Social Organization

Chapter 13: What the Masses Contribute

Charles Horton Cooley

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The function of leaders in defining and organizing the confused tendencies of the public mind is evident enough, but just what the masses themselves contribute is perhaps not so apparent.[1] The thought of the undistinguished many is, however, not less important, not necessarily less original, than that of the conspicuous few; the originality of the latter, just because it is more conspicuous, being easy to overestimate. Leadership is only salient initiative; and among the many there may well be increments of initiative which though not salient are yet momentous as a whole.

The originality of the masses is to be found not so much in formulated idea as in sentiment. In capacity to feel and to trust those sentiments which it is the proper aim of social development to express, they are, perhaps, commonly superior to the more distinguished or privileged classes. The reason is that their experience usually

(136) keeps them closer to the springs of human nature, and so more under the control of its primary impulses.

Radical movements aiming to extend the application of higher sentiment have generally been pushed on by the common people, rather than by privileged orders, or by conspicuous leadership of any sort.[2] This seems to be true of Christianity in all ages, and of the many phases of modern democracy and enfranchisement. In American history, particularly, both the revolution which gave us independence and the civil war which abolished slavery and reunited the country, were more generally and steadfastly supported by the masses than by people of education or wealth. Mr. Higginson, writing on the Cowardice of Culture, [3]asserts that at the opening of the Revolution the men of wealth and standing who took the side of liberty were so few that they could be counted, and that "there was never a period in our history, since the American Nation was independent, when it would not have been a calamity to have it controlled by its highly educated men alone." And in England also it was the masses who upheld abolition in the colonies and sympathized with the North in the American struggle.

The common people, as a rule, live more in the central current of human experience than men of wealth or distinction. Domestic morality, religious sentiment, faith in man and God, loyalty to country and the like, are the fruit of the human heart growing in homely conditions,

(137) and they easily wither when these conditions are lost To be one among many, without individual pretension; is in one way a position of security and grandeur. One stands, as it were, with the human race at his back, sharing its claim on truth, justice and God. Qui quoerit habere privata amittit communia; [4] the plain man has not conspicuously gained private things, and should be all the richer in things that are common, in faith and fellowship Nothing, perhaps, is healthy that isolates us from the common destiny of men, that is merely appropriative and not functional, that is not such as all might rejoice in if they understood it.

Miss Jane Addams has advanced a theory, [5] far from absurd, that the confused and deprived masses of our cities, collected from all lands by immigration, are likely to be the initiators of new and higher ideals for our civilization. Since "ideals are born of situations," they are perhaps well situated for such a function by the almost complete destruction, so far as they are concerned, of old traditions and systems. In this promiscuous mingling of elements everything is cancelled but human nature, and they are thrown back upon that for a new start. They are an " unencumbered proletariat " notable for primary faith and kindness; "simple people who carry in their hearts a desire for mere goodness. They regularly deplete their scanty livelihood in response to a primitive pity, and, independent of the religions they have professed, of the wrongs they have suffered, and of the fixed morality they

(138) have been taught, they have an unquenchable desire that charity and simple justice shall regulate men's relations."[6]

Some tendency to isolation and spiritual impoverishments is likely to go with any sort of distinction or privilege. Wealth, culture, reputation, bring special gratifications. These foster special tastes, and these in turn give rise to special ways of living and thinking which imperceptibly separate one from common sympathy and put him in a special class. If one has a good income, for instance, how natural it is to spend it, and how naturally, also, that expenditure withdraws one from familiar intercourse with people who have not a good income. Success means possessions, and possessions are apt to imprison the spirit.

It has always been held that worldly goods, which of course include reputation as well as wealth, make the highest life of the mind difficult if not impossible, devotional orders in nearly all religions requiring personal poverty and lowliness as the condition of edification. Tantum homo impeditur et distrahitur, quantum sibi res attrahit. [7] " Sloth or cowardice," says a psychologist, "creep in with every dollar or guinea we have to guard . . . lives based on having are less free than lives based on either doing or being."[8] "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." Not for nothing have men of insight agreed upon such propositions as these.

