Monday, May 12, 2014

"A precipice before which democracy stands"

Something I ran across today during project-relevant research that--given recent events--seemed somehow relevant:

“We must be determined to adapt the genuine principles of democracy to mass society, instead of regarding certain democratic devices as sacrosanct in themselves. If we consider the plebiscitary element in democracy, we are justified in saying, after the experiences of the last epoch, that of all democratic institutions, it has made the largest contribution to the destruction of the system. The plebiscitary principle drives people towards what we have described as crowd psychology.

This crowd psychology is one of the chief evils to be feared, a precipice before which democracy stands. The mobilization of the entire populace to hold a plebiscite in circumstances which are more characteristic of a farce than of a turning-point in the national destiny, is one of these democratic customs which are apt to become meaningless, once the social background and the social techniques have changed.
The referendum was only reasonable when it applied to the citizens of a small community. Now since it appears in the guise first given it by Napoleon III, that of a managed display of mass emotion, it no longer has an honest part to play in democratic society.  …

The purpose of democracy is not to play on the emotions of the masses, but to prevent the vacillating reactions of popular feeling from frustrating the rational and considered opinions of the nation. … It will then be obvious that the function of the plebiscite in the context of a mass society has been completely reversed. For it no longer interprets the general will as the expression of the considered intentions of the citizens, but is rather the result of skilful agitation and a powerful propaganda machine.” 

Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (London, 1940), pp. 356-57 (paragraph breaks added).

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