evil consists in privation and is completely brought into existence by any privation. Thus health implies the good functioning of all organs, but the malfunctioning of one organ suffices to cause disease and death. One single vice causes a man to be bad; a man is not good unless he possesses all the virtues. The answer of experience is unmistakable: the least that can be said is that we have no experience of a world in which the ethically good outnumber the ethically bad.

Not a few critics of democracy hold that such dark data entail the condemnation of universal suffrage. Granted that evil in human action occurs in a majority of cases, is it not clear that the wrong candidate will be elected? But if this argument were correct, the failures of popular choice would be characterized by impressive regularity, which is not the case. It does happen, not so rarely, that the candidate elected is precisely the better or the best. Considering, further, that among leaders appointed by nondemocratic methods the ratio of bad choices is never negligible and often frightful, it can safely be said that the frequency of bad choice by universal suffrage is far from equaling the ratio of ethically bad men among the voters.

Many would say that the contrast between the good man and the bad man, though relevant from the viewpoint of the moralist, means nothing to politics. True, civil government cannot afford to demand much along the line of ethical perfection; whenever it crusades indiscriminately, it destroys little evil and much good. Yet its ethical ambitions are great, its ethical dynamism is sublime, since it tends to promote total morality in all citizens, including generations of the remote future.{7} The notion of the ethically good man, with all its absoluteness, gives a sense to this movement and makes it intelligible. The contrast between the good man and the bad man is fundamental for the statesman as well as for the moralist; but from the standpoint of civil society it is supplemented -- I do not say superseded -- by the contrast between those men who are acutely antisocial and those men who are not. The latter section comprises, in addition to virtuous people, a great many ethically deficient persons. In other words, civil society, though concerned with the promotion of total morality, is very particularly interested in defense against crime. Above all, it is interested in keeping criminals away from governing positions. The danger is not purely theoretical; at all times the presence of murderers, perjurers, thieves, and sadists in governments has been very frequent. There is something slightly ironical about the worries of antidemocratic moralists, who are so much afraid that, for lack of enlightenment and virtue, universal suffrage may not intrust power to the most able and virtuous hands; for history shows how frequently the worst members of a community -- men guilty of crimes punishable by death -- attained positions of high leadership through such nondemocratic processes as birth, appointment by supposedly wise persons, intrigue, corruption, gang action, and civil war.

Although most men fall short of moral goodness, statistical data are rather comforting if reference is made to the dreadful dangers of criminals in power. In most societies criminals are but a minority; under most circumstances most people dislike the idea of being ruled by them. Ordinary people are not bad enough to judge that murderers, perjurers, etc., would be congenial rulers, or they do not have the kind of vice or neurosis that would make for such perverse judgment. Notice that totalitarian parties, even after having cultivated in the youth, over a period of many years, the determination to commit crime for the sake of the party, do not expose themselves to the hazards of genuine elections by universal suffrage. Their pedagogy works marvels when there is a question of training an elite of criminals. It does not do so well with the people at large. In order to win over the complicity of the masses, parties dedicated to crime need to use shrewd methods, paramount among which is the instrumentality of honorable men. Suppose that the extermination of a race is being contemplated. Not many constituencies would give majorities to candidates proposing abruptly to murder six or seven million persons never declared guilty by any court. During the early phases, in which elections are not yet entirely meaningless, the hope of the murderers rests upon the action of moderate and respectable men who never dreamed of sending any women or children to gas chambers but feel obligated to demand a quota for the Jews in a number of occupations, their complete exclusion from government positions, etc. A movement aimed at crime would have no success with the people if it were not started under virtuous auspices. With the help of honorable men, almost anything can happen. The determination of the people to keep criminals away from power does not work indefectibly. It is likely not to work when criminals have won the complicity of respectable men. It works in most cases. This is what is left of statistical optimism when its mythological foundations are dispensed with. Once more, keeping criminals away from power most of the time is not a negligible achievement, for history shows how often societies have fallen short of this modest blessing in the designation of their governing personnel.


