Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Tendency of Popular Governments

We speak not lightly of the people; we have no disposition to depreciate their intelligence or the general correctness of their motives; but they are almost always the dupes of unprincipled demagogues. If the good sense, if the practical wisdom, if the moral honesty of the people could always be rendered available, - if the appeal could always be made to their reason instead of their passions, to their judgments instead of their caprices,- our estimate of their capacity for self-government would be as fa­vorable as that professed by our democratic friends. But we must always bear in mind that man has fallen, that his nature has been corrupted, and that, collectively as well as individually, the people are prone to evil, and that continually. When they resist their inclinations, silence the clamor of their appetites and passions, and listen only to the voice of reason, which, though obscured by the fall, yet survives in every man, they in general take correct views and come to safe conclusions; but they listen far more readily to appetite and passion, and follow with far greater facility the suggestions of corrupt desires than the sober lessons of reason. To do evil demands no violence to natural inclination; to practise virtue always demands an effort. This is true of every one of the people individually, and therefore must be true of the whole collectively. Hence it follows that the demagogues, though but small men themselves, have always more power with the people than have wise and virtuous statesmen, and all popular governments have a tendency to become the exponents of popular corruption instead of popular reason and virtue.

Orestes Brownson, "The Republic of the United States", Brownson's Quarterly Review, April 1849.

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