Distinction, also, is apt to go with an exaggerated self-consciousness little favorable to a natural and heart

(139) participation in the deeper currents of the general life. Ambition and the passion for difference are good in their way, but like most good things they are bought at a price, in this case a preoccupation with ideas that separate one from immediate fellowship. It is right to have high and unusual aims and activities, but hard to keep them free from pride, mistrust, gloom and other vices of isolation. Only a very sane mind can carry distinction and fellowship without spilling either.

In the social regard paid to wealth and standing we symbolize our vague sense of the value of personal faculty working in the service of the whole, but it requires an unusual purity and depth of social feeling for the possessor of faculty not to be demoralized by this regard, which is— perhaps necessarily—almost disassociated from definite and cogent responsibility. I mean that the eminent usually get the credit of virtue as it were ex officio whether they really have it or not. We find therefore that power, instead of being simply higher service, is generally more or less corrupt or selfish, and those who are raised up are so much the more cast down. At the best they make some sacrifice of innocence to function; at the worst they destroy themselves and debauch society.

Even vulgarity (by etymology the vice of the crowd) if we take it to mean undisciplined selfishness and pretension, flourishes at least as much among the prosperous as among the hardworking people. Wealth which is not dominated by noble tradition or by rare personal inspiration falls into vulgarity because it permits the inflation of those crude impulses which are much kept down in the poor by the discipline of hardship. Whatever is severely

(140) necessary can never be vulgar, while only nobleness can prevent the superfluous from being so. And a superficial, functionless education and refinement is nearly as vulgar as uninspired wealth. So it has been remarked that when artists paint our contemporary life they are apt to choose it as humble as possible in order " to get down below the strata which vulgarity permeates."[9]

Moreover, conspicuous and successful persons are more likely than the commonalty to be institutionized, to have sacrificed human nature to speciality. To succeed in the hour one must be a man of the hour, and must ordinarily harness his very soul to some sort of contemporary activity which may after all be of no real worth. An upper class is institutional in its very essence, since it is control of institutions that makes it an upper class, and men can hardly keep this control except as they put their hearts into it. Successful business men, lawyers, politicians, clergymen, editors and the like are such through identifying their minds, for better or worse, with the present activities and ideals of commercial and other institutions. " Seldom does the new conscience, when it seeks a teacher to declare to men what is wrong, find him in the dignitaries of the church, the state, the culture, that is. The higher the rank the closer the tie that binds those to what is but ought not to be. [10]

The humbler classes are somewhat less entangled in spirit. It is better to have the hand subdued to what it works in than the soul; and the mechanic who sells to the

(141) times only his ten hours a day of muscular work is perhaps more free to think humanly the rest of the time than his employer. He can also more easily keep the habit of simple look and speech, since he does not have to learn to collect his thoughts in the same degree that the lawyer, the merchant and the statesman do. Even among students I have observed, in the matter of openness of countenance, a marked difference, on the whole, between the graduates of an engineering school and those of a law school, very much in favor of the former.[11] Again, the hand laborer is used to reckoning his wages by the hour— so much time so much pay—and would feel dishonest if he did anything else. But in the professions, and still more in commerce and finance, there is, as a rule, no definite measure of service, and men insensibly come to base their charges on their view of what the other man will pay; thus perilously accustoming themselves to exploit the wealth or weakness of others.

The life of special institutions is often transient in proportion to its speciality, and it is only natural that commercial and professional activity should deal largely with evanescent interests of little dignity in themselves. The "demand" of the public which the merchant has to meet, is in great part a thing of vanity, if not of degradation, which it can hardly be edifying to supply. Indeed, many, if not most, business men play their occupation as a game, rather than in a spirit of service, and are widely infected by the fallacy that they are justified in selling anything

(142) that the people will buy. Simple minds are revolted by the lack of tangible human service in many of the higher paid occupations, and young men enter them for the pay alone when their better impulses would lead them to prefer hand labor.

The sentiment of the people is most readily and successfully exercised in their judgment of persons. Montesquieu, in discussing republican government, advocated on this ground an almost universal manhood suffrage in the choosing of representatives. " For," says he, " though few can tell the exact degree of men's capacities, yet there are none but are capable of knowing in general whether the person they choose is better qualified than most of his neighbors." [12]The plainest men have an inbred shrewdness in judging human nature which makes them good critics of persons even when impenetrable to ideas. This shrewdness is fostered by a free society, in which every one has to make and hold his own place among his fellows; and it is used with much effect in politics and elsewhere as a guide to sound ideas.

