Social Organization

Chapter 14: Democracy and Crowd Excitement

Charles Horton Cooley

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CERTAIN writers, impressed with the rise of vast democracies within which space is almost eliminated by ease of communication, hold that we are falling under the rule of Crowds, that is to say, of bodies of men subject by their proximity to waves of impulsive sentiment and action, quite like multitudes in physical contiguity. A crowd is well known to be emotional, irrational and suppressive of individuality: democracy, being the rule of the crowd, will show the same traits.

The psychology of crowds has been treated at length by Sighele,[1] Le Bon [2] and other authors who, having made a specialty of the man in the throng, are perhaps

(150) somewhat inclined to exaggerate the degree in which he departs from ordinary personality. The crowd mind

not, as is sometimes said, a quite different thing from the of the individual (unless by individual is meant the higher self), but is merely a collective mind of a low order which stimulates and unifies the cruder impulses of its members. The men are there but they "descend to meet." The loss of rational control and liability to be stampeded which are its main traits are no greater than attend almost any state of excitement—the anger, fear, love and the like, I of the man not in the crowd.

And the intimidating effect of a throng on the individual —the stage-fright, let us say, of an inexperienced speaker —is nothing unique, but closely resembles that which we have all felt on first approaching an imposing person; seeming to spring from that vague dread of unknown power which pervades all conscious life. And like the latter, it readily wears off, so that the practiced orator is never more self-possessed than with the crowd before him.

The peculiarity of the crowd-mind is mainly in the readiness with which any communicable feeling is spread and augmented. Just as a heap of firebrands will blaze when one or two alone will chill and go out, so the units of a crowd " inflame each other by mutual sympathy and mutual consciousness of it."[3] This is much facilitated by the circumstance that habitual activities are usually in abeyance, the man in a throng being like one fallen overboard in that he is removed from his ordinary surroundings and plunged into a strange and alarming element. At once excited and intimidated, he readily takes on a sug-

(151)-gested emotion—as of panic, anger or self-devotion— and proceeds to reckless action.

It must be admitted that modern conditions enable such contagion to work upon a larger scale than ever before, so that u wave of feeling now passes through the people, by the aid of the newspaper, very much as if they were physically a crowd—like the wave of resentment, for instance, that swept over America when the battle-ship Maine was destroyed in Havana harbor. The popular excitement over athletic contests is a familiar example. During the foot-ball season the emotion of the crowd actually present at a famous game is diffused throughout the country by prompt and ingenious devices that depict the progress of the play; and, indeed, it is just to get into this excitement, and out of themselves and the humdrum of routine, that thousands of people, most of whom know next to nothing of the game, read the newspapers and stand about the bulletin boards. And when a war breaks out, the people read the papers in quite the same spirit that the Roman populace went to the arena, not so much from any depraved taste for blood, as to be in the thrill. Even the so-called "individualism" of our time, and the unresting pursuit of " business," are in great part due to a contagion of the crowd. People become excited by the game and want to be in it, whether they have any definite object or not; and once in they think they must keep up the pace or go under.

Is democracy, then, the rule of the crowd, and is there a tendency in modern times toward the subjection of society to an irrational and degenerate phase of the mind

(152) This question, like others relating to the trend of modern life, looks differently according to the points of view from which it is approached. In general we may say that the very changes which are drawing modern populations together into denser wholes bring also a discipline in organization and self-control which should remove them further and further from the mob state.

It is agreed by writers on the crowd that men are little likely to be stampeded in matters regarding which they have a trained habit of thought—as a fireman, for instance, will be apt to keep his head when the fire-alarm sounds. And it is just the absence of this that is the mark of a crowd, which is not made by mere numbers and contiguity, but by group excitability arising from lack of stable organization. A veteran army is not a crowd, however numerous and concentrated; and no more perhaps is a veteran democracy, though it number twenty million voters.

A healthy democracy is indeed a training in judgment and self-control as applied to political action; and just as a fireman is at home on trembling ladders and amidst choking fumes, so the free citizen learns to keep his head amid the contending passions and opinions of a "fierce democratic." Having passed safely through many disturbances, he has acquired a confidence in cool judgment and in the underlying stability of things impossible to men who, living under a stricter control, have had no such education. He knows well how to discount superficial sentiment and "the spawn of the press on the gossip of the hour." It is, then, the nature of ordered freedom to train veterans of politics, secure against the wild impulses of a rabble—such as made havoc in Paris at the close of

(153) the Franco-Prussian war—and in modern times, when power cannot be kept away from the people, such a training is the main guaranty of social stability. Is it not apparent to judicious observers that our tough-fibred, loose-jointed society takes agitation more safely than the more rigid structures of Europe?

