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An essay by Ambrose Bierce

The Game Of Politics

Title:     The Game Of Politics
Author: Ambrose Bierce [More Titles by Bierce]


IF ONE were to declare himself a Democrat or a Republican and the claim should be contested he would find it a difficult one to prove. The missing link in his chain of evidence would be the major premise in the syllogism necessary to the establishment of his political status--a definition of "Democrat" or "Republican." Most of the statesmen in public and private life who are poll-parroting these words, do so with entire unconsciousness of their meaning, or rather without knowledge that they have lost whatever of meaning they once had. The words are mere "survivals," marking dead issues and covering allegiances of the loosest and most shallow character. On any question of importance each party is divided against itself and dares not formulate a preference. There is no question before the country upon which one may not think and vote as he likes without affecting his standing in the political communion of saints of which he professes himself a member. "Party lines" are as terribly confused as the parallels of latitude and longitude after a twisting earthquake, or those aimless lines representing the competing railroad on a map published by a company operating "the only direct route." It is not probable that this state of things can last; if there is to be "government by party"--and we should be sad to think that so inestimable a boon were soon to return to Him who gave it--men must begin to let their angry passions rise and take rides. "Ill fares the land to hastening ills a prey," where the people are too wise to dispute and too good to fight. Let us have the good old political currency of bloody noses and cracked crowns; let the yawp of the demagogue be heard in the land; let ears be pestered with the spargent cheers of the masses. Give us a whoop-up that shall rouse us like a rattling peal of thunder. Will nobody be our Moses--there should be two Moseses--to lead us through this detestable wilderness of political stagnation?



Nowhere "on God's green earth"--it is fitting, that this paper contain a bit of bosh--nowhere is so much insufferable stuff talked in a given period of time as in an American political convention. It is there that all those objectionable elements of the national character which evoke the laughter of Europe and are the despair of our friends find freest expression, unhampered by fear of any censorship more exacting than that of "the opposing party"--which takes no account of intellectual delinquencies, but only of moral. The "organs" of the "opposing party" will not take the trouble to point out--even to observe--that the "debasing sentiments" and "criminal views" uttered in speech and platform are expressed in sickening syntax and offensive rhetoric. Doubtless an American politician, statesman, what you will, could go into a political convention and signify his views with simple, unpretentious common sense, but doubtless he never does.

Every community is cursed with a number of "orators"--men regarded as "eloquent"--"silver tongued" men--fellows who to the common American knack at brandishing the tongue add an exceptional felicity of platitude, a captivating mastery of dog's-eared sentiment, a copious and obedient vocabulary of eulogium, an iron insensibility to the ridiculous and an infinite affinity to fools. These afflicting Chrysostoms are always lying in wait for an "occasion" It matters not what it is: a "reception" to some great man from abroad, a popular ceremony like the laying of a corner-stone, the opening of a fair, the dedication of a public building, an anniversary banquet of an ancient and honorable order (they all belong to ancient and honorable orders) or a club dinner--they all belong to clubs and pay dues. But it is in the political convention that they come out particularly strong. By some imperious tradition having the force of written law it is decreed that in these absurd bodies of our fellow citizens no word of sense shall be uttered from the platform; whatever is uttered in set speeches shall be addressed to the meanest capacity present As a chain can be no stronger than its weakest link, so nothing said by the speakers at a political convention must be above the intellectual reach of the most pernicious idiot having a seat and a vote. I don't know why it is so. It seems to be thought that if he is not suitably entertained he will not attend, as a delegate, the next convention.

Here are the opening sentences of the speech in which a man was once nominated for Governor:

"Two years ago the Republican party in State and Nation marched to imperial triumph. On every hilltop and mountain peak our beacons blazed and we awakened the echoes of every valley with songs of our rejoicings."

And so forth. Now, if I were asked to recast those sentences so that they should conform to the simple truth and be inoffensive to good taste I should say something like this:

"Two years ago the Republican party won a general election."

If there is any thing in this inflated rigmarole that is not adequately expressed in my amended statement, what is it? As to eloquence it will hardly be argued that nonsense, falsehood and metaphors which were old when Rome was young are essential to that. The first man (in early Greece) who spoke of awakening an echo did a felicitous thing. Was it felicitous in the second? Is it felicitous now? As to that military metaphor--the "marching" and so forth--its inventor was as great an ass as any one of the incalculable multitude of his plagiarists. On this matter hear the late Richard Grant White:

"Is it not time that we had done with the nauseous talk about campaigns, and standard-bearers, and glorious victories (imperial triumphs) and all the bloated army-bumming bombast which is so rife for the six months preceding an election? To read almost any one of our political papers during a canvass is enough to make one sick and sorry.... An election has no manner of likeness to a campaign, or a battle. It is not even a contest in which the stronger or more dexterous party is the winner; it is a mere counting, in which the bare fact that one party is the more numerous puts it in power if it will only come up and be counted; to insure which a certain time is spent by each party in reviling and belittling the candidates of its opponents and lauding its own; and this is the canvass, at the likening of which to a campaign every honest soldier might reasonably take offense."