Democratic optimism assumes a sociological form inasmuch as the identification of the voters with society is considered a ground for trust in universal suffrage. The underlying theory can be analyzed into two main parts. First, it is held that a multitude, acting in its own capacity as a multitude, possesses powers of perception and righteous direction that no individual can possess. Then emphasis is laid upon the consideration that only in universal suffrage are leaders selected by the whole of society. In hereditary government they are designated not by society but by the physical accident of birth, in restricted vote by particular individuals who may not be, by any means, identifiable with society; only in universal suffrage does society designate its leaders.

Here, as in the case of statistical optimism, an element of mythological belief threatens to conceal or distort an important truth. Erecting society into a deity, supreme and incorruptible, is a universally human practice which admits of an astonishing variety of forms. This product of the mythopoetic faculty is most recognizable in historical narratives of the romantic period where the People (always capitalized) appears at the proper time to straighten things out and put mankind back on the track of progress. It is not so clearly recognizable, but it is no less real, when the Absolute Spirit (in the sense of Hegel) with which society is identified finds a hiding place in a perfectly positivistic system of expression.{8} According to some modern schools of positivism, a judgment that fails to win general assent cannot be held true, nor can a judgment which does win consensus be held untrue. This sociological notion of truth is commonly interpreted in a purely pragmatic or utilitarian sense, as meaning that the human intellect is but a biological instrument, successful when it procures adaptation to environment, unsuccessful when it does not. Yet, beyond utilitarian attitudes, it is easy to recognize the powerful appeal of a philosophy which places in society and its legally constituted organs of expression the supreme authority in matters of truth as well as in matters of justice. Anxieties caused by the defectibility of the individual mind cease to be intolerably hard if it is always possible, ultimately, to transcend them by sharing in the social life of the intellect, mysteriously identified with the self-revelation of the Absolute Spirit.

In all its forms the deification of society is a metaphysical operation. No wonder that it haunts positivistic systems -- these are desirable places of safety, for, as soon as the metaphysical character of this operation is exposed, its weakness is obvious. Remove the screens erected by positivistic terminology, and it is clear that human societies, as well as human individuals, belong to the world of contingency which is ours, and that their judgments are subject to error. The great hope of early positivism, viz., that secular society would take over the part which used to be that of the church, has never died out; it is no longer voiced in dogmatic language; it is safely protected by a pragmatic and sociological reinterpretation of truth.

Assuming that the metaphysical situation is cleared up, the next task is to ascertain the power of society with regard to the kind of questions submitted to universal vote. Some questions are such that an individual is in a better position than a group to solve them, and others are better solved by a group than by an individual. At the extreme point of practical thought, i.e., in immediate contact with action, the judgment of one is, all other things being equal, better than that of many. At the extreme opposite, i.e., in the earliest phases of preparation for action, the co-operation of many is most obviously needed.{9} Deliberation and execution are the best available expressions to designate these contrasting phases of practical thought. Such contrast admits of a large amount of relativity, for it is often possible to distinguish, within a single phase, prior steps of deliberation and posterior steps of execution. With due allowance for this relativity, let it be said that in the phase of execution, considered as such, the intervention of many is unwanted; but in the phase of deliberation the multitude enjoys distinguished power. Let a line terminated on the right-hand side by an arrow symbolize the movement of practical thought, from the earliest phase of deliberation to the last executive proposition. The farther to the left an operation takes place, the more indicated it is that it should be performed by many. The farther to the right it takes place, the more indicated it is that it should be performed by few or by one. Most constitutions give the power of making laws to large assemblies but give that of issuing decrees to a small group or to one person; this is perfectly intelligible, since a law has the character of a premise rather than that of a conclusion, whereas a decree has the character of a conclusion rather than that of a premise.

