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Threat And Promise Of Mass Democracy

Both the American and French Revolutions signaled the emergence of the popular masses as a force in history. Henceforth the people became a factor in the power equation. Whether for ill or good, whether democratic or antidemocratic, rulers must address the people to attain or to maintain power. This profound realignment of the relation between ruler and ruled produced three responses during the nineteenth century: liberal, conservative, and revolutionary.

The liberal response is embodied in the thought of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859). Tocqueville believed that the European future could be foreseen in the American present. And Mill's thought was heavily influenced by Tocquevillian concerns with the safeguarding of ability, virtue, and liberty. Tocqueville analyzed the social and cultural conditions of American democracy and found in them the germs of a future tyranny. Democracy is founded on a belief in individual rights, equality, and self-government, yet the public opinion it spawns is more tyrannical than any monarch. The passion for equality generates a uniform mass of self-centered individuals whose opinions will dominate those of the minority. This passion is antithetical to ability and strives to level all forms of excellence and skill. Mill elaborates on Tocqueville's antithesis between equality and liberty and tries to find a solution that incorporates both the people's desire for equality and the need for competence and ability. Though democracy means the rule of the many, government and administration presuppose the rule of the few over the many. Mill sees representative government based on an educated and responsible electorate as best able to link the egalitarian aspirations of the many with the competence and ability of the few.

Political participation (voting and office holding) in the West was at first circumscribed within a narrow social, ethnicracial and economic base: property holders and white males. During the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, various political and social groups arose calling for the extension of full civil and legal rights to all. Elite competition for power combined with popular social movements gradually to expand the electorate. In the United States, the property qualification was eliminated with the rise of Andrew Jackson, in Britain with the various reform bills of the middle-to late-nineteenth century. The expansion of male suffrage in continental Europe was a complex and contradictory process. In France it was hostage to successive revolutions and changes in governmental systems, in imperial Germany it was achieved under the auspices of Bismarck as a means of bolstering the power of the ruling elites, and in Italy it facilitated elite manipulation of the parliamentary elections. Suffrage expansion in pre-World War II Italy and Germany ultimately led to the breakdown of liberal democratic institutions, while in Britain and the United States it promoted the integration of the lower classes into the pre-existing liberal structures.

In the United States, the Civil War (1861–1865) abolished slavery, and the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution gave the emancipated slaves full political rights. Yet through such devices as the poll tax, the white-only primary, literacy requirements, as well as the use of legal and extra-legal force, African Americans were effectively denied these rights until the advent of the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The struggle over the vote was intimately linked with the struggle for the emancipation of women. Women's suffrage movements, whose prominent figures included Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), and Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), were particularly powerful in the United States and Britain. Women were granted the vote in 1920 and in 1928 respectively, though not until 1945 in Italy and France. Even today, in many countries women are excluded from public and political life. Ethnic-racial and gender equality and the integration of excluded groups into the prevailing system are considered crucial to the contemporary understanding of democracy. The right to vote is fundamental to democracy. Yet the struggle for universal suffrage underlines the importance of establishing a widely accepted culture of civil liberties and civil rights, without which the suffrage would become meaningless.

Industrialization and urbanization, as well as painful social and economic dislocations, intensified mass mobilization and mass participation in politics, which in turn created new demands partly addressed by the liberalization of social welfare measures and by the expansion of the franchise. The expansion of the electorate in turn made the system more democratic and thus more responsive to mass politics. Revolutionaries such as Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his followers argued that the equality and liberty guaranteed by liberals and democrats were merely political and formal. They did not address the material basis of rule, which is social and economic. The rights of the citizen are spurious given the underlying inequality of bourgeois capitalism, where the few wealthy dominate the many poor. What Marxism and socialism desired was a democracy both social and economic, where the unequal relations of power established by private property are eliminated. Such a concern underlay most critiques of liberal democracy, whether social democratic, syndicalist, or communist. They differed, however, in both their methods and their goals. The socialists accepted the rules of the game and worked within the system, while the latter two worked for a revolutionary overthrow. Lenin (Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov; 1870–1924) and the Bolsheviks represented a shift in the location of revolution, from the center of the bourgeois world to its periphery.

The conservative reaction to democratic politics ranged from the reactionary ideas of Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753–1821) and Louis de Bonald (1754–1840) to the elitism of Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941), and Roberto Michels (1876–1936). While the former wanted to return to prerevolutionary and aristocratic Europe, the latter accepted modernity and the political consequences of the American and French Revolutions. Pareto and Mosca argued that in all societies the rulers are always the few, that wealth and ability will always prevail over numbers. Michels formulated an iron law of oligarchy, which asserted that in modern society where bureaucracies and organizations are constantly proliferating only minorities can rule. Democracy—with its representative systems, electoral mechanisms, referenda, initiatives, and recall—is an illusion, a mere political formula devised to veil oligarchic power. What these writers attempted to show was the empirical and sociological impossibility of democracy. Whatever the claims of democratic ideals, government and administration must inevitably rely on organized minorities to function well and effectively.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Democracy - Greek Origins, After The Polis, Age Of Enlightenment And Revolution, Threat And Promise Of Mass Democracy