The Tyranny of “They Say”

One of the most lively and entertaining political writings of nineteenth-century America comes from the pen of the famous novelist, James Fenimore Cooper. Published in 1838 and entitled The American Democrat, it offers an incisive analysis of the structure, culture, and foibles of American democracy that rivals Tocqueville’s more famous work of the same decade in insight, although it is far more modest in scale. Particularly striking are Cooper’s observations about the dangerous role of the press in American public life, the tyranny of public opinion, and the temptations thus posed toward demagoguery. Although himself a member of the Democratic party in the age of Jackson, Cooper was brutally realistic about the downsides of democracy in a mass age. For all the constitutional and technological changes of the past two centuries, many of his observations remain startlingly (and depressingly) apropos.

I thought I’d spotlight a few examples in this post.

At the outset of the work, he declares:

“Power always has most to apprehend from its own illusions. Monarchs have incurred more hazards from the follies of their own that have grown up under the adulation of parasites, than from the machinations of their enemies; and, in a democracy the delusion that would elsewhere be poured into the ears of the prince, is poured into those of the people.” (xxiv)

If the greatest evil of monarchy is its tendency to encourage flattery, democracy is no better in this respect. Claiming full sovereignty, the people are liable to have highly inflated views of their own wisdom, and are most eager to turn their ears towards those who praise the common sense of the common man, who extol the great mass of the people for their plain honest insight and denigrate or excoriate duplicitous elites.

Because the people are sovereign, representatives feel little freedom of action to make use of the great power entrusted to them. It is a rare representative who has the courage to think for himself, rather than simply putting up his finger to see which way the winds of public opinion are blowing–an abdication of leadership that has been on shocking display during the course of the current pandemic.

“The constant appeals to public opinion in a democracy, though excellent as a corrective of public vices, induce private hypocrisy, causing men to conceal their own convictions when opposed to those of the mass, the latter being seldom wholly right, or wholly wrong. A want of national manliness is a vice to be guarded against, for the man who would dare to resist a monarch, shrinks from opposing an entire community.” (82-83)

Indeed, often in democracies, both the people and their leaders forget that the only instrument through which the people can actually exercise their sovereignty is through the mechanism of law. More opinion should not suffice, and yet too often it runs roughshod over law: “It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute publick opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny” (84). In such a culture, the most successful politicians are those most willing to flatter the people, encouraging their faith in their own wisdom, and reinforcing their confusion over the relative authority of opinion and law:

“The motive of the demagogue may usually be detected in his conduct. The man who is constantly telling the people that they are unerring in judgment, and that they have all power, is a demagogue….The demagogue always puts the people before the constitution and the laws, in face of the obvious truth that the people have placed the constitution and the laws before themselves.” (121-22)

In contrast, the true guardian of the people’s rights is the one unafraid to tell them when they are wrong:

“The man who maintains the rights of the people on pure grounds, may be distinguished from the demagogue by the reverse of all these qualities. He does not flatter the people, even while he defends them, for he knows that flattery is a corrupting and dangerous poison. Having nothing to conceal, he is frank and fearless, as are all men with the consciousness of right motives. He oftener chides than commends, for power needs reproof and can dispense with praise.” (123)

Such commitment to truth is costly and thus exceedingly rare. In the long run, however, the refusal to tell or hear the truth will have much weightier consequences:

“Temporary convenience, and selfish considerations, beyond a doubt, are both favored by sometimes closing the eyes to the severity of truth, but in nothing is the sublime admonition of God in his commandments, where he tells us that he ‘will visit the sins of the fathers unto the third and fourth generations of their children,’ more impressively verified, than in the inevitable punishments that await every sacrifice of truth.” (125)

Having been flattered into a false conception of both their knowledge and their power, the people see nothing wrong in resorting to mob rule if their representatives prove insufficiently responsive to their whims. Today this mob rule still takes old-fashioned forms like looting or mass disobedience of unpopular laws, but it also takes the form of boycotts, cancel culture, and Twitter justice. In any case, Cooper’s warnings apply strikingly:

“The disgraceful desire to govern by means of mobs, which has lately become so prevalent, has arisen from misconceiving the rights of the publick. Men know that the publick, or the community, rules, and becoming impatient of any evil that presses on them, or which they fancy presses on them, they overstep all the forms of law, overlook deliberation and consultation, and set up their own local interests, and not unfrequently their passions, in the place of positive enactments and the institutions. It is scarcely predicting more than the truth will warrant, to say, that if this substitution of the caprices, motives and animosities of a portion of the public, for the solemn ordinances of the entire legal publick, should continue, even those well affected to a popular government, will be obliged to combine with those who wish its downfall, in order to protect their persons and property, against the designs of the malevolent; for no civilized society can long exist, with an active power in its bosom that is stronger than the law.” (189-190)

Of course, contrary to its own self-perception, public opinion does not just arise spontaneously from the common sense of the people. It is often consciously created or stoked by those with an agenda.

“In a democracy, as a matter of course, every effort is made to seize upon and create publick opinion, which is, substantially, securing power. One of the commonest arts practised, in connection with this means of effecting objects, is to simulate the existence of a general feeling in favor, or against, any particular man, or measure; so great being the deference paid to publick opinion, in a country like this, that men actually yield their own sentiments to that which they believe to be the sentiment of the majority.” (197-98)

And unfortunately, the publick opinion thus created is one in which passion tends to drown out reason, in which injustices, whether real or imagined, serve to provoke righteous indignation that can sweep all before it:

“‘Excitement,’ may favor the views of selfish individuals, but it can never advance the interests of truth. All good citizens should turn a deaf ear to every proposal to aid in producing an ‘excitement,’ as it is calling into existence a uniform enemy of reason, and the most certain agent of defeating the intention of the institutions, which are based on investigation and common sense. Whenever the government of the United States shall break up, it will probably be in consequence of a false direction having been given to publick opinion. This is the weak point of our defenses, and the part to which the enemies of the system will direct all their attacks. Opinion can be so perverted as to cause the false to seem the true; the enemy, a friend, and the friend, an enemy; the best interests of the nation to appear insignificant, and trifles of moment; in a word, the right the wrong, and the wrong the right.” (200)

The result is a pervasive pathology of groupthink, in which highly contentious or even utterly spurious ideas come to be accepted as basic fact, for no other reason than because everyone else (whether in society at large or one’s particular subculture) seems to accept them as thus. Thus there are sectors of American society now where “everyone knows that social distancing/masks/vaccines don’t work” or “everyone knows that Fauci lied” although no one seems to know how anyone knows–just as, on the Left, everyone knows that “the patriarchy” is responsible for “rape culture” without any clue of what either term even means. Cooper concludes:

“‘They say,’ is the monarch of this country, in a social sense. No one asks ‘who says it,’ so long as it is believed that ‘they say it.’ Designing men endeavor to persuade the publick, that already ‘they say,’ what these designing men wish to be said, and the publick is only too much disposed blindly to join in the cry of ‘they say.’” (233)


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