But, after all, White was only "one o' them dam litery fellers," and I dare say the original proponent of the military metaphor, away off there in "the dark backward and abysm of time," knew a lot more about practical politics than White ever did. And it is practical politics to be an ass.

In withdrawing his own name from before a convention, a California politician once made a purely military speech of which a single sample passage is all that I shall allow myself the happiness to quote:

"I come before you today as a Republican of the Republican banner county of this great State of ours. From snowy Shasta on the north to sunny Diego on the south; from the west, where the waves of the Pacific look upon our shores, to where the barriers of the great Sierras stand clad in eternal snow, there is no more loyal county to the Republican party in this State than the county from which I hail. [Applause, naturally.] Its loyalty to the party has been tested on many fields of battle [Anglice, in many elections] and it has never wavered in the contest Wherever the fate of battle was trembling in the balance [Homer, and since Homer, Tom, Dick and Harry] Alameda county stepped into the breach and rescued the Republican party from defeat."

Translated into English this military mouthing would read somewhat like this:

"I live in Alameda county, where the Republicans have uniformly outvoted the Democrats."

The orators at the Democratic convention a week earlier were no better and no different. Their rhetorical stock-in-trade was the same old shop-worn figures of speech in which their predecessors have dealt for ages, and in which their successors will traffic to the end of--well, to the end of that imitative quality in the national character, which, by its superior intensity, serves to distinguish us from the apes that perish.



"What we most need, to secure honest elections," says a well-meaning reformer, "is the Clifford or the Myers voting machine." Why, truly, here is a hopeful spirit--a rare and radiant intelligence suffused with the conviction that men can be made honest by machinery--that human character is a matter of gearing, ratchets and dials! One would give something to know how it feels to be like that. A mind so constituted must be as happy in its hope as a hen incubating a nest-ful of porcelain door-knobs. It lives in rapturous contemplation of a world of its own creation--a world where public morality and political good order are to be had by purchase at the machine-shop. In that delectable world religion is superfluous; the true high priest is the mechanical engineer; the minor clergy are the village blacksmiths. It is rather a pity that so fine and fair a sphere should prosper only in the attenuated ether of an idiot's understanding.

Voting-machines are doubtless well enough; they save labor and enable the statesmen of the street to know the result within a few minutes of the closing of the polls--whereby many are spared to their country who would otherwise incur fatal disorders by exposure to the night air while assisting in awaiting the returns. But a voting-machine that human ingenuity can not pervert, human ingenuity can not invent.

That is true, too, of laws. Your statesman of a mental stature somewhat overtopping that of the machine-person puts his faith in law. Providence has designed to permit him to be persuaded of the efficacy of statutes--good, stringent, carefully drawn statutes definitively repealing all the laws of nature in conflict with any of their provisions. So the poor devil (I am writing of Mr. Legion) turns for relief from law to law, ever on the stool of repentance, yet ever unfouling the anchor of hope. By no power cm earth can his indurated understanding be penetrated by the truth that his woful state is due, not to any laws of his own, nor to any lack of them, but to his rascally refusal to obey the Golden Rule. How long is it since we were all clamoring for the Australian ballot law, which was to make a new Heaven and a new earth? We have the Australian ballot law and the same old earth smelling to the same old Heaven. Writhe upon the triangle as we may, groan out what new laws we will, the pitiless thong will fall upon our bleeding backs as long as we deserve it. If our sins, which are scarlet, are to be washed as white as wool it must be in the tears of a genuine contrition: our crocodile deliverances will profit us nothing. We must stop chasing dollars, stop lying, stop cheating, stop ignoring art, literature and all the refining agencies and instrumentalities of civilization. We must subdue our detestable habit of shaking hands with prosperous rascals and fawning upon the merely rich. It is not permitted to our employers to plead in justification of low wages the law of supply and demand that is giving them high profits. It is not permitted to discontented employees to break the bones of contented ones and destroy the foundations of social order. It is infamous to look upon public office with the lust of possession; it is disgraceful to solicit political preferment, to strive and compete for "honors" that are sullied and tarnished by the touch of the reaching hand. Until we amend our personal characters we shall amend our laws in vain. Though Paul plant and Apollos water, the field of reform will grow nothing but the figless thistle and the grapeless thorn. The State is an aggregation of individuals. Its public character is the expression of their personal ones. By no political prestidigitation can it be made better and wiser than the sum of their goodness and wisdom. To expect that men who do not honorably and intelligently conduct their private affairs will honorably and intelligently conduct the affairs of the community is to be a fool. We are told that out of nothing God made the Heavens and the earth; but out of nothing God never did and man never can, make a public sense of honor and a public conscience. Miracles are now performed but one day of the year--the twenty-ninth of February; and on leap year God is forbidden to perform them.



