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PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLIES





Parliamentary crowds present most of the characteristics common
to heterogeneous crowds that are not anonymous--The simplicity of
their opinions--Their suggestibility and its limits--Their
indestructible, fixed opinions and their changed opinions--The
reason of the predominance of indecision--The role of the
leaders--The reason of their prestige--They are the true masters
of an assembly whose votes, on that account, are merely those of
a small minority--The absolute power they exercise--The elements
of their oratorical art--Phrases and images--The psychological
necessity the leaders are under of being in a general way of
stubborn convictions and narrow-minded--It is impossible for a
speaker without prestige to obtain recognition for his
arguments-- The exaggeration of the sentiments, whether good or
bad, of assemblies-- At certain moments they become
automatic--The sittings of the Convention--Cases in which an
assembly loses the characteristics of crowds--The influence of
specialists when technical questions arise--The advantages and
dangers of a parliamentary system in all countries--It is adapted
to modern needs; but it involves financial waste and the
progressive curtailment of all liberty--Conclusion.


In parliamentary assemblies we have an example of heterogeneous
crowds that are not anonymous. Although the mode of election of
their members varies from epoch to epoch, and from nation to
nation, they present very similar characteristics. In this case
the influence of the race makes itself felt to weaken or
exaggerate the characteristics common to crowds, but not to
prevent their manifestation. The parliamentary assemblies of the
most widely different countries, of Greece, Italy, Portugal,
Spain, France, and America present great analogies in their
debates and votes, and leave the respective governments face to
face with identical difficulties.

Moreover, the parliamentary system represents the ideal of all
modern civilised peoples. The system is the expression of the
idea, psychologically erroneous, but generally admitted, that a
large gathering of men is much more capable than a small number
of coming to a wise and independent decision on a given subject.

The general characteristics of crowds are to be met with in
parliamentary assemblies: intellectual simplicity, irritability,
suggestibility, the exaggeration of the sentiments and the
preponderating influence of a few leaders. In consequence,
however, of their special composition parliamentary crowds offer
some distinctive features, which we shall point out shortly.

Simplicity in their opinions is one of their most important
characteristics. In the case of all parties, and more especially
so far as the Latin peoples are concerned, an invariable tendency
is met with in crowds of this kind to solve the most complicated
social problems by the simplest abstract principles and general
laws applicable to all cases. Naturally the principles vary with
the party; but owing to the mere fact that the individual members
are a part of a crowd, they are always inclined to exaggerate the
worth of their principles, and to push them to their extreme
consequences. In consequence parliaments are more especially
representative of extreme opinions.

The most perfect example of the ingenuous simplification of
opinions peculiar to assemblies is offered by the Jacobins of the
French Revolution. Dogmatic and logical to a man, and their
brains full of vague generalities, they busied themselves with
the application of fixed-principles without concerning themselves
with events. It has been said of them, with reason, that they
went through the Revolution without witnessing it. With the aid
of the very simple dogmas that served them as guide, they
imagined they could recast society from top to bottom, and cause
a highly refined civilisation to return to a very anterior phase
of the social evolution. The methods they resorted to to realise
their dream wore the same stamp of absolute ingenuousness. They
confined themselves, in reality, to destroying what stood in
their way. All of them, moreover--Girondists, the Men of the
Mountain, the Thermidorians, &c.--were alike animated by the same
spirit.

Parliamentary crowds are very open to suggestion; and, as in the
case of all crowds, the suggestion comes from leaders possessing
prestige; but the suggestibility of parliamentary assemblies has
very clearly defined limits, which it is important to point out.

