Nationalism and Popular Rule

Nationalism and Popular Rule  (1911) 
by Theodore Roosevelt

The Outlook, editorial [1], January 11, 1911


This is the second of the series of editorials by Mr. Roosevelt on the general subject of" Nationalism and Progress." The first of the series was published in last week's Outlook and was entitled "Progressive Nationalism; or What ?"—The Editors.

In Mr. Herbert Croly's "Promise of American Life," the most profound and illuminating study of our National conditions which has appeared for many years, especial emphasis is laid on the assertion that the whole point of our governmental experiment lies in the fact that it is a genuine effort to achieve true democracy—both political and industrial. The existence of this Nation has no real significance, from the standpoint of humanity at large, unless it means the rule of the people, and the achievement of a greater measure of widely diffused popular well-being than has ever before obtained on a like scale. Unless this is in very truth a government of, by, and for the people, then both historically and in world interest our National existence loses most of its point. Nominal republics with a high aggregate of industrial prosperity, and governed normally by rich traders and manufacturers in their own real or fancied interest, but occasionally by violent and foolish mobs, have existed in many previous ages. There is little to be gained by repeating on a bigger scale in the Western Hemisphere the careers of Tyre and Carthage on the shores of the Mediterranean.

If there is any worse form of government than that of a plutocracy, it is one which oscillates between control by a pluvtocracy and control by a mob. It ought not to be necessary to point out that popular rule is the antithesis of mob rule; just as the fact that the Nation was in arms during the Civil War meant that there was no room in the country for armed mobs. Popular rule means not that the richest man in the country is given less than his right to a share in the work of guiding the government; on the contrary, it means that he is guaranteed just as much right as any one else, but no more—in other words, that each man will have his full share as a citizen, and only just so much more as his abilities entitle him to by enabling him to render to his fellow-citizens services more important than the average man can render. On the other hand, the surest way to bring about mob rule is to have a government based on privilege, the kind of government desired not only by the beneficiaries of privilege, but by many honest reactionaries of dim vision; for the exasperation caused by such a government is sure in the end to produce a violent reaction and accompanying excesses. The Progress-"ives, in fighting for sane and steady progress, are doing all they can to safeguard the country against this kind of unhealthy oscillation, of government by convulsion. A number of Progressive conventions have recently enunciated the following among other principles as necessary to popular government:

Drastic laws to prevent the corrupt use of money in politics.
Election of United States Senators by direct vote.
Direct primaries for the nomination of elective officials.
Direct election of delegates to National Conventions, the voter to express his choice for President on the ballot for delegate.
The introduction of the initiative, referendum, and recall.

In Oregon most of these principles are already law. The recent Republican State platform of Wisconsin has declared for all of these principles; and this declaration is entitled to very serious consideration, for Wisconsin has taken a leading position in Progressive legislation, and has to her credit a noteworthy record of laws for social, political, and industrial betterment, which laws have been proved in actual practice and have worked well.

Most Western Progressives, and many Eastern Progressives (including the present writer), will assent to these five propositions, at least in principle. I do not suppose that there can be any dissent from the need of passing thoroughgoing acts to prevent corrupt practices. The movement for direct primaries is spreading fast. Whether it shall apply to all elective officials or to certain categories of them is a matter which must be decided by the actual experience of each State when the working of the scheme is tested in practice. There is a constantly growing feeling also in favor of the election of United States Senators by direct popular vote. On this point, as indeed on most of these points, there is room for honest divergence of opinion, but I believe that the weight of conviction is on the side of those who would elect the Senators by popular vote, and that the general feeling is inclining this way. The arguments made against such method of election are practically the same as the arguments originally made against the election of President by popular vote; and the electoral college was designed on precisely the same theory in accord with which it was supposed that the legislature rather than the people should be trusted to choose the best type of Senator. Such change in Senatorial elections would no more alter the fundamental principles of our Government than they were altered by the change in Presidential elections. At present, although the form of an electoral college is preserved, the vote for President is really a direct popular vote; and this absolute reversal in practice of the theory of the Constitution as regards the choice of the most important public officer in the land offers a curious commentary on the attitude of those who declaim against all change by practice in the construction of the letter of a written Constitution. Again, and for the same reason, it seems to me an admirable plan that there should be a direct election of delegates to National Conventions, with opportunity for the voter to express his choice for President and Vice-President; although, of course, such latitude of action must be left to the delegate as to permit his exercising his own judgment if his first or second choice proves impossible. This is merely slightly to alter the present-day practice when delegates are instructed by State and district conventions to vote for a given candidate.