Consider, now, the questions submitted to universal vote in common democratic practice; they all seem to belong, though in varying degree, to what can be called the "phase of deliberation." Roughly, the functions of universal suffrage comprise (1) the election of executive officers, (2) the election of assemblies whose main duties are (a) to make laws and (b) to control the executive power. Of these operations, the closest to execution is the election of executive officers; yet it retains the character of a step prior to execution. The closest to the first principles of deliberation is the election of legislators; being a step prior to the making of laws, it is a step prior to a step still concerned with the premises of practical reasoning. In fact, the election of legislators is, of all political functions, the last to be taken away from the people. Dictators hesitate to confiscate it openly, for it requires too obviously the kind of contribution that a multitude alone can give.

That the multitude in charge of selecting the governing personnel should comprise all citizens follows from the nature of political society. Other societies are built on the basis of exclusive membership; not so the state, which is, by essence, the concern of all. Let it be granted, however, that under certain circumstances the genuine life of the city is better expressed by restricted than by universal vote -- this happens as a result of such abnormalities as widespread ignorance, dictatorial power wielded over the masses by local chieftains, etc. Such situations are not so rare in our time: in the history of mankind considered as a whole their frequency is such as to conceal their purely accidental character.

To sum up: the sociological component of democratic optimism expresses truth, inasmuch as it asserts that the designation of political leaders normally belongs not to any individual person but to society. Again it expresses truth, inasmuch as it asserts that the participation of all in political elections is a normal condition for the integrally political character of elections. The qualification needed concerns situations in which the suffrage of all is, by accident, incapable of exercising its normal function as expression of the entire life of the community.

Assuming that a given situation comprises no particular obstacle to selection by universal vote, two conditions still have to be satisfied for the sociological character of this procedure to operate as a guaranty of service to the public welfare.

1. A multiplicity of individual acts does not necessarily add up to a social act. The act of casting a ballot can be repeated by many without the electoral result having the character of an effect traceable to the distinct reality and causality of the social whole as such. Many individual acts of voting constitute parts of a social fact, but the spiritual link, to be supplied by community life, may be missing. It would be of great interest and utility to investigate the circumstances and factors which cause an election to fall short of the social character needed for its full meaning. Roughly, whenever the maturation of the elector has taken place in individualistic isolation, the election is likely to be a multiplicity of individual acts rather than a social act. A society in which there is little traditional life, where young people are brought up in ignorance of their country's history, where local communities -- those which are in immediate contact with personal life -- have little influence on the shaping of character, where most human relations are controlled by economic self-interest, lacks, on election day, the guaranty that social causality may provide. The electoral result is not bound to be disastrous, but it is only by sheer luck that it happens to serve the common welfare, for, according to the nature of things and under normal circumstances, electing leaders is an act of common life.

2. Further, some collective or social processes are of such nature that their influence on an election would be detrimental or disastrous. Such are all sorts of mob phenomena. An election determined by collective hysteria is certainly a sociological result, an effect of collective life; yet it has little chance of being a wise election. A mob can be heroic, and there are moments of history in which what is needed is the heroism of the mob; but the thing that mobs cannot produce except by very rare accident is wisdom, and wisdom is what is principally needed for good elections. As the principal mob processes capable of having an impact on elections, let us mention fear, hatred, and enthusiasm. Elections are not indicated when such feelings are intense in the people. An election may be the work of social insanity -- for there is such a thing -- rather than that of social wisdom. Here is the weak point of sociological optimism: electors can be turned into a mob, and a mob can elect a Führer.