On all questions of local or regional interest every member of an
assembly has fixed, unalterable opinions, which no amount of
argument can shake. The talent of a Demosthenes would be
powerless to change the vote of a Deputy on such questions as
protection or the privilege of distilling alcohol, questions in
which the interests of influential electors are involved. The
suggestion emanating from these electors and undergone before the
time to vote arrives, sufficiently outweighs suggestions from any
other source to annul them and to maintain an absolute fixity of
opinion.[27]



long experience doubtless applies to these opinions, fixed
beforehand, and rendered unalterable by electioneering
necessities: "During the fifty years that I have sat at
Westminster, I have listened to thousands of speeches; but few of
them have changed my opinion, not one of them has changed my
vote."



On general questions--the overthrow of a Cabinet, the imposition
of a tax, &c.--there is no longer any fixity of opinion, and the
suggestions of leaders can exert an influence, though not in
quite the same way as in an ordinary crowd. Every party has its
leaders, who possess occasionally an equal influence. The result
is that the Deputy finds himself placed between two contrary
suggestions, and is inevitably made to hesitate. This explains
how it is that he is often seen to vote in contrary fashion in an
interval of a quarter of an hour or to add to a law an article
which nullifies it; for instance, to withdraw from employers of
labour the right of choosing and dismissing their workmen, and
then to very nearly annul this measure by an amendment.

It is for the same reason that every Chamber that is returned has
some very stable opinions, and other opinions that are very
shifting. On the whole, the general questions being the more
numerous, indecision is predominant in the Chamber--the
indecision which results from the ever- present fear of the
elector, the suggestion received from whom is always latent, and
tends to counterbalance the influence of the leaders.

Still, it is the leaders who are definitely the masters in those
numerous discussions, with regard to the subject-matter of which
the members of an assembly are without strong preconceived
opinions.

The necessity for these leaders is evident, since, under the name
of heads of groups, they are met with in the assemblies of every
country. They are the real rulers of an assembly. Men forming a
crowd cannot do without a master, whence it results that the
votes of an assembly only represent, as a rule, the opinions of a
small minority.

The influence of the leaders is due in very small measure to the
arguments they employ, but in a large degree to their prestige.
The best proof of this is that, should they by any circumstance
lose their prestige, their influence disappears.

The prestige of these political leaders is individual, and
independent of name or celebrity: a fact of which M. Jules Simon
gives us some very curious examples in his remarks on the
prominent men of the Assembly of 1848, of which he was a
member:--


"Two months before he was all-powerful, Louis Napoleon was
entirely without the least importance.

"Victor Hugo mounted the tribune. He failed to achieve success.
He was listened to as Felix Pyat was listened to, but he did not
obtain as much applause. `I don't like his ideas,' Vaulabelle
said to me, speaking of Felix Pyat,' but he is one of the
greatest writers and the greatest orator of France.' Edgar
Quinet, in spite of his exceptional and powerful intelligence,
was held in no esteem whatever. He had been popular for awhile
before the opening of the Assembly; in the Assembly he had no
popularity.

"The splendour of genius makes itself less felt in political
assemblies than anywhere else. They only give heed to eloquence
appropriate to the time and place and to party services, not to
services rendered the country. For homage to be rendered
Lamartine in 1848 and Thiers in 1871, the stimulant was needed of
urgent, inexorable interest. As soon as the danger was passed
the parliamentary world forgot in the same instant its gratitude
and its fright."


I have quoted the preceding passage for the sake of the facts it
contains, not of the explanations it offers, their psychology
being somewhat poor. A crowd would at once lose its character of
a crowd were it to credit its leaders with their services,
whether of a party nature or rendered their country. The crowd
that obeys a leader is under the influence of his prestige, and
its submission is not dictated by any sentiment of interest or
gratitude.

In consequence the leader endowed with sufficient prestige wields
almost absolute power. The immense influence exerted during a
long series of years, thanks to his prestige, by a celebrated
Deputy,[28] beaten at the last general election in consequence of
certain financial events, is well known. He had only to give the
signal and Cabinets were overthrown. A writer has clearly
indicated the scope of his action in the following lines:--






"It is due, in the main, to M. X---- that we paid three times as
dearly as we should have done for Tonkin, that we remained so
long on a precarious footing in Madagascar, that we were
defrauded of an empire in the region of the Lower Niger, and that
we have lost the preponderating situation we used to occupy in
Egypt. The theories of M. X---- have cost us more territories
than the disasters of Napoleon I."