The proposition that will excite most misgiving and antagonism is that relating to the initiative, referendum, and recall. As regards the recall, it is sometimes very useful, but it contains undoubted possibilities of mischief, and of course it is least necessary in the case of short-term elective officers. There is, however, unquestionably a very real argument to be made for it as regards officers elected or appointed for life. In the United States Government practically the only body to whom this applies is the judiciary, and I shall accordingly treat the matter when I come to treat of Nationalism and the Judiciary.

There remain the initiative and referendum. As regards both of these, I think that the anticipations of their adherents and the fears of their opponents are equally exaggerated. The value of each depends mainly upon the way it is applied and upon the extent and complexity of the governmental unit to which it is applied. Every one is agreed that there must be a popular referendum on such a fundamental matter as a Constitutional change, and in New York State we already have what is really a referendum on various other propositions by which the State or one of its local subdivisions passes upon the propriety of action which implies the spending of money, permission to establish a trolley line system or something of the kind. Moreover, where popular interest is sufficiently keen, as it has been in the case of certain amendments to the National Constitution at various times in the past, we see what is practically the initiative under another name. I believe that it would be a good thing to have the principle of the initiative and the referendum applied in most of our States, always provided that it be so safeguarded as to prevent its being used either wantonly or in a spirit of levity. In other words, if the legislature fails to act one way or the other on some bill as to which there is a genuine popular demand, then there should unquestionably be power in the people through the initiative to compel such action. Similarly, on any bill important enough to arouse genuine public interest there should be power for the people to insist upon the bill being referred to popular vote, so that the constituents may authoritatively determine whether or not their representatives have misrepresented them. But if it is rendered too easy to invoke either process, the result can be only mischievous. The same considerations which are more and more tending to make thoughtful people believe that genuine popular control is best exercised through the Short Ballot have weight here also. There are plenty of cases in which, on a given issue of sufficient importance, it is better that the people should decide for themselves rather than trust the decision to a body of representatives— and our present-day acceptance of this fact is shown by our insistence upon a direct vote of the State when the State adopts a new Constitution. But ordinary citizens n private life—such as the present writer, and most of his readers— neither can nor ought to spend their time in following all the minutiae of legislation. This work they ought to delegate to the legislators, who are to make it their special business; and if scores of bills are habitually presented for popular approval or disapproval at every election, it is not probable that good will come, and it is certain that the percentage of wise decisions by the people will be less than if only a few propositions of really great importance are presented. It is necessary to guard not only against the cranks and well-meaning busybodies with fads, but also against the extreme laxity with which men are accustomed to sign petitions. There was a curious instance of this trait at the recent elections in Cincinnati. Aside from the regular nominees, there was in one district a man nominated on petition. He had enough names put on the petition to insure his running, but at the election he got only about one-seventh as many votes as there were names on the petition. A much larger proportion of men should be required to petition for an initiative than for a referendum, but in each case the regulations both as to the number of names required and as to additional guarantees where necessary should be such as to forbid the invocation of this method of securing popular action unless the measure is one of real importance, as to which there is a deep-rooted popular interest. Oregon has already tried the principle of the initiative and the referendum, and it seems to have produced good results—certainly in the case of the referendum, and probably in the case of the initiative. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that the principle would work well in all other communities, and under our system it is difficult to see at present how it could normally have more than a State-wide application. In Switzerland it has been applied both in the Cantons, or States, and in the Federal or National Government, and it seems on the whole to have worked fairly well. Those who anticipate too much from the new system, however, would do well to study its workings in Switzerland. There have now and then been odd results. Recently by the use of the initiative a certain bill was proposed to the Federal Legislature. There was such a strong demand for its passage, as shown by the vote on the initiative, and by the general popular agitation, that the Legislature passed it with but one dissenting vote. At the ensuing election the representative who had cast the dissenting vote was, because of having done so, beaten; but on the referendum the people defeated the measure itself! They demanded it on the initiative, all their representatives in the Legislature with one exception voted for it on its passage, they beat the one man who had voted against it, and then on the referendum they defeated the bill itself.