Ye who hold that the power of eloquence is a thing of the past and the orator an anachronism; who believe that the trend of political events and the results of parliamentary action are determined by committees in cold consultation and the machinations of programmes in holes and corners, consider the ascension of Bryan and be wise. A week before the convention of 1896 William J. Bryan had never heard of himself; upon his natural obscurity was superposed the opacity of a Congressional service that effaced him from the memory of even his faithful dog, and made him immune to dunning. Today he is pinnacled upon the summit of the tallest political distinction, gasping in the thin atmosphere of his unfamiliar environment and fitly astonished at the mischance. To the dizzy elevation of his candidacy he was hoisted out of the shadow by his own tongue, the longest and liveliest in Christendom. Had he held it--which he could not have done with both hands--there had been no Bryan. His creation was the unstudied act of his own larynx; it said, "Let there be Bryan," and there was Bryan. Even in these degenerate days there is a hope for the orators when one can make himself a Presidential peril by merely waving the red flag in the cave of the winds and tormenting the circumjacence with a brandish of abundant hands.

To be quite honest, I do not entirely believe that Orator Bryan's tongue had anything to do with it. I have long been convinced that personal persuasion is a matter of animal magnetism--what in its more obvious manifestation we now call hypnotism. At the back of the words and the postures, and independent of them, is that secret, mysterious power, addressing, not the ear, not the eye, nor, through them, the understanding, but through its matching quality in the auditor, captivating the will and enslaving it That is how persuasion is effected; the spoken words merely supply a pretext for surrender. They enable us to yield without loss of our self-esteem, in the delusion that we are conceding to reason what is really extorted by charm. The words are necessary, too, to point out what the orator wishes us to think, if we are not already apprised of it. When the nature of his power is better understood and frankly recognized, he can spare himself the toil of talking. The parliamentary debate of the future will probably be conducted in silence, and with only such gestures as go by the name of "passes." The chairman will state the question before the House and the side, affirmative or negative, to be taken by the honorable member entitled to the floor. That gentleman will rise, train his compelling orbs upon the miscreants in opposition, execute a few passes and exhaust his alloted time in looking at them. He will then yield to an honorable member of dissenting views. The preponderance in magnetic power and hypnotic skill will be manifest in the voting. The advantages of the method are as plain as the nose on an elephant's face. The "arena" will no longer "ring" with anybody's "rousing speech," to the irritating abridgment of the inalienable right to pursuit of sleep. Honorable members will lack provocation to hurl allegations and cuspidors. Pitchforking statesmen and tosspot reformers will be unable to play at pitch-and-toss with reputations not submitted for the performance. In short, the congenial asperities of debate will be so mitigated that the honorable member from Hades will retire permanently from the hauls of legislation.



"Public opinion," says Buckle, "being the voice of the average man, is the voice of mediocrity." Is it therefore so very wise and infallible a guide as to be accepted without other credentials than its name and fame? Ought we to follow its light and leading with no better assurance of the character of its authority than a count of noses of those following it already, and with no inquiry as to whether it has not on many former occasions let them and their several sets of predecessors into bogs of error and over precipices to "eternal mock?" Surely "the average man," as every one knows him, is not very wise, not very learned, not very good; how is it that his views, of so intricate and difficult matters as those of which public opinion makes pronouncement through him are entitled to such respect? It seems to me that the average man, as I know him, is very much a fool, and something of a rogue as well. He has only a smattering of education, knows virtually nothing of political history, nor history of any kind, is incapable of logical, that is to say clear, thinking, is subject to the suasion of base and silly prejudices, and selfish beyond expression. That such a person's opinions should be so obviously better than my own that I should accept them instead, and assist in enacting them into laws, appears to me most improbable. I may "bow to the will of the people" as gracefully as a defeated candidate, and for the same reason, namely, that I can not help myself; but to admit that I was wrong in my belief and flatter the power that subdues me--no, that I will not do. And if nobody would do so the average man would not be so very cock-sure of his infallibility and might sometimes consent to be counseled by his betters.

