L.THE IBERALS ARE to be lazy when thinking of the crowd. They celebrated the “power of the people” when it threatened regimes they disapproved of, say, the Middle East, turning a blind eye to the excesses of protesters who they believe are on the right side of history – in Portland, Oregon, because example. In August 2020, the main publishing house Public Affairs released “In Defense of Marauding: A Great History of Non-Civil Action” by Vicky Osterweil.
The invasion of the Capitol of America by a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump on January 6 was a reminder of the dangers of playing with fire. It is naive to assume that crowds will be limited to the “pleasant” side of the political spectrum; the left species by its very nature begets the right. It is doubly naive to expect mobs to set limits; it is in their nature out of control.
Political philosophers have expressed these points for more than 2,000 years. Modern theorists do not tire of warning that the “multi-headed monster”, if there is a chance, will trample the established order. Even liberal thinkers worried that democracy could lead to “mabocracy.” They argued that the will of the people should be restrained by a combination of constitutional confusion (individual rights, checks and balances) and civic culture. Wiser ones added that the disintegration of such restrictions could turn democracy into crowd control.
The first major work of political philosophy, Plato’s Republic, was, in part, a reflection on the evil of crowd domination. Plato saw democracy as little other than governing the crowd under another name — perhaps without violence, at least at first, but with the same lack of control over impulses. He compared the citizens of democracies to buyers who see a “colorful coat” on the market and buy it only to find that it falls apart if it is worn several times. He noted that democratic countries are strictly checking the borders.
Plato also argued that democracies inevitably turn into anarchy, as the poor rob the rich and debauchery leads to bankruptcy. Anarchy leads to the domination of tyrants: a bully can turn to the worst instincts of the crowd precisely because they are controlled by his own worst instincts. He is like a crowd in the form of one man. For Plato, the only viable alternative to crowd management was the management of the caste of guardians: kings-philosophers from childhood learned to control their emotions and put wisdom above instincts.
Aristotle, a great disciple of Plato, distinguished three legitimate forms of government: kingdom, aristocracy and democracy. He argued that each has its own dark shadows: tyranny, oligarchy and crowd power. He then outlined the ways in which these virtuous forms of government turn into their opposite: democracy becomes the power of the crowd when the rich possess the wealth of society. A more practical thinker than Plato, Aristotle argued that there are two ways to prevent the rebirth of democracy into mabocracy: to mix elements of kingdom and aristocracy to restrain the will of the people; and create a large middle class with a focus on stability.
In the following centuries there were only a few innovations in crowd thinking. Machiavelli suggested that intelligent princes could profit from chaos if they could transform the crowd into a ram against the crumbling regime. Mostly elites were content with demonization. They came up with a lot of scary names for people – “beast with many heads”, “pig crowd” and mobile vulgus, or the changing crowd that gave rise to the term “crowd”. They also invented cynical ways to distract his anarchic energy, primarily Roman bread and the circus. But that changed with the French and American revolutions, which were based on contrasting approaches to crowd management.
At first, many noted the “people’s power” of the French Revolution. In response to the hustle and bustle, Wordsworth wrote, “At that dawn, being alive was happiness / But being young was very heavenly!” But many changed their minds when they discovered that a revolution far from liberating man’s natural goodness had freed his inner demons. Those who held on to the revolution, despite the guillotine and terror, did so for two reasons: that the old regime was responsible for the violence because it spawned so much restrained hatred; and that you cannot improve the world without bloodshed. Tom Payne, a British radical, remained a true believer, despite the fact that he was imprisoned for ten months during the terror and was saved only by life, because the chalk, which indicates that he should be punished, was put on the wrong door .
The French Revolution also provoked harsh conservative criticism of the mob rule, first in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, published before the worst of terror, and then in a series of works. Burke acknowledged that the crowd has a collective psychology that makes it extremely dangerous. It is “a terrible mixture of all conditions, languages and nations.” He loves the wild remnant – “horrible cries”, “shrill cries” and “unspeakable abominations of the fury of hell.” He is so obsessed with his own righteous bloodthirstiness that even usually decent people can turn into monsters. He predicted that the revolution would end with the massacre of thousands of people (including the king, queen and priests) and the arrival of a dictator who could restore law and order. The cycle of mass protests followed by violence and dictatorship set the pattern for subsequent revolutions in Russia (1917), Cuba (1958) and elsewhere.