Nor is it merely in politics that this is true, for it is the whole tendency of a free system to train men to stand on their own feet and resist the rush. In a fixed order, with little opening for initiative or differentiated development, they scarcely realize themselves as distinct and self-directing individuals, and from them one may expect the traits of Le Bon's foules; hardly from the shrewd farmers and mechanics of American democracy.

It looks at first sight as if, because of their dense humanity, the great cities in which the majority of the population are apparently to live must tend to a mob like state of mind; but except in so far as cities attract the worse elements of the people this is probably not the case. Mob phenomena generally come from crowd excitement ensuing upon a sluggish habit of life and serving as an outlet to the passions which such a life stores up. We find the mob and the mob-like religious revival in the back counties rather than among the cheerful and animated people that throng the open places of New York or Chicago.

Moreover, it is hardly true that "the multitude is always in the wrong";[4] and conclusions may be no less

(154) sound and vital for being reached under a certain exaltation of popular enthusiasm. The individual engaged in private affairs and without the thrill of the common life is not more apt to be at the height of his mental being than the man in the crowd. A mingling of these influences seems to produce the best results, and the highest rationality, while it involves much plodding thought in its preparation, is likely to come to definite consciousness and expression in moments of some excitement. As it is the common experience of artists, poets and saints that their best achievements are the outcome of long brooding culminating in a kind of ecstasy, so the clearest notes of democracy may be struck in times of exaltation like that which, in the Northern United States, followed the attack on Fort Sumter. The impulsiveness which marks popular feeling may express some brutal or trivial phase of human nature, or some profound moral intuition, the only definite test being the persistence of the sentiment which thus comes to light; and if it proves to have the lasting warrant of the general conscience it may be one of those voices of the people in which posterity will discover the voice of God.

The view that the crowd is irrational and degenerate is characteristic of an intricate society where reading has largely taken the place of assembly as a stimulus to thought. In primitive times the social excitement of religious and other festivals represented the higher life; as it still does

(155) in backwoods communities, and to sluggish temperaments everywhere. Even in the towns our higher sentiments are largely formed in social meetings of one sort or another, accompanied by music, acting, dancing or speech-making, which draw one out the more solitary currents of his thought and bring him into livelier unity with his fellows.

There is really no solid basis in fact or theory for the view that established democracy is the rule of an irresponsible crowd. If not true of America, it fails as a general principle; and no authoritative observer has found it to be the case here. Those who hold the crowd-theory seem to be chiefly writers, whether French or not, who generalize from the history of France. Without attempting any discussion of this, I may suggest one or two points that we are perhaps apt to overlook. It is, for one thing, by no means clear that French democracy has shown itself to lack the power of self-control and deliberate progress. Its difficulties—the presence of ancient class divisions, of inevitable militarism, and the like—have been immeasurably greater than ours, and its spirit one with which we do not readily sympathize. France, I suppose, is little understood in England or the United States, and we probably get our views too much from a school of French writers whose zeal to correct her faults may tend to exaggerate them. The more notorious excesses of the French or Parisian populace—such as are real and not a fiction of hostile critics—seem to have sprung from that exercise of power without training inevitable in a country where democracy had to come by revolution. And, again, a certain

(156) tendency to act in masses, and lack of vigorous local and private initiative, which appears to characterize France, is much older than the Revolution, and seems due partly to race traits and partly to such historical conditions as the centralized structure inherited from absolute monarchy:


  1. Seipio Sighele, La folla delinquente. French translation La foule criminelle.
  2. Gustave Le Bon, Psychologie des foules . English translation The Crowd.
    The whole subject, including the question of "prophylactics" against the mob-mind' is well discussed in Professor E. A. Ross's Social Psychology
  3. Whately in his note to Bacon's essay on Discourse.
  4. Attributed to the Earl of Roscommon. See Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
    Sir Thomas Browne characteristically describes the multitude as "that numerous piece of monstrosity, which, taken asunder, seem men, and the reasonable creatures of God, but confused together, make but one great beast, and a monstrosity more prodigious than Hydra." Religio Medici, part ii, sec. 1. This is the very man that urged the burning of witches after the multitude was ready to give it up.

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