In any matter of which the public has imperfect knowledge, public opinion is as likely to be erroneous as is the opinion of an individual equally uninformed. To hold otherwise is to hold that wisdom can be got by combining many ignorances. A man who knows nothing of algebra can not be assisted in the solution of an algebraic problem by calling in a neighbor who knows no more than himself, and the solution approved by the unanimous vote of ten million such men would count for nothing against that of a competent mathematician. To be entirely consistent, gentlemen enamored of public opinion should insist that the text books of our common schools should be the creation of a mass meeting, and all disagreements arising in the course of the work settled by a majority vote. That is how all difficulties incident to the popular translation of the Hebrew Scriptures were composed. It should be admitted, however that most of those voting knew a little Hebrew, though not much. A problem in mathematics is a very simple thing compared with many of those upon which the people are called to pronounce by resolution and ballot--for example, a question of finance.

"The voice of the people is the voice of God"--the saying is so respectably old that it comes to us in the Latin. He is a strange, an unearthly politician who has not a score of times publicly and solemnly signified his faith in it But does anyone really believe it? Let us see. In the period between 1859 and 1885, the Democratic party was defeated six times in succession. The voice of the people pronounced it in error and unfit to govern. Yet after each overthrow it came back into the field gravely reaffirming its faith in the principles that God had condemned. Then God twice reversed Himself, and the Republicans "never turned a hair," but set about beating Him with as firm a confidence of success (justified by the event) as they had known in the years of their prosperity. Doubtless in every instance of a political party's defeat there are defections, but doubtless not all are due to the voice that spoke out of the great white light that fell about Saul of Tarsus. By the way, it is worth observing that that clever gentleman was under no illusion regarding the origin of the voice that wrought his celebrated "flop"; he did not confound it with the _vox populi_ The people of his time and place had no objection to the persecution that he was conducting, and could persecute a trifle themselves upon occasion.

Majorities rule, when they do rule, not because they ought, but because they can. We vote in order to learn without fighting which party is the stronger; it is less disagreeable to learn it that way than the other way. Sometimes the party that is numerically the weaker is by possession of the Government actually the stronger, and could maintain itself in power by an appeal to arms, but the habit of submitting when outvoted is hard to break. Moreover, we all recognize in a subconscious way, the reasonableness of the habit as a practical method of getting on; and there is always the confident hope of success in the next canvass. That one's cause will succeed because it ought to succeed is perhaps the most general and invincible folly affecting the human judgment Observation can not shake it, nor experience destroy. Though you bray a partisan in the mortar of adversity till he numbers the strokes of the pestle by the hairs of his head, yet will not this fool notion depart from him. He is always going to win the next time, however frequently and disastrously he has lost before. And he can always give you the most cogent reasons for the faith that is in him. His chief reliance is on the "fatal mistakes" made since the last election by the other party. There never was a year in which the party in power and the party out of power did not make bad mistakes--mistakes which, unlike eggs and fish, seem always worst when freshest. If idiotic errors of policy were always fatal, no party would ever win an election and there would be a hope of better government under the benign sway of the domestic cow.



Each political party accuses the "opposing candidate" of refusing to answer certain questions which somebody has chosen to ask him. I think myself it is discreditable for a candidate to answer any questions at all, to make speeches, declare his policy, or to do anything whatever to get himself elected. If a political party choose to nominate a man so obscure that his character and his views on all public questions are not known or inferable he ought to have the dignity to refuse to expound them. As to the strife for office being a pursuit worthy of a noble ambition, I do not think so; nor shall I believe that many do think so until the term "office seeker" carries a less opprobrious meaning and the dictum that "the office should seek the man, not the man the office," has a narrower currency among all manner of persons. That by acts and words generally felt to be discreditable a man may evoke great popular enthusiasm is not at all surprising. The late Mr. Barnum was not the first nor the last to observe that the people love to be humbugged. They love an impostor and a scamp, and the best service that you can do for a candidate for high political preferment is to prove him a little better than a thief, but not quite so good as a thug.