Some years ago, for instance, occurred a national election in which the main issue was whether silver should or should not be coined freely at a rate much above its bullion value. Two facts were impressed upon the observer of this campaign: first, the inability of most men, even of education, to reason clearly on a somewhat abstract question lying outside of their daily experience, and, second, the sound instinct which all sorts of people showed in choosing sides through leadership. The flow of nonsense

(143) on both parts was remarkable, but personality was the determining influence. It was common to hear men say that they should vote for or against the proposition because they did or did not trust its conspicuous advocates; and it was evident that many were controlled in this way who did not acknowledge it, even to themselves. The general result was that the more conservative men were united on one side, and the more radical and shifting elements on the other.

The real interest of the voter at our elections is usually in personality. One likes or dislikes A, who is running for alderman, and votes accordingly, without knowing or caring what he is likely to do if elected. Or one opposes B, because he is believed to be in league with the obnoxious C, and so on. It is next to impossible to get a large or intelligent vote on an impersonal matter, such as the constitutional amendments which, in most of our states, have to be submitted to the people. The newspapers, reflecting the public taste, say little about them, and the ordinary voter learns of them for the first time when he comes to the polls. Only a measure which directly affects the interests or passions of the people, like prohibition of the liquor traffic, will call out a large vote.

On this shrewd judgment of persons the advocate of democracy chiefly grounds his faith that the people will be right in the long run. The old argument against him runs as follows: democracy is the rule of the many; the many are incompetent to understand public questions; hence democracy is the rule of incompetence. Thus Macauley held that institutions purely democratic must

(144) sooner or later destroy liberty or civilization or both; and expected a day of spoliation in the United States, "for with you the majority is the government and has the rich absolutely at its mercy." [13] More recent writers of standing have taken the same view, like Lecky, who declares that the rule of the majority is the rule of ignorance, since the poor and the ignorant are the largest proportion of the population.[14]

To this our democrat will answer, "The many, whether rich or poor, are incompetent to grasp the truth in its abstractness, but they reach it through personal symbols, they feel their way by sympathy, and their conclusions are at least as apt to be right as those of any artificially selected class." And he will perhaps turn to American history, which is, on the whole, a fairly convincing demonstration that the masses are not incapable of temperate and wise decision, even on matters of much difficulty. That our antecedents and training have been peculiarly fortunate must be conceded.

The crudely pessimistic view is superficial not only in underestimating the masses and overestimating wealth— which is, in our times at least, almost the only possible basis of a privileged class—but in failing to understand the organic character of a mature public judgment. Is it not a rather obvious fallacy to say that because the ignorant outnumber the educated, therefore the rule of the majority is the rule of ignorance? If fifty men consult

(145) together, forty of whom are ignorant regarding the matter in hand and ten informed, will their conclusions necessarily be those of ignorance? Evidently not, unless in some improbable manner the forty separate from the ten and refuse to be guided by them. Savages and gangs of boys on the street choose the most sagacious to lead in counsel, and even pirates will put the best navigators in charge of the ship. The natural thing, as we have seen, is for a group to defer to its most competent members. Lecky would himself have maintained this in the case of Parliament, and why should it not be true of other groups ? I see no reason why the rule of the majority should be the rule of ignorance, unless they are not only ignorant but fools; and I do not suppose the common people of any capable race are that.

I was born and have lived nearly all my life in the shadow of an institution of higher learning, a university, supported out of the taxes of a democratic state and governed by a board elected directly by the people. So far back as I can remember there have not been wanting pessimists to say that the institution could not prosper on such a basis. "What," they said, "do the farmers know or care about the university? how can we expect that they should support astronomy and Sanscrit and the higher mathematics ? " In fact there have been troublous times, especially in the earlier days, but the higher learning has steadily won its way in open discussion, and the university is now far larger, higher in its standards, better supported and apparently more firmly established in popular approval than ever before. What more exacting test of the power of democracy to pursue and effectuate

(146) high and rather abstract ideals could there well be than this ? One who lives in the midst of such facts cannot but discover something rather doctrinaire in the views of Macaulay and Lecky.

