What the American Votes For
[This essay originally appeared in the February 1933 issue of The American Mercury. It is collected in the book Snoring as a Fine Art, and Twelve Other Essays.]
My first and only presidential vote was cast many, many years ago. It was dictated by pure instinct. I remember the circumstances well. Like all well-brought-up youngsters, I had been told that it was the duty of every citizen to vote — reasons not stated. I was prepared to obey in all good faith, and accordingly, when the time came, I set forth to the polls.
But what was I to vote for? An issue? There was none. You could not get a sheet of cigarette paper between the official positions of the two parties. A candidate? Well, who were they? Both of them seemed to me to be mediocre timeserving fellows who would sell out their immortal souls, if they had any, for a turn at place and power, and throw in their risen Lord for good measure. Suddenly, the ridiculous truth of the matter struck me: that the whole campaign was based on no political reason at all, but on an astronomical reason. We were voting simply because, since the time we last voted, the earth had gone 1461 times around the sun, or some such number, and for no other reason in the world. As I approached the polls my resentment of this nonsense grew stronger and stronger, and when I arrived I deliberately wrote in a vote for Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.
It was not an ignorant vote, for I was fully aware that Jeff was dead. Nor was it a piece of mere flippancy — far from it. I found out afterward that either Mark Twain or Artemus Ward, I forget which, had once done something of the kind, on the plea that "if we can't have a live statesman, let us by all means have a first-class corpse."
There is a great deal to be said for that idea, and I am proud to subscribe to it, but it was not my idea at the time. My vote was a vote of serious protest against what I regarded as an impudent and degrading absurdity, and at this late day I am more than ever prepared to maintain that the instinct which prompted it was sound and enlightened. I am also prepared to show cause for believing that this instinct actually controls the majority of our electorate, whether they are aware of it or not, and to show cause for believing that they are fully justified in letting it control them.
Visiting Englishry, especially English politicians, are usually struck by what they call the American lack of interest in politics. We seem to them to have no sense of personal concern with national affairs — that is, of course, the majority of us, exclusive of those who have something at stake, like a tariff schedule, or something in the way of job-hunting, subsidy or graft. The last one I remember as speaking about this was Miss Margaret Bondfield, who was a member of the late Labor Cabinet. She used our Sunday press to read us a good schoolmarm's lecture on the subject, and there is no denying that she brought in a true bill.
As these English visitors see it, the American's interest in politics (provided he has no ax to grind) differs from the Englishman's in being occasional, not continuous. It is a sporting interest, like interest in a horse race. When election day is over, he forgets it, buckles down to his job, and contentedly leaves Washington to the mercy of such lobbyists, crooks, blacklegs, editors, politicians and desperadoes as normally find their way there, seeking what they may devour.
These foreign visitors also say that the American's interest differs from the Englishman's in being more concerned with men than with issues. They account for this by the fact that the official issues of our national campaigns are so trivial that they are really no issues at all, and that therefore the actual cleavage between our parties is not spacious. In other words, we have nothing that an Englishman would understand by an effective political opposition. Hence whatever public interest there may be in an election must focus on the personality of the candidates.
There can be no doubt, I repeat, that this is a true bill. It takes a heroic deal of prodding to goad the freeborn American sovereign into wielding his royal prerogative on election day. An immense amount of money and energy is spent on getting out the vote, but the result is never impressive. If 40% of the total electorate turns out and votes, it is a good haul, and 50% is a large one. If local contests did not coincide with national contests, the national vote would be even slimmer than it is.
I shall not take up space to fortify Miss Bondfield's true bill by discussing the official issues of the last campaign, or the width of the cleavage between the two parties. Nothing of all this impressed me particularly, but that is a small matter. I do not think it would have made much more of an impression on the average Frenchman or Englishman, but that need not be considered, either. Beyond doubt, however, the personality of the candidates, or of one candidate, counted for a great deal. It was actually, though not officially, the major issue. A very large proportion of the vote was cast in complete disregard of any question, except that of pure personal sentiment, favorable or unfavorable, towards Mr. Hoover.
As for the postelection lapse of interest which now, once more, mystifies foreign observers, I see nothing mysterious about it. All those who have an ax to grind are of course very busy — jobseekers, bankers, brewers, farmers, railroad men, everyone who stands to gain or lose something. Aside from these, now that the sporting event is over, the general run of the electorate has resumed its customary attitude of profound detachment. As far as it keeps any track at all of national affairs, it views them as a spectator and not as a participant. It waits to "see what they'll do" and makes more or less idle conjectures, shaped largely by the journalists, on what it will be. But, as usual, there is little if any personal concern with "their" doings or misdoings.