We must not harbour too bitter a grudge against the leader in
question. It is plain that he has cost us very dear; but a great
part of his influence was due to the fact that he followed public
opinion, which, in colonial matters, was far from being at the
time what it has since become. A leader is seldom in advance of
public opinion; almost always all he does is to follow it and to
espouse all its errors.

The means of persuasion of the leaders we are dealing with, apart
from their prestige, consist in the factors we have already
enumerated several times. To make a skilful use of these
resources a leader must have arrived at a comprehension, at least
in an unconscious manner, of the psychology of crowds, and must
know how to address them. He should be aware, in particular, of
the fascinating influence of words, phrases, and images. He
should possess a special description of eloquence, composed of
energetic affirmations--unburdened with proofs-- and impressive
images, accompanied by very summary arguments. This is a kind of
eloquence that is met with in all assemblies, the English
Parliament included, the most serious though it is of all.


"Debates in the House of Commons," says the English philosopher
Maine, "may be constantly read in which the entire discussion is
confined to an exchange of rather weak generalities and rather
violent personalities. General formulas of this description
exercise a prodigious influence on the imagination of a pure
democracy. It will always be easy to make a crowd accept general
assertions, presented in striking terms, although they have never
been verified, and are perhaps not susceptible of verification."


Too much importance cannot be attached to the "striking terms"
alluded to in the above quotation. We have already insisted, on
several occasions, on the special power of words and formulas.
They must be chosen in such a way as to evoke very vivid images.
The following phrase, taken from a speech by one of the leaders
of our assemblies, affords an excellent example:--


"When the same vessel shall bear away to the fever-haunted lands
of our penitentiary settlements the politician of shady
reputation and the anarchist guilty of murder, the pair will be
able to converse together, and they will appear to each other as
the two complementary aspects of one and the same state of
society."


The image thus evoked is very vivid, and all the adversaries of
the speaker felt themselves threatened by it. They conjured up a
double vision of the fever-haunted country and the vessel that
may carry them away; for is it not possible that they are
included in the somewhat ill-defined category of the politicians
menaced? They experienced the lurking fear that the men of the
Convention must have felt whom the vague speeches of Robespierre
threatened with the guillotine, and who, under the influence of
this fear, invariably yielded to him.

It is all to the interest of the leaders to indulge in the most
improbable exaggerations. The speaker of whom I have just cited
a sentence was able to affirm, without arousing violent
protestations, that bankers and priests had subsidised the
throwers of bombs, and that the directors of the great financial
companies deserve the same punishment as anarchists.
Affirmations of this kind are always effective with crowds. The
affirmation is never too violent, the declamation never too
threatening. Nothing intimidates the audience more than this
sort of eloquence. Those present are afraid that if they protest
they will be put down as traitors or accomplices.

As I have said, this peculiar style of eloquence has ever been of
sovereign effect in all assemblies. In times of crisis its power
is still further accentuated. The speeches of the great orators
of the assemblies of the French Revolution are very interesting
reading from this point of view. At every instant they thought
themselves obliged to pause in order to denounce crime and exalt
virtue, after which they would burst forth into imprecations
against tyrants, and swear to live free men or perish. Those
present rose to their feet, applauded furiously, and then,
calmed, took their seats again.

On occasion, the leader may be intelligent and highly educated,
but the possession of these qualities does him, as a rule, more
harm than good. By showing how complex things are, by allowing
of explanation and promoting comprehension, intelligence always
renders its owner indulgent, and blunts, in a large measure, that
intensity and violence of conviction needful for apostles. The
great leaders of crowds of all ages, and those of the Revolution
in particular, have been of lamentably narrow intellect; while it
is precisely those whose intelligence has been the most
restricted who have exercised the greatest influence.