For lack of a better expression, we call the romantic component of democratic optimism the view that the more primitive part of society, which is also the larger, possesses, by virtue of its very primitiveness, some sort of superior wisdom. As is known, this view plays an important part in Rousseau, in the ideology on which the French Revolution throve, and in the Romantic movement in general. Accustomed as we are to scoff at romantic attitudes, we are not much aware of the operation of romantic primitivism in our own conceptions. Yet few men, today as well as in earlier ages, are entirely free from the postulation that soundness and virtue are principally found where the native hue of resolution is least sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. Think of our reactions to the calamities of the last decade; our burden would have been too heavy had we not assumed, though perhaps silently, that the great monstrosities that we were witnessing were entirely traceable to distinguished men and that underneath corrupt aristocrats, debased intellectuals, pitiable victims of illusory virtues, robber-barons, plebeians-in-chief, etc., there remained the good people, misled into crime but free from criminal dispositions and invulnerable to the diabolic pedagogy of its masters. Who has never dreamed of the forces of evil being definitively curbed by the liquidation of some upper class, and of the liberation of the treasures of humanity -- kindness, sound instincts, etc. -- contained in the thick mass of the unsophisticated people? Such views are common among revolutionists and not foreign to conservatives: witness the willingness of the latter, in our time, to believe that the Russian people, in spite of thirty-three years of Bolshevik pedagogy, have retained all the virtues, including religion, that they are supposed to have traditionally possessed.

The legacy of the eighteenth century, in this connection, is ambiguous: one tradition depicts the ignorant barbarian as kindhearted and generous; another holds that good manners, the exacting laws of civilized conversation, the development of aesthetic taste, love for poetry and music produce abhorrence for the sight of human blood and an exquisite sensitiveness which renders crime repugnant and in the long run should make it impossible.

One thing can be held, at once, for certain: either of these views is unwarranted and misleading if it is asserted on principle and in systematic fashion. Not experience but our wish prompts us to assign either part of society as the main dwelling place of evil. True, realizing the presence of evil and its magnitude in our immediate neighborhood and in our own heart is often too much for our nerves; so we relegate evil, or the major part of it, into the social section that we suppose to be farthest away from our own selves. Let such wishful thinking be brushed aside and our minds be open to the full reality of the bad inclinations which are or may be particularly frequent in any part of society. The whole question is whether there attaches to primitiveness or, more precisely, to the kind of primitiveness found in the so-called "lower classes" of our societies any positive quality which may act, through universal suffrage, for the public welfare. The question is obscure, and it is not certain that questions of that kind admit of perfectly definite answers.

The great calamities of the twentieth century gave the few moralists who care for such interesting topics many opportunities to verify the old, but never popular, remark that men of refined culture are capable of distinguished cruelty. It would be arbitrary to suppose that the cruelty of the cultured person is worse than that of the barbarian, but it seems that the cultured person has his own way of being inhuman. The relevant thing would be to identify the distinct kind of inhumanity which seems to be conditioned by culture. As a first step toward such identification, let it be remarked that cultural refinement often favors the construction of patterns greatly at variance with existing reality and a feeling that these patterns ought to be realized regardless of the destruction that their realization may imply. Jointly, cultural refinement tends to dull emotions related to the preservation of existence. Anybody can dream of a utopian world, but intellectuals are particularly well prepared to envisage, in practical fashion, the sharp conflict with the forces of history, the awe-inspiring mutilations that have to be consented to if utopia ever is to assume real existence. The sentiment of awe is inseparable from a sense of mystery; but sophistication often suppresses the feeling that things are mysterious. Awe dries up and is replaced by eagerness to experience in the real world those things which were contemplated in the light air of rational speculation. A new sense for the absolute develops, but its object is man-made. Among the things to be crushed, the first is pity.

When idealistic absolutism combines with faith in a dogma, it is called "fanaticism." Not so long ago, say, until about the beginning of this century, it was rather commonly believed that fanaticism was what causes man to feel ruthless toward his fellow-men; it was hoped, accordingly, that the end of dogmas would be a decisive step in the conquest of cruelty. Agnosticism was considered the essence of humanitarianism. This is one of the ideological constructs which were dealt fatal blows by the two world wars and by the revolutions and repressions of our century. In times of social and political convulsions, a skeptical thinker, an agnostic intellectual, may reveal that his sense for the absolute, diverted from being by idealism, rendered acute by culture, and frustrated by doubt, has grown into a destructive frenzy.