Now, what about this attitude? Does it prove that the American is politically ignorant, shiftless, irresponsible, and gets no better government than he deserves? I say no. All that may be true — in fact, I think it is true — but his attitude towards national politics does not prove it. Moreover, if he be ignorant and undeserving, it is fair to point out that his political institutions give him no incentive to be less so. Furthermore, if he were ever so informed and ever so interested and lively, his institutions give him no adequate means of making his will effective. "American efficiency," as expressed in American political institutions, certainly means the poorest, slowest, most discouraging and incompetent way of getting anything done.
In the many long years that have elapsed since my one and only presidential vote was cast, I have seen an enormous amount of blame and obloquy shoveled on the nape of the American sovereign for his attitude of detachment. I can speak of this with a certain degree of personal concern, because it has been shoveled on me, I being that American sovereign — one of them — and that attitude being mine. I have waited a long time for some abler person to come out and defend it, but nobody has done so, and I therefore undertake to defend it myself. In so doing I may say that for once in my life, perhaps the only time, I have the pleasing consciousness that I am speaking for many millions of my fellow sovereigns.
We are blamed for laziness, triviality, carelessness, lack of patriotism. If public affairs are ever in a bad way, it is our fault. If we do not express our will at the polls, and do not strive between elections to have it carried out, what may we expect but a reign of corruption, oppression and bureaucracy? Not long ago our fine old friend, Mr. Wickersham, got into such a pucker over our shortcomings that he proposed some scheme of compulsory voting, under penalty, as I recall it, of fine or jail — good sound paternalistic doctrine! Every once in a while somebody publishes a magazine article urging us to take more interest in politics. I remember that the new governor of New York, Mr. Lehman, published one lately that was very fine and striking. And all sorts of clubs and societies are on foot to educate the apathetic electorate and stir it into action.
If the rest of our delinquent sovereigns feel as I do, I may say that we do not particularly resent these efforts. We are inclined to be rather meek under the odium that is put on us. Mr. Wickersham's idea, now, is perhaps another matter; we might think that would be crowding the mourners a little. But in general we are willing to be patient and reasonable, for we are not so ignorant and stupid as we may appear to be, and we really would like, as much as anybody, to have things go shipshape and happily. All we ask is that our monitors should be a little patient and reasonable too, and listen to us fairly while we make a very simple plea of extenuating circumstances.
Let us look at the last election. Millions of voters got four years worth of bile out of their systems on election day, and were more chipper and cheerful next morning than they had been for months. This was all to the good, no doubt, but the benefit seems rather in the scope of pathology than in that of politics. A large majority registered their opinion that Mr. Hoover was not a satisfactory public servant, and this also was all very well. But if that is the way we felt towards Mr. Hoover, why should we have had to put up with him for four years before dismissing him?
The French or English can turn out an unsatisfactory public servant at any time. They do not have to wait four years; they can do it in four hours. They have the political machinery for doing that, and we have not; if we had, Mr. Hoover would probably have gone out of office at least two years and a half ago. My point is that people who have no machinery for making their political will immediately effective cannot reasonably be expected to take much interest in a mere hopeful registration of what they want.
The "will of the people" repudiated Republican rule last November, with almost unprecedented emphasis. Why do we have to wait four months before it can really count? In England or France it would get action at once, almost in four minutes. When an English or French government is hit by a vote of no confidence, out it goes on the spot, and the party or combination that has ousted it goes in. We all remember the series of French governments a couple of years ago that one after another went down like a row of dominoes, almost before the members took their seats. One of our newspaper paragraphers said at the time that the French premiership was one turn around in a revolving door. It was commonly understood, though I do not know how true it was, that an international conference had to be postponed until the French found a premier who could hold his job long enough to make the trip from Paris to London and back before he was fired out.
In the last election we voted against Mr. Hoover — that is plain enough — but what did we vote for? Many, presumably, voted for beer; all right, we will find no fault with that. On the contrary, let us assume that the whole prodigious majority voted for beer. But all it got was a vague promise of beer on some uncertain tomorrow. The English have governmental machinery whereby If they vote for beer they get it at once, and without going through any further motions. If the people say beer, they pass the word to the House of Commons, and when the House says beer, beer it is, and that is the end of the matter.