If it be true that most people judge men rather than ideas, we may say that democratic society is representative not only in politics but in all its thought. Everywhere a few are allowed to think and act for the rest, and the essence of democratic method is not in the direct choice of the people in many matters, but in their retaining a conscious power to change their representatives, or to exercise direct choice, when they wish to do so. All tolerable government is representative, but democracy is voluntarily so, and differs from oligarchy in preserving the definite responsibility of the few to the many. It may even happen, as in England, that a hereditary ruling class retains much of its power by the consent of a democratized electorate, or, as in France, that a conception of the state, generated under absolute monarchy, is cherished under the rule of the people.

As for popular suffrage, it is a crude but practical device for ascertaining the preponderant bent of opinion on a definite issue. It is in a sense superficial, mechanical, almost absurd, when we consider the difference in real significance among the units; but it is simple, educative, and has that palpable sort of justice that allays contention. No doubt spiritual weight is the great thing, but as there is no accepted way to measure this, we count one man one vote, and trust that spiritual differences will be expressed through persuasion.


There is, then, no essential conflict between democracy and specialization in any sphere. It is true that as the vital unity of a group becomes more conscious each member tends to feel a claim on everything the group does. Thus the citizen not only wishes the government—of the village, the state or the nation—to be an expression of himself; but he wishes the same regarding the schools, manufactures, trade, religion and the advance of knowledge. He desires all these things to go on in the best way possible, so as to express to the fullest that human nature that is in himself. And as a guaranty of this he demands that they shall be conducted on an open principle, which shall give control of them to the fittest individuals. Hating all privilege not based on function, he desires power to suppress such privilege when it becomes flagrant. And to make everything amenable, directly or indirectly, to popular suffrage, seems to him a practical step In this direction.

Something like this is in the mind of the plain man of our time; but he is quite aware of his incompetence to carry on these varied activities directly, either in government or elsewhere, and common-sense teaches him to seek his end by a shrewd choice of representatives, and by developing a system of open and just competition for all functions. The picture of the democratic citizen as one who thinks he can do anything as well as anybody is, of course, a caricature, and in the United States, at least, there is a great and increasing respect for special capacity, and a tendency to trust it as far as it deserves. If people are sometimes sceptical of the specialist—in political economy let us say—and inclined to prefer their own common-sense,

(148) it is perhaps because they have had unfortunate experience with the former. On the whole, our time is one of the " rise of the expert," when, on account of the rapid elaboration of nearly all activities, there is an ever greater demand for trained capacity. Far from being undemocratic, this is a phase of that effective organization of the public intelligence which real democracy calls for. In short, as already suggested, to be democratic, or even to be ignorant, is not necessarily to be a fool.

So in answer to the question, Just what do the undistinguished masses of the people contribute to the general thought ? we may say, They contribute sentiment and common-sense, which gives momentum and general direction to progress, and, as regards particulars, finds its way by a shrewd choice of leaders. It is into the obscure and inarticulate sense of the multitude that the man of genius looks in order to find those vital tendencies whose utterance is his originality. As men in business get rich by divining and supplying a potential want, so it is a great part of all leadership to perceive and express what the people have already felt.


  1. Some discussion of leadership will be found in Human Nature and the Social Order, chaps. 8 and 9.
  2. So Mr. Bryce, The American Commonwealth, chap. 76. Some emphasis should be given to the phrase " pushed on," as distinguished from "initiated."
  3. In the Atlantic Monthly, Oct., 1905.
  4. Who seeks to have private things loses common things. Thomas Kempis, De Imitatione Christi, book iii, chap. 13, sec. 1.
  5. In her book, Newer Ideals of Peace.
  6. Newer Ideals of Peace, chap. 1.
  7. De Imitatione Christi, book ii, chap. l, see. 7.
  8. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 319.
  9. P. G. Hamerton, Thoughts About Art, 222.
  10. Henry D. Lloyd, Man the Social Creator, 101.
  11. I mean merely that the law graduates look sophisticated—not dishonest. They have learned to use voice and facial expression aa weapons of controversy.
  12. The Spirit of Laws, book xi, chap. 6.
  13. From a letter written to an American correspondent in 1857 and printed in the appendix to Trevelyan's Macaulay.
  14. Democracy and Liberty, vol. i, chap. 1, page 25 and passim. Some of Lecky's expressions, however, are more favorable to democracy.

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