Such perversions are unlikely to develop in people whose minds cannot afford to wander away from the real. A worker entertains such a relation to nature that all cheating in his calculations is inescapably punished by the operation of natural energies. Workers are possessed of occupational guaranties of loyalty to the real; for intellectuals, on the other hand, corruption by the ideal is an occupational risk. It may be illegitimate to assert anything over and above these propositions indicative of general tendencies. Should it be inferred that the influence of working people, who compose the majority in most elections, definitely favors the respect of human substance in government practices? It would probably be more accurate to say that their influence contributes to holding in check, when needed, the sort of destructiveness proper to the intelligentsia. Let there be no question of underrating the importance of this contribution; yet we are far from the romantic picture of the low strata of society as an inexhaustible storehouse of brotherly love. If other aspects of the people's primitiveness were analyzed, conclusions would not be more definite. Suppose that, instead of contrasting the refined culture of the upper class -- or of part of it -- with the lack of refinement in the great number, we should contrast the effects of poverty on the great number with those of wealth on the happy few. Since wealth is known to bring about corruption, it would be pleasant to imagine that wherever poverty prevails the mores are pure; but we know that this is not true. It can be safely said that the influence of the poor is likely to oppose the particular kind of corruption which thrives on wealth; such a conclusion is not devoid of significance, but it is devoid of glamour.

Thus in each component of democratic optimism we found a glamorous element of myth and a significant, though modest, element of truth. Modern criticism has exploded the myths, and in the resulting confusion the elements of truth have been lost sight of. Contrary to a common opinion, democracy does not necessarily require an optimistic vision of man; but it certainly requires the understanding of those genuine insights which combined with myths in the historical accident describable as democratic optimism. Enemies of democracy are greatly interested in maintaining the belief that nothing remains alive underneath the wreckage of the myths.

Strikingly, the criticism of democratic optimism, in spite of the pessimistic language in which it is couched, is often associated with a naively optimistic disposition. In social mythology the cheerful picture of the virtuous people is balanced by the description of the propertied class as an elite dedicated to lofty pursuits -- above all, to the disinterested service of society. In this connection, also, the catastrophes of the twentieth century have proved instructive. They have taught us a great deal about the weak points of the upper class: the lack of realism, the hedonistic isolation from common suffering and common anxiety, the lack of a sense of history and the meaning of the present, frivolity and conceit, a readiness to make alliances with the worst elements of the rabble. Germany was delivered to Hitler by Franz von Papen -- this will not be effaced from the pages of history. Most shocking of all was the realization that men describable as virtuous could become the accomplices of atrocious crimes in such a cloud of confusion that nobody knew -- not even those involved -- whether they were victims of monstrous illusions or had actually surrendered to evil. Together with a few progressive myths, this essentially conservative myth of the upper class has been disposed of by horrid experience.

And yet it is true that in a group describable as the upper part of society a comparatively high rate of excellence is found. Society endeavors to place able persons in leading positions; it does not always fail; in so far as its effort is not frustrated, the frequency of merit is greater in the upper class than elsewhere. Society is entitled to expect particular service of this section of its membership where the ratio of excellence is particularly high. By giving each citizen equal power in the decisive act of selecting the governing personnel, democracy seems to deprive excellence of the weight that it should possess in order for society to be properly served by its best members. Regardless of their good will and desire to serve, men of skill and men of wisdom are restricted by the equalitarian law which, on election day, holds their ballot equal to that of any person not legally declared insane or criminal.

For the sake of thoroughness, we propose to disregard the shortcomings of the upper class and to keep in mind its aspects of excellence alone. The reasoning just summed up involves the postulation that excellent persons are deprived of all distinguished influence by the sheer fact that, at the ballot boxes, they do not enjoy any distinction. This postulation is often unexpressed, perhaps for significant reasons.

Now the experience of modern democracy makes it abundantly clear that various kinds of excellent people, though curbed by an equalitarian rule on election day, possess distinguished means of influence. Of all excellences, the one which succeeds best, or at least most obviously, in holding in check the equalitarianism of universal vote is property. Wealthy citizens, even though they be not members of assemblies, possess, by the very fact of their wealth, such power that authorities often have a hard time keeping them under control.