If, by some trick of the politicians, we get only bad beer, or prohibitively costly beer, or no beer at all, there is nothing we can do about it but wait until the end of another "fixed term." Suppose Mr. Roosevelt and his crew find it to their political or personal advantage not to give us a lower tariff, or whatever we all may in good faith have voted for (and this has often happened, e.g., the great tariff betrayal in 1894, and the war betrayal under Wilson, who got his second term because "he kept us out of war"), what can we do about it, short of another four years? Nothing. And what kind of executive usurpations, indignities and rascalities does our history show may be practiced on us with impunity meanwhile?
The fixed term means simply that ours is not a representative government at all, but a delegated government. The vote that seats our president, our Congress, our state and municipal officials, is simply a carte blanche, or rather, something in the nature of a letter of marque. How can an intelligent citizen be expected to take interest in the conduct of politics under these conditions?
Even if our elected officials all stand by us loyally, we cannot get what we vote for except on the sufferance of nine old men, irresponsible, inaccessible, appointed for life, and concerning whose appointment the people have nothing to say. The intelligent citizen knows this, knows that even with the president and Congress unanimously on his side, his actual sovereignty amounts to exactly nothing. The Supreme Court is the actual sovereign power, the final lawmaking authority — not law-interpreting, but lawmaking. How, then, can the citizen be interested? What the British House of Commons says goes, even for the king on his throne, and it goes straight off the bat; the Britisher knows it, and he feels and acts accordingly.
Moreover, not only can the American citizen do nothing between elections to make his will effective, or to bring retribution on those who thwart it, but his party can do nothing. The thing that most keeps the Englishman's interest in politics alive between elections is the power of the opposition; and the power of the opposition lies in the fact that it can turn out the government at any moment when it can command a majority in the House. "His Majesty's loyal Opposition" sits in the House like a cat by a rathole, waiting for the government to make a break on some question, small or large, that will shift enough sentiment to pass a vote of no confidence — and then, down goes the government. No one can tell when this may happen, and the constant surveillance of the opposition tends to make the government prayerfully watch its step.
This sort of machinery makes any change possible and practicable at any time the people want it. If the government is fairly sure that the people do not want the change, it can always "go to the country" — that is, hold an election on that issue. The issue is likely to be a pretty real one, and thus it is that the British voter gets the habit of regarding politics as a matter of issues rather than of men.
Again, how can the American voter be expected to have any interest in the doings of the executive between elections, when the whole executive is irresponsible and un-get-at-able by any means short of a congressional investigation, which takes dynamite to start, and is a matter of months spent in all sorts of futile and vexatious foolery?
The president picks his cabinet where he likes, and they are utterly inaccessible; they cannot be seen or spoken to unless they choose, let alone called to account. The British prime minister must choose his cabinet from the House, and they keep their seats in the House and can be called to account by any member. Once when I was in London a member got up at question-time, took an envelope out of his pocket, and said, "Mr. Speaker, I wish to ask the postmaster general," who was sitting about fifteen feet in front of him, "why he did not deliver this letter on time." The letter belonged to some constituent who had kicked about it to his representative, and got him to put the question. The postmaster general asked for time to look the matter up, and in a few days made his reply, and the thing was properly straightened out. He had to do that, or he would have lost his job.
That is the British equivalent of a congressional investigation, whether concerning a small matter like a delayed letter, or a large matter like a profiteering army contract. It is direct, simple, businesslike. There you have the machinery of really representative and responsible government. The citizen who has that kind of machinery at his disposal can afford to be interested in politics because he knows he can get action and get it at once.
It is even conceivable that the government might have fallen on the apparently petty occasion of that delayed letter. Such a thing has happened, and it could happen again. Suppose the government has only a small majority and is not very popular; suppose the opposition has smelt out a few disaffected votes that they think may turn the scale; suppose the postmaster general is evasive and does not give a straight answer. The leader of the opposition makes a red-hot speech, asking Mr. Speaker what in Heaven's name he thinks the empire is coming to, when a venal and bungling government won't let His Majesty's loyal subjects get their mail. Some one on the government bench, perhaps the prime minister, replies as best he can — then a vote of "no confidence," and down goes the government.
I was once told in London that one government had just missed destruction by the closest kind of shave, on what would seem to us the curious issue of a girl having been picked up by the police for soliciting. She told the police that she was a daughter of the rector of some church out in the country, that she had lost her direction on Piccadilly, and had stopped a stranger to ask her way. The police detained her overnight. Next day it turned out that she was that rector's daughter, and that her story was true.
At question time that afternoon, the member for her district was on his feet with fire in his eye, asking the home secretary what in high Hell he meant by sloughing up the daughter of his rector, and the government was in a hole, knowing that every newspaper in the kingdom would be on the warpath next morning. As I got the story, the government compounded handsomely within two hours, with an apology and a cash indemnity, and so saved its neck.