The view is often taken that a representative is the same thing as a delegate; that he is to have, and can honestly entertain, no opinion that is at variance with the whims and the caprices of his constituents. This is the very _reductio ad absurdum_ of representative government. That it is the dominant theory of the future there can be little doubt, for it is of a piece with the progress downward which is the invariable and unbroken tendency of republican institutions. It fits in well with manhood suffrage, rotation in office, unrestricted patronage, assessment of subordinates, an elective judiciary and the rest of it. This theory of representative institutions is the last and lowest stage in our pleasant performance of "shooting Niagara." When it shall have universal recognition and assent we shall have been fairly engulfed in the whirlpool, and the buzzard of anarchy may hopefully whet his beak for the national carcass. My view of the matter--which has the further merit of being the view held by those who founded this Government--is that a man holding office from and for the people is in conscience and honor bound to do what seems to his judgment best for the general welfare, respectfully regardless of any and all other considerations. This is especially true of legislators, to whom such specific "instructions" as constituents sometimes send are an impertinence and an insult. Pushed to its logical conclusion, the "delegate" idea would remove all necessity of electing men of brains and judgment; one man properly connected with his constituents by telegraph would make as good a legislator as another. Indeed, as a matter of economy, one representative should act for many constituencies, receiving his instructions how to vote from mass meetings in each. This, besides being logical, would have the added advantage of widening and hardening the power of the local "bosses," who, by properly managing the showing of hands could have the same beneficent influence in national affairs that they now enjoy in municipal. The plan would be a pretty good one if there were not so many other ways for the Nation to go to the Devil that it appears needless.



With a wiser wisdom than was given to them, our forefathers in making the Constitution would not have provided that each House of Congress "shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members." They would have foreseen that a ruling majority of Congress could not safely be trusted to exercise this power justly in the public interest, but would abuse it in the interest of party. A man's right to sit in a legislative body should be determined, not by that body, which has neither the impartiality, the knowledge of evidence nor the time to determine it rightly, but by the courts of law. That is how it is done in England, where Parliament voluntarily surrendered the right to say by whom the constituencies shall be represented, and there is no disposition to resume it. As the vices hunt in packs, so, too, virtues are gregarious; if our Congress had the righteousness to decide contested elections justly it would have also the self-denial not to wish to decide them at all.



The purpose of the legislative custom of "eulogizing" dead members of Congress is not apparent unless it is to add a terror to death and make honorable and self-respecting members rather bear the ills they have than escape through the gates of death to others that they know a good deal about. If a member of that kind, who has had the bad luck to "go before," could be consulted he would indubitably say that he was sorry to be dead; and that is not a natural frame of mind in one who is exempt from the necessity of himself "delivering a eulogy."

It may be urged that the Congressional "eulogy" expresses in a general way the eulogist's notion of what he would like to have somebody say of himself when he is by death elected to the Lower House. If so, then Heaven help him to a better taste. Meanwhile it is a patriotic duty to prevent him from indulging at the public expense the taste that he has. There have been a few men in Congress who could speak of the character and services of a departed member with truth and even eloquence. One such was Senator Vest. Of many others, the most charitable thing that one can conscientiously say is that one would a little rather hear a "eulogy" by them than on them. Considering that there are many kinds of brains and only one kind of no brains, their diversity of gifts is remarkable, but one characteristic they have in common: they are all poets. Their efforts in the way of eulogium illustrate and illuminate Pascal's obscure saying that poetry is a particular sadness. If not sad themselves, they are at least the cause of sadness in others, for no sooner do they take to their legs to remind us that life is fleeting, and to make us glad that it is, than they burst into bloom as poets all! Some one has said that in the contemplation of death there is something that belittles. Perhaps that explains the transformation. Anyhow the Congressional eulogist takes to verse as naturally as a moth to a candle, and with about the same result to his reputation for sense.

The poetry is commonly not his own; what it violates every law of sense, fitness, metre, rhyme and taste it is. But nine times in ten it is some dog's-eared, shop-worn quotation from one of the "standard" bards, usually Shakspere. There are familiar passages from that poet which have been so often heard in "the halls of legislation" that they have acquired an infamy which unfits them for publication in a decent family newspaper; and Shakspere himself, reposing in Elysium on his bed of asphodel and moly, omits them when reading his complete works to the shades of Kit Marlowe and Ben Jonson, for their sins.

This whole business ought to be "cut out" It is not only a waste of time and a sore trial to the patience of the country; it is absolutely immoral. It is not true that a member of Congress who, while living was a most ordinary mortal, becomes by the accident of death a hero, a saint, "an example to American youth." Nobody believes these abominable "eulogies," and nobody should be permitted to utter them in the time and place designated for another purpose. A "tribute" that is exacted by custom and has not the fire and light of spontaneity is without sincerity or sense. A simple resolution of regret and respect is all that the occasion requires and would not inhibit any further utterance that friends and admirers of the deceased might be moved to make elsewhere. If any bereaved gentlemen, feeling his heart getting into his head, wishes to tickle his ear with his tongue by way of standardizing his emotion let him hire a hall and do so. But he should not make the Capitol a "Place of Wailing" and the Congressional Record a book of bathos.

[The end]
Ambrose Bierce's essay: The Game Of Politics