The Wire-puller

Sir Henry Sumner Maine on the locus of power in democracies:

Political liberty, said Hobbes, is political power. When a man burns to be free, he is not longing for the “desolate freedom of the wild ass”; what he wants is a share of political government. But, in wide democracies, political power is minced into morsels, and each man’s share of it is almost infinitesimally small. One of the first results of this political comminution is described by Mr. Justice [Sir James] Stephen … it is that two of the historical watchwords of Democracy exclude one another, and that, where there is political Liberty, there can be no Equality.

The man who can sweep the greatest number of fragments of political power into one heap will govern the rest. The strongest man in one form or another will always rule. If the government is a military one, the qualities which make a man a great soldier will make him a ruler. If the government is a monarchy, the qualities which kings value in counsellors, in administrators, in generals, will give power. In a pure democracy, the ruling men will be the Wire-pullers and their friends, but they will be no more on an equality with the people than soldiers or ministers of State are on an equality with the subjects of a Monarchy. … In some ages, a powerful character, in others cunning, in others a good hold upon commonplaces and a facility in applying them to practical purposes, will enable a man to climb on his neighbor’s shoulders and direct him this way or that; but under all circumstances the rank and file are directed by leaders of one kind or another who get the command of their collective force.

There is no doubt that, in popular governments resting on a wide suffrage, either without an army or having little reason to fear it, the leader, whether or not he be cunning, or eloquent, or well-provided with commonplaces, will be the Wire-puller. The process of cutting up political power into petty fragments has in him its most remarkable product. In England, they would be largely sold, if the law permitted it; and in the United States they are extensively sold in spite of the law; and in France, and to a less extent in England, the number of “abstentions” shows the small value attributed to votes. But the political chiffonier who collects and utilizes the fragments is the Wire-puller.

… The Wire-puller is not intelligible unless we take into account one of the strongest forces acting on human nature: Party feeling. Party feeling is probably far more a survival of the primitive combativeness of mankind than a consequence of conscious intellectual differences between man and man. It is essentially the same sentiment which in certain states of society leads to civil, tribal, or international war; and it is as universal as humanity…. Party differences, properly so called, are supposed to be intellectual, moral, or historical preferences, but these go a very little way down into the population, and by the bulk of partisans they are hardly understood and soon forgotten. “Guelf” and “Ghibelline” had once a meaning, but men were under perpetual banishment from their native land for belonging to one or another of these parties long after nobody knew in what the difference consisted. Some men are Tories or Whigs by conviction; but thousands upon thousands of electors vote simply for yellow, blue, or purple, caught at most by the appeals of some popular orator.

It is through this great natural tendency to take sides that the Wire-puller works. Without it he would be powerless. His business is to fan its flame;to keep it constantly acting upon the man who has once declared himself a partisan; to make escape from it difficult and distasteful. His art is that of the Nonconformist preacher, who gave importance to a body of commonplace religionists by persuading them to wear a uniform and take a military title;or of the man who made the success of a Temperance Society by prevailing on its members to wear always and openly a blue ribbon. In the long run, these contrivances, cannot be confined only to one party, and their effects on all parties and their leaders, and on the whole ruling democracy, must be in the highest degree serious and lasting.

The first of these effects will be, I think, to make all parties very like one another, and indeed in the end almost indistinguishable, however leaders may quarrell and partisan hate partisan.

In the next place, each party will probably become more and more homogeneous; and the opinion it professes, and the policy which is the outcome of those opinions, will less and less reflect the individual mind of any leader, but only the ideas which seem to that mind to be most likely to win favour with the greatest number of supporters.

Lastly, the wire-pulling system, when fully developed, will infallibly lead to the constant enlargement of the area of suffrage. What is called universal suffrage has greatly declined in the estimation, not only of philosophers who follow Bentham, but of the a priori theorists who assumed that it was the inseparable accompaniment of a Republic, but who found that in practice it was the natural basis of a tyranny. But extensions of the suffrage, though no longer believed to be good in themselves, have now a permanent place in the armoury of parties, and are sure to be a favorite weapon of the Wire-puller.

… It is perhaps hoped that this … may be neutralized by ascendancy of instructed leaders. Possibly the proposition would not be very unsafe, that he who calls himself a friend of democracy because he believes that it will always be under wise guidance is in reality, whether he knows it or not, an enemy of democracy. But at all events the signs of our times are not at all of favourable augury for the future direction of great multitudes by statesmen wiser than themselves. … The leaders may be as able and eloquent as ever, and some of them certainly seem to have an unprecedentedly “good hold upon commonplaces, and a facility in applying them”; but they are manifestly listening nervously at one end of a speaking-tube which receives at its other end the suggestions of a lower intelligence.

Popular Government, 1885.

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  1. Damn! My computer crashed some weeks ago and I am still trying to remember all my ‘Favourites’. Happily, I share ‘JK’ with you, Malcolm, and he has reminded me of your link – what would we do without him?

    Your post reminded me of a book on my shelf which I haven’t read in decades: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” by James Fitzjames Stephen with a forward by Richard Posner, then a judge on the 7th Circuit of Appeals. Apart from anything else, it reminds me that our two countries still (just about) share a common philosophical heritage. It’s bedtime for me so I will read your post tomorrow.

    Thank God – and JK (there’s a difference?) – that I have you back on my list!

    Posted October 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  2. To the best of my knowledge, JK is god.

    Posted October 6, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi David! Good to hear from you.

    Yes, Maine refers to Stephen’s book in several places in the book I’m reading.

    Posted October 6, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says

    As sometimes occurs Malcolm, David’s a post up reminds me (as elections come and go) of posts you might have up from time to time.

    David’s recent,

    put me in mind of his 2009 post,

    Then, up comes “Wire-puller.”

    Nothing supernatural about this at all, just me and my cursed memory.

    Posted October 7, 2014 at 1:15 am | Permalink