This section is from the book "Principles Of Sociology With Educational Applications", by Frederick R. Clow. Also available from Amazon: Principles of sociology with educational applications.
Modern communication makes it possible for a scattered membership of any size to exercise governmental functions in much the same way as an assembly. Questions can be submitted to all of the members simultaneously, arguments pro and con presented, and votes taken. This method, first used in France, is there known as the plebiscite; in English-speaking countries it is usually called by a Latin name, referendum. The difficulty is to get the attention of the members without the devices which are employed in an assembly.
Representation is an older device for extending the democratic principle of the primary group to larger groups. In organizations with a membership so large or scattered that a general assembly is impracticable, a representative assembly is the most efficient organ of public opinion - in fact the only one which can result in steady and consistent public will. The ancient democracies of Greece and Rome never gave this device a fair trial, though they made a few attempts at it. Their ruling classes seem to have been so deficient in honesty that a community could not think of sending a representative off to a distant assembly to speak and vote for them. It remained for the English to perfect this instrument of government so that the rest of the world could not help but adopt it.
Representative government has reached its greatest perfection, the perfection which combines simplicity with efficiency, not in political institutions but in economic. The corporation with shareholders, which has become during the past century the regular form of organization for large businesses, is perhaps the best government that human ingenuity has devised. The central feature of it is the elective board of directors which combines executive, legislative, and judicial functions, and through its chairman supervises the administrative corps.
But the democratic principle of the primary group can thus extend to wider groups only on certain conditions. One is that the population be of common stock and language so that communication between the members will be easy. Another is that there be enough steadiness of character so that the natural kindness will develop loyalty to the group; the members must be able to trust one another. Still farther, there must be some natural capacity for administration. With these conditions present, there is a well-organized public opinion. Majorities are tolerant; minorities submit and help to carry out the will of the majorities. The most capable persons are put forward as leaders, and these leaders are guided by the public opinion of the group. Those who rule, in other words, are simply functionaries, like specialists of all kinds down to the humblest, who are employed by the organization for its own advantage. One of the rank and file then feels satisfied to see others in the high positions, provided they are fit persons and he shares in the public opinion which controls them.
Perhaps it should be repeated here that time is necessary for public opinion to become organized. The traditions of submission to authority and procedure according to law must become established. The processes by which rulers are chosen and constitutions amended must be so well understood and respected that the agitator who proposes revolutionary measures can get no support. The instinct must be cultivated, by precept and by experience, which will select the really capable and trustworthy candidate rather than the demagogue. Russia is showing to-day, as Germany did in 1848, and France in 1792, and England in 1649, that democracy cannot be made off-hand.
... To restate it, ... we should begin by recognising that democracy means or may mean two things which, though allied in idea, are not necessarily found together in practice. In its most obvious meaning, democracy implies a direct participation of the mass of ordinary citizens in the public life of the commonwealth, an idea most nearly realized, perhaps, in the great assemblies and large popular juries of Athens. This idea . . . has lent support to the superstition that the highest and most difficult of public functions can be safely entrusted to the ordinary honest and capable citizens without the need of any special training as a preliminary. Here is precisely the point where the contrast of a small, primitive, simple community with the vast complexity of a modern nation is of fatal importance. The village elder, a simple, well-meaning man, knowing his neighbors, and familiar with the customs of the countryside, may doubtless administer patriarchal justice to the general satisfaction under his own vine and fig tree, but summon him to the administration of an elaborate and artificial system of law and, unless he is a genius, he must break down. Hence in the teeth of theory and of the interests of the party machine Americans are being driven to the formation of a regular civil service of trained administrators on the European model.
With the formation of a regular civil service democracy in its first and most obvious form disappears. There remains the second idea, the idea of ultimate popular sovereignty. In this conception the part played by the individual man becomes less important than the part played by the people as a whole. It is held that the details of government are for the expert to arrange, but the expert administrator holds from the people, receives their mandate, and stands or falls by their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the result. The people are the ultimate authority, but only the ultimate authority. An immediate power is delegated to politicians who make a business of public affairs and through them to civil servants with a professional training in administration. It is admitted that the popular judgment can only be formed on the broad results of policy, and must be as much a judgment of persons as of things. ... - Hobhouse, Democracy and Reaction, pp. 148-150.