What holds notoriously for wealth holds less conspicuously and perhaps less regularly for other sorts of excellence. Geniuses, in our time more than ever, wield considerable power without having to go through the technicality of election. Men of knowledge do not constitute an aristocratic body legally possessed of privileges; but, as experts and technicians, they hold key positions from which they often exercise secretly a sort of dictatorship. If their idealism and ambitions were not curbed by the nonexperts that universal suffrage designates, human substance would soon be subjected to the most daring experiments.

But what about the man whose distinction is neither money nor expertness but virtue? He possesses an unusual amount of what is most needed for good leadership and for the selection of good leaders. Is he given a chance to render excellent service?

Let it be noticed, first, that some forms of virtue do not constitute a particular qualification for political leadership and do not even provide any particular ability to choose political leaders. Genuine virtue necessarily contains the root of political wisdom, but, for lack of appropriate circumstances, political wisdom very often fails to develop out of genuine virtue. In these cases it is simply not desirable that the virtuous person should be given distinguished means of political influence. His very virtue inspires him with a desire to remain average as a citizen. When, on the other hand, virtue is of such character as to constitute a title to a distinguished role in the city, two cases are to be considered. Either the virtuous person is actually in a prominent position, or he is not. If he is not, no conceivable system of government has any definite method for the enhancement of his influence. The significant problem concerns the person who, as an effect of his virtue, actually occupies a prominent position. Examples would be: high positions in business, in industry, in public administration, in the medical profession, etc., not infrequently reward skill associated with such ethical dispositions as integrity, loyalty, temperance, devotion to the public welfare, sense of duty, or sense of mission. In this gathering of distinguished citizens, political virtue reaches a high degree of concentration. Universal suffrage gives each of them a power equal to that of anyone, which looks like a harmful waste. But, in the case of recognized virtue as well as in the cases of property and skill, excellence possesses distinguished power independently of electoral results. By hypothesis, we are concerned with men whose moral qualities have already been given social recognition. They were promoted to high positions. They already possess unusual means of influence. Men of excellent moral character do not indispensably need to be given special treatment on election day. If only their virtue is socially recognized, they already have a distinguished opportunity to serve; and if their virtue is not recognized, nothing can be done.

It thus seems that conservative worries about the waste caused by the equalitarian rule of universal suffrage are excessive. Should it be recalled that any voting procedure treats equajly men who are inevitably unequal? Imagine a carefully selected and highly exclusive body of electors, such as can be found in aristocracies. These men are generally appointed for life. Almost inevitably, some are too old to enjoy the fulness of their mental powers. On the other hand, there is no reason why there should not be a genius among them. Thus equal votes will be given to men ranging all the way down from genius to feeble-mindedness. But here, as well as in democratic organizations, inequalities which do not find expression at the ballots find expression elsewhere.


It is commonly objected that universal suffrage establishes the dictatorship of a power blind and deaf, devoid of intelligence and morality, material and nonqualitative in character, viz., the power of numbers. True, from the fact that the electoral result is expressed by figures it cannot be inferred that qualities had nothing to do with its determination. Democracy is said not to work satisfactorily unless it actually promotes the soundest trends existing in society. If the people's control through election fails to let qualities play the leading part, the conclusion to be drawn is that the society under consideration is not fit for democratic government (which does not necessarily mean that another kind of government would do much better).

The power given to the great number is itself, under normal circumstances, a qualitative disposition of the first importance. It means that men devoid of the qualities sanctioned by definite social distinction will not be constitutionally helpless. The common man has neither the distinction of property nor that of expertness nor any of the distinctions on the ground of which a person belongs to the upper class; he will be crushed unless the constitution of society attaches some power to the only distinction that he certainly possesses, viz., that of having numbers on his side.