The American Revolution succeeded where the French Revolution and its descendants failed because it was based on a perceived fear of “the confusion and intemperance of the crowd.” “Federalist № 55”, written by James Madison or Alexander Hamilton, is particularly sharp in that ill-conceived institutions can turn even prudent citizens into a cursing crowd: “If every Athenian citizen were a Socrates, every Athenian congregation would still be a crowd ».
The founding fathers argued that democracy could avoid becoming a mabocracy only if it was protected by a number of restrictions on control over the power of the people. Power was divided between branches of government to make sure no one owned too much. Citizens were given broad constitutional rights. The senators were given a six-year term to isolate them from the quirks. They were also originally appointed by state legislatures, not directly elected. Judges of the Supreme Court were appointed for life so that they would not be removed from other branches.
Alexis de Tocqueville added to Democracy in America his own concerns about crowd domination. For him, the constitution alone is not strong enough to save democracy from the crowd. Also needed is a vibrant civic culture rooted in self-governing communities (he was particularly interested in New England towns), as well as an independent and educated population. So is the responsible elite, which recognizes that its first duty is to “educate democracy.”
March of Democracy
In the 19th century, the world’s ruling elites came to terms with the fact that democracy was the wave of the future. How you coped with this wave largely depended on your attitude towards the crowd. Optimists believed that expanding the franchise was not only right, but also a way to tame the crowd. Benjamin Disraeli believed that voting would help assimilate people: as property makes people more sober, so the exercise of democratic rights makes them responsible citizens.
Pessimists believed the delay was the best way to prevent the crowd. Most members of the British ruling class advocated the introduction of democracy at certain stages because they drew a sharp distinction between respectable middle and upper working classes who would vote responsibly because they owned property and disrespectful classes who, like the poor, were, in their view, alcoholic and lewd. J. S. Mill advocated a “variable franchise”: “one person at least one vote and up to three or four votes, depending on education.” Walter Badjhot, editor The Economist from 1861 to 1877, and a man obsessed with the disruption of public order added a new solution: to use the monarchy as a theater that would both entertain the masses and distract them from the real rulers.
Such pessimism is long gone. World War II and the defeat of Nazism led to an era of democratic self-confidence, and the fall of the Berlin Wall to democratic euphoria. But some pessimists have continued to warn that democracy could well grow into a mob if they neglect the health of their political institutions and civic culture. Seymour Martin Lipset, an American sociologist, echoed Aristotle’s view that a healthy democracy requires broad prosperity. Harvey Mansfield, a political philosopher, reiterated Tocqueville’s concern that civil decay could ruin democracy. Samuel Huntington warned that “democratic overload” with too many interest groups demanding too much from the state will lead to democratic frustration as the state does not keep its promises, which are constantly escalating.
In recent years, pessimists have become more. The experience of countries such as Egypt during the Arab Spring has confirmed warnings that without strong institutions, democracy will succumb to the rule of the crowd. Mr Trump’s election is a reality –TV star, raised deep questions about the health of America’s political regime. Can democracy survive if TV channels make billions of dollars by spreading misinformation and partisanship? Or if rich people can invest huge sums of money in the political process? Or if society is polarized into a superclass and a demoralized proletariat? Recent events suggest that the answer is no.
The era of democratic naivety died on January 6. The time has come for an era of democratic sophistication. Democracy can be the best defense against the rule of the crowd, as liberal democrats have preached for centuries. But they can only be successful if countries make the necessary efforts to foster democratic institutions: protecting against too much inequality, providing voters with access to objective information, restraining money in politics, and strengthening checks and balances. Otherwise, the rule of the people will indeed become the domination of the crowd, and the stable democratic order that flourished after World War II will look like a brief historical curiosity. ■