The speeches of the most celebrated of them, of Robespierre,
frequently astound one by their incoherence: by merely reading
them no plausible explanation is to be found of the great part
played by the powerful dictator:--


"The commonplaces and redundancies of pedagogic eloquence and
Latin culture at the service of a mind childish rather than
undistinguished, and limited in its notions of attack and defence
to the defiant attitude of schoolboys. Not an idea, not a happy
turn of phrase, or a telling hit: a storm of declamation that
leaves us bored. After a dose of this unexhilarating reading one
is attempted to exclaim `Oh!' with the amiable Camille
Desmoulins."


It is terrible at times to think of the power that strong
conviction combined with extreme narrowness of mind gives a man
possessing prestige. It is none the less necessary that these
conditions should be satisfied for a man to ignore obstacles and
display strength of will in a high measure. Crowds instinctively
recognise in men of energy and conviction the masters they are
always in need of.

In a parliamentary assembly the success of a speech depends
almost solely on the prestige possessed by the speaker, and not
at all on the arguments he brings forward. The best proof of
this is that when for one cause or another a speaker loses his
prestige, he loses simultaneously all his influence, that is, his
power of influencing votes at will.

When an unknown speaker comes forward with a speech containing
good arguments, but only arguments, the chances are that he will
only obtain a hearing. A Deputy who is a psychologist of
insight, M. Desaubes, has recently traced in the following lines
the portrait of the Deputy who lacks prestige:--


"When he takes his place in the tribune he draws a document from
his portfolio, spreads it out methodically before him, and makes
a start with assurance.

"He flatters himself that he will implant in the minds of his
audience the conviction by which he is himself animated. He has
weighed and reweighed his arguments; he is well primed with
figures and proofs; he is certain he will convince his hearers.
In the face of the evidence he is to adduce all resistance would
be futile. He begins, confident in the justice of his cause, and
relying upon the attention of his colleagues, whose only anxiety,
of course, is to subscribe to the truth.

"He speaks, and is at once surprised at the restlessness of the
House, and a little annoyed by the noise that is being made.

"How is it silence is not kept? Why this general inattention?
What are those Deputies thinking about who are engaged in
conversation? What urgent motive has induced this or that Deputy
to quit his seat?

"An expression of uneasiness crosses his face; he frowns and
stops. Encouraged by the President, he begins again, raising his
voice. He is only listened to all the less. He lends emphasis
to his words, and gesticulates: the noise around him increases.
He can no longer hear himself, and again stops; finally, afraid
that his silence may provoke the dreaded cry, `The Closure!' he
starts off again. The clamour becomes unbearable."


When parliamentary assemblies reach a certain pitch of excitement
they become identical with ordinary heterogeneous crowds, and
their sentiments in consequence present the peculiarity of being
always extreme. They will be seen to commit acts of the greatest
heroism or the worst excesses. The individual is no longer
himself, and so entirely is this the case that he will vote
measures most adverse to his personal interests.

The history of the French Revolution shows to what an extent
assemblies are capable of losing their self-consciousness, and of
obeying suggestions most contrary to their interests. It was an
enormous sacrifice for the nobility to renounce its privileges,
yet it did so without hesitation on a famous night during the
sittings of the Constituant Assembly. By renouncing their
inviolability the men of the Convention placed themselves under a
perpetual menace of death and yet they took this step, and were
not afraid to decimate their own ranks, though perfectly aware
that the scaffold to which they were sending their colleagues
to-day might be their own fate to-morrow. The truth is they had
attained to that completely automatic state which I have
described elsewhere, and no consideration would hinder them from
yielding to the suggestions by which they were hypnotised. The
following passage from the memoirs of one of them,
Billaud-Varennes, is absolutely typical on this score: "The
decisions with which we have been so reproached," he says, "WERE





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Previous: ELECTORAL CROWDS



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