Unquestionably an ideal representative body is the best imaginable legislative body. Such a body, if composed of men of unusual courage, intelligence, sympathy, and high-mindedness, anxious to represent the people, and at the same time conscientious in their determination to do nothing that is wrong, would so act that there would never come the slightest demand for any change in the methods of enacting laws. Unfortunately, however, in actual practice, too many of our legislative bodies have not really been representative; and not a few of the ablest and most prominent men in public life have prided themselves on their ability to use parliamentary forms to defeat measures for which there was a great popular demand. Special interests which would be powerless in a general election may be all-powerful in a legislature if they enlist the services of a few skillful tacticians; and the result is the same whether these tacticians are unscrupulous and are hired by the special interests, or whether they are sincere men who honestly believe that the people desire what is wrong and should not be allowed to have it. Normally a representative should represent his constituents. If on any point of real importance he finds that he conscientiously differs with them, he must, as a matter of course, follow his conscience, and thereby he may not only perform his highest duty, but also render the highest possible service to his constituents themselves. But in such case he should not try to achieve his purpose by tricking his constituents or by adroitly seeking at the same time to thwart their wishes in secret and yet apparently to act so as to retain their good will. He should never put holding his office above keeping straight with his conscience, and if the measure as to which he differs with his constituents is of sufficient importance, he should be prepared to go out of office rather than surrender on a matter of vital principle. Normally, however, he must remember that the very meaning of the word representative is that the constituents shall be represented. It is his duty to try to lead them to accept his views, and it is their duty to give him as large a latitude as possible in matters of conscience, realizing that the more conscientious the representative is the better he will in general represent them; but if a real and vital split on a matter of principle occurs, as in the case of a man who believes in the gold standard but finds that his constituents believe in free silver, the representative's duty is neither to abandon his own belief nor to try to beat his constituents by a trick, but to fight fairly for his convictions and cheerfully accept defeat if he cannot convert his constituents to his way of thinking—exactly the attitude that the late Senator Lamar, of Mississippi, took once on this very question, and triumphed, and exactly the attitude that the late Congressman Dargan, of North Carolina, took, at the price of his political life.

Incidentally the referendum is certain to be of great use in a particular class of cases which very much puzzle the average legislator—where a minority of his constituents, but a large and influential minority, may demand something concerning which there is grave doubt whether the majority does or does not sympathize with the demand. In such a case the minority is active and determined; the majority can be roused only if the question is directly before it. In other words, the majority does not count it for righteousness in a representative if he refuses to yield to a minority; while a minority, on the other hand, will not tolerate adverse action. In such cases the temptation to the ordinary legislator is very great to yield to the demand of the minority, as he fears its concrete and interested wrath much more than the tepid disapproval of the majority. In all such questions the referendum would offer much the wisest and most efficient and satisfactory solution.

The opponents of the referendum and initiative, therefore, would do well to remember that the movement in favor of the two is largely due to the failure of the representative bodies really to represent the people. There has been a growing feeling that there should be more direct popular action as an alternative, not to the action of an ideal legislative body, but to the actions of legislative bodies as they are now too often found in very fact to act. The movement for direct popular government in Oregon, for instance, was in part the inevitable consequence of the gross betrayal of their trust by various representatives of Oregon in the National and State legislatures, and by the men put in appointive office through the exertions of these representatives. Moreover, the opponents, and, for the matter of that, the adherents likewise, of the proposed change, when they speak, whether in praise or in blame, of its radicalism, would do well to remember that in one of the oldest and most conservative sections of the country there has existed throughout our National life, and now exists, a form of local self-government much more radical where it applies than even the initiative and referendum. I refer to the New England town meeting, at which all purely town matters are decided without appeal by the vote of the townspeople in meeting assembled. In no other part of the world, save in two or three cantons of Switzerland, and perhaps in certain districts of Norway, is there any form of government so absolutely democratic, so absolutely popular, as the New England town meeting. The initiative and referendum represent merely the next stage. The town meeting has been proved to work admirably as regards certain governmental units where the citizens are of a certain type. The initiative and referendum have been shown to work well as regards certain larger constituencies of a different type. The men living in States where the town meeting has flourished for centuries should be the last to feel that the initiative and referendum are in and of themselves revolutionary propositions.

On the other hand, the advocates of the initiative and referendum should, in their turn, remember that those measures are in themselves merely means and not ends; that their success or failure is to be determined not on a priori reasoning but by actually testing how they work under varying conditions; and, above all, that it is foolish to treat these or any other devices for obtaining good government and popular rule as justifying sweeping condemnation of all men and communities where other governmental methods are preferred. There is probably no class of men who ought to study history as carefully as reformers—except reactionaries, for whom the need is even greater. A careful study of eighteenth-century France ought to show the reactionary that the rejection, by the beneficiaries of special privilege, of wise and moderate progressiveness, like that of Turgot, inevitably tends to produce the most calamitous explosion; and. on the other hand, the ultra-reformers will do well to ponder the harm done in their turn by the Jacobins, the inevitable reaction produced by their excesses, and especially by the queer attitude they assumed when they first deified the people and demanded the absolute rule of the people and then declined to submit to the judgment of the very people they had just deified because that judgment was not sufficiently favorable.

