This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Popular instincts prefer the inferior candidate

“While the natural instincts of democracy persuade the people to remove distinguished men from power, the latter are guided by no less an instinct to distance themselves from a political career, where it is so difficult for them to retain their complete autonomy or to make any progress without cheapening themselves.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

Perhaps the most profound thing we can take from this observation is its reference to the operation of instinct in democratic regimes. He does not simply suggest that instincts play a part, but that instinct plays the decisive part when it comes to both the selection and the appointment of statesmen. This alone is enough to condemn a regime—that it allows instinct to rule supreme. But what else could have been expected? We knew already that knowledge could not possibly be the determining factor, and so if not knowledge then something else. That something else is instinct, or emotion. Tocqueville follows by citing Chancellor Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, vol. I, p. 273:

It is probable, in fact, that the most appropriate men to fill these places would have too much reserve in the manners and too much severity in their principles ever to be able to gather the majority of votes at an election that rested on universal suffrage.

The end result is that a candidate must either actually be a man formed after the instincts of the mass, or he must be an intelligent and objective man who is willing to degrade himself in such a way that he appears to be so, and in appearing as such is able to win the majority. It is difficult to say which of these two we’d prefer, and it seems to boil down to the situation we find ourselves in at each modern election: a choice between two men of such poor quality that we do not vote for the good candidate but rather we inevitably end up voting against the one we perceive as more sinister or incompetent. And so, in many ways, we can understand Mencken’s frustrations as he prophesied the point of termination for this descending curve: government by morons. As Mencken put it:

Here is tragedy—and here is America. For the curse of the country, as well of all democracies, is precisely the fact that it treats its best men as enemies. The aim of our society, if it may be said to have an aim, is to iron them out. The ideal American, in the public sense, is a respectable vacuum.[2]

We may also turn here to the always reasonable Aldous Huxley, who reaches similar conclusions:

In the world of politics, the chances of getting imbecile leaders under an elective system could be considerably reduced by applying to politicians a few of those tests for intellectual, physical and moral fitness which we apply to the candidates for almost every other kind of job. Imagine the outcry if hotelkeepers were to engage servants without demanding a ‘character’ from their previous employers; or if sea-captains were chosen from homes for inebriates; or if railway companies entrusted their trains to locomotive engineers with arterio-sclerosis and prostrate trouble; or if civil servants were appointed and doctors allowed to practice without passing an examination! And yet, where the destinies of whole nations are at stake, we do not hesitate to entrust the direction affairs to men of notoriously bad character; to men sodden with alcohol; to men so old and infirm that they can’t do their work or even understand what it is about; to men without ability or even education.[3]

[1] Democracy in America, I.2.5.

[2] “More Tips for Novelists” in the Chicago Tribune (2 May 1926)

[3] — Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, Chatto and Windus (London), 1937, p. 174.

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