At the beginning of this century some interpreters of the revolutionary labor movement went over to the theory that political democracy is a treacherous instrument of bourgeois domination, skilfully calculated to give the working class an illusion of power and to dissolve its action into such fake procedures as campaigning and electioneering, which inescapably result in a parliamentary majority sold to the interests of capitalism. According to this school of thought, the labor movement should keep away from political democracy and rely merely on the action of its autonomous organizations. A paradoxical intensity of determination was attained when some particularly radical syndicalists made alliances, against democracy, with extreme conservatives.

These experiments took place at a time when democracy was not seriously threatened. One thing that modern dictatorships made unmistakable is this: when the liberties of labor organizations are not protected by political democracy, they are soon suppressed. There is no question, for the working man, of choosing between the autonomous action of labor and political democracy, for, without the latter, the former is jeopardized. Unless competing parties are interested in winning the vote of labor, unions will soon disappear into some monopolistic organization controlled in all significant respects by whatever class or party controls the state.


To conclude: we did find an element of truth in each of the components of democratic optimism. But the decisive argument in favor of universal suffrage, viz., the need for a distribution of power to those who enjoy no distinction apart from their having numbers on their side, is related to pessimism. Experience shows that the operation of elites is not reassuring for those who happen not to be included in any recognized elite. Even if it were possible to designate infallibly, through a process which would have to be magical, men perfectly qualified for government, it would still be a good precaution to erect, in front of such a chosen few, as a check and a complement, the power of numbers. An elite, even if we suppose it to be genuine, can hardly escape the all too human temptation to think in terms of the elite and to ignore the problems of the many. It was noted, at the beginning of this discussion, that the principle of universal suffrage seems to have been definitively incorporated into the political conscience of modern societies. This happened in the midst of vociferous and scornful opposition, armed with never negligible objections. What is it that ultimately assured the victory of universal suffrage, if not in institutional practice, at least in the political and legal conscience? Beyond doubt, it was principally the realization that the great number of men are too much at a disadvantage unless there is a specific allocation of power to the many. There was a time when it was possible to believe that the destiny of the common man was safely intrusted to the wisdom of the upper class. That time is gone, apparently, forever.

{6} Thomas Aquinas On Evil 16. 2; Sum. theol. i-ii. 85. 1 (Whether sin diminishes the good of nature?), trans. A. C. Pegis: "The good of nature is threefold. First, there are the principles of which nature is constituted, and the properties that flow from them, such as the powers of the soul, and so forth. Secondly, since man has from nature an inclination to virtue, as was stated above, this inclination to virtue is a good of nature. Thirdly, the gift of original justice, conferred on the whole human nature in the first man, may be called a good of nature.

"Accordingly, the first-mentioned good of nature is neither destroyed nor diminished by sin. The third good of nature was entirely destroyed through the sin of our first parent. But the second good of nature, viz., the natural inclination to virtue, is diminished by sin."

{7} Aristotle Ethics 5. 2. 22, trans. W. D. Ross: ". . . for practically the majority of the acts commanded by the law are those which are prescribed from the point of view of virtsje taken as a whole; for the law bids us practice every virtue and forbids us to practice any vice." Thomas Aquinas Sum. theol. i-ii. 92. 1, 3, trans. A. C. Pegis: ". . . all the objects of the virtues can be referred either to the private good of an individual or to the common good of the multitude. . . . But law, as was stated above, is ordained to the common good. Therefore, there is no virtue whose acts cannot be prescribed by the law. Nevertheless, human law does not prescribe concerning all the acts of every virtue, but only in regard to those that are ordainable to the common good."

{8} On this see the criticism of Durkheim by Georges Gurvitch, Essais de sociologie (Paris: Librarie du Recueil Sirey, 1938), pp. 115-69, esp. p. 165: "La theorie de la conscience collective de Durkheim vient ici directement rejoindre la religion du 'Grand Être de l'Humanité' d'Auguste Comte et la théorie de l'Esprit absolu se réalisant dans l'Esprit objectif de Hegel."

{9} On the faculties of the multitude the basic document is Pol. 3. 11.

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