The initiative and the referendum are devices for giving better and more immediate effect to the popular will. If in any given State—Vermont, for instance, or Massachusetts, or New Hampshire, or New Jersey, or New York—the people are not now ready to adopt either, or even if they never become ready—why! that is their affair, and the genuinely Progressive leader will no more ostracize and read out of the company of Progressives a New England State which thinks it can achieve popular government without the referendum than he would read out some State in another part of the country because it has never adopted the town meeting. Personally, I should like to see the initiative and referendum, with proper safeguards, adopted generally in the States of the Union, and personally I am sorry that the New England town meeting has not spread throughout the Union. But I certainly do not intend to part company from other Progressives who fail to sympathize with me in either view, and I do intend to insist with all the strength I have that each device is a device and nothing more, is a means and not an end. The end is good government, obtained through genuine popular rule. Any device that under given conditions achieves this end is good for those conditions, and the value of each device must be tested purely by the answer to the question, Does it or does it not secure the end in view? One of the worst faults that can be committed by practical men engaged in the difficult work of self-government is to make a fetish of a name, or to confound the means with the end. The end is to secure justice, equality of opportunity in industrial as well as in political matters, to safeguard the interests of all the people, and work for a system which shall promote the general diffusion of well-being and yet give ample rewards to those who in any walk of life and in any kind of work render exceptional service to the community as a whole. We do not want to produce a dead level of achievement and reward; we want to give the exceptional rewards, in the way of approbation or in whatever other fashion may be necessary, to the exceptional men, the Lincolns, Grants, Marshalls, Emersons, Longfellows, Edisons, Pearys, who each in his own line does some special service; but we wish so far as possible to prevent a reward being given that is altogether disproportionate to the services, and especially to prevent huge rewards coming where there is no service or indeed where the action rewarded is detrimental instead of beneficial to the public interest.

Ours is a government of laws, but every one should keep always before him the fact that no law is worth anything unless there is the right kind of man behind it. In tropical America there are many republics whose constitutions and laws are practically identical with ours, yet some of these republics have, throughout their governmental career, alternated between despotism and anarchy, and have failed in striking fashion at every point where in equally striking fashion we have succeeded. The difference was not in the laws or the institutions, for they were the same. The difference was in the men who made up the community, in the men who administered the laws, and in the men who put in power the administrators.

If we choose Senators by popular vote instead of through the Legislatures, we shall not thereby have secured good representatives; we shall merely have given the people a better chance to get good representatives. If they choose bad men, unworthy men, whether their unworthiness take the form of corruption or demagogy, of truckling to special interests or of truckling to the mob, we shall have worked no improvement. There have been in the past plenty of unworthy Governors and Congressmen elected, just as there have been plenty of bad Senators elected. Similarly, if the direct primary merely means additional expense without compensating advantage in wise and just action, the gain will be nil. At present there are cities where the direct primary obtains, in which, as far as I can see, the boss system is about as firmly rooted as in those cities where the direct primary has not been introduced. So with the initiative and the referendum. Vermont has neither; Oregon has both. In whichever State there is the less corruption and greater justice, in whichever State the elected representatives of the people are more upright, clean, and able, in whichever State the people are themselves wiser in action, more prompt to recognize and reward good service and fearlessness and independence in judge, Governor, Senator, or Congressman, why, in that State we shall find the best government, wholly without regard to the particular device by which the government is obtained. If both States show equally well in these matters, why, it means that each has devised the instrument best suited for its own needs. It is folly not to adopt the new instrument if experience shows it to be an instrument which usually produces better results; and if we are convinced that it is a better instrument, then we should endeavor by reason and argument to get our neighbors to adopt it; but it is also folly to refuse to work with good men who are striving for the same progressive ends as we are, merely because these good men prefer older instruments than those which we believe to be best fitted for the purpose.

I believe in adopting every device for popular government which is in theory good and when the practice bears out the theory. It is of course true that each is only a device, and that its worth must be shown in actual practice; and it is also true that where, as with us, the people are masters, the most vital need is that they shall show self-mastery as well as the power to master their servants. But it is often impossible to establish genuine popular rule and get rid of privilege, without the use of new devices to meet new needs. I think that this is the situation which now confronts us in the United States, and that the adoption in principle of the programme on which the Progressives, especially in the West, are tending to unite offers us the best chance to achieve the desired result. Theodore Roosevelt.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.