I pass by the Electoral College, that remarkable institution which every once in a while gives us a minority president, like Harrison. Why should any one who voted in that election, when Cleveland got the votes and Harrison got the presidency, ever take the trouble to vote again, at least until the Electoral College is abolished and the president elected by direct vote? I see no reason why he should do so.
Finally, how can we be interested in politics when our Constitution makes the existence of a national issue impossible? The provision which obliges our representatives to reside in their districts automatically converts every issue into a local issue. We have at last learned that General Hancock told the truth — which so mystified the country at the time — when he said that the tariff is a local issue. But so is every issue, and must be; Prohibition, for instance, is notoriously a local issue. What is one to think, really, of the state of politics where the Constitution forbids the legislature to take any but a purely parochial view of every public question?
The United States is often criticized for having no continuous foreign policy. But this provision of the Constitution makes it impossible to have any foreign policy at all. The members of the foreign relations committees of Senate and House must live in their districts, and each one must first and foremost reflect the prevailing interests and sentiment of his district, or lose his job. He simply cannot afford to take a national view of any foreign relation, even if he were ever so willing and able to do so. He may take a national view only in so far as it is not incompatible with local interest. Hence every change in the personnel of these committees brings new sets of local interests to the fore, and our policy is merely a series of improvisations.
In England, on the other hand, a representative who falls out with his constituents over a matter of public policy may get himself put up in any other district in the whole kingdom where he thinks local sentiment will support him. He may be an utter stranger who has never set foot in that district in his life, but that does not matter. If we had that mechanism, a dry Rhode Island congressman, for instance, could go out and put himself up for some safe dry district in Maine or Kansas. A pacifist devotee of the League of Nations, living in an armament-making district of Pennsylvania, could get himself put up in some Midwestern district where sentiment ran the other way. This mechanism, obviously, tends to preserve dignity, integrity, self-respect, all around. If we had it we need not have been disgraced by the odious spectacle of the dry-voting, wet-drinking legislator — nor by the more odious spectacle of the rush for the bandwagon.
Nevertheless, Mr. Wickersham might say, it all comes back to the people in the end. If our institutions seem expressly designed — as everyone who knows their history knows they were designed — to paralyze our activity and suffocate our interest, why do the people put up with them? Why are we not whooping for reform? Why not unite, organize, get up "campaigns of education" and all that sort of thing, in the orthodox American way, and crusade for a brand-new set of political machinery?
This is plausible. It has the right sound, and is all right "in principle," as the diplomats say, but it is actually impracticable. We have seen those crusades before, and we know what happens to them when they meet what Ernest Renan so finely calls la bassesse de l'homme intéressé. Suppose the Forgotten Man, who is about 80% of our population, asked Mr. Roosevelt and his horde of voracious Democrats to pause on their way to the trough long enough to call a constitutional convention aimed at the reforms I have suggested. Would they do it? Not in the whole history of our republican institutions is there a single incident to warrant the suspicion that they would. But suppose they did. Then that same history enables us to forecast exactly what sort of convention we would get. We can see the whole makeup of it in our mind's eye; it would be made up of the very people who have every interest in keeping our political machinery exactly as it is.
No, there is nothing in crusading. The English can have what the Duke of Wellington called "a revolution by due course of law" whenever they think the occasion warrants it. They have the machinery for doing it, and we have not. There remains to us only the recourse to violence, which is no doubt our privilege, but is not to be considered, for we have no confidence in it. Probably our descendents will have to come to something of the kind, but it is nothing for us at the moment. We have learned something from our own revolutions and also from those in other lands; the outcome would be far too uncertain.
It turns out, then, that our practical instinct about politics is sound. All that the Forgotten Man can do is what we so largely find him doing. He can take our national politics as supplying him with a recurrent sporting event, a sort of extravaganza, in which the actors appear to him as more or less clever mountebanks, and his own relation to it is that of a spectator who is only mildly stirred. He may walk out on it, and usually does so whenever anything more attractive comes along; that is to say, as a rule, when he is not wholly idle. He may use it as an occasion for the display of resentment; indeed, the returns seem generally to show that this is the most nearly serious use he ever makes of it. To expect more than this of him seems to me unreasonable, whatever Mr. Wickersham may say; and whether more be expected of him or not, this appears to be about all he will do.
 1 Those who feel inclined to doubt this may be referred to the disgraceful history of the dispute with Canada over the fisheries question, in Cleveland's first administration. Examples are plentiful enough, but this one will suffice.