The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
THE PERILS OF APATHY

"The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy."

-- CHARLES MONTESQUIEU, 1748


1

APATHY is perhaps the greatest single barrier in a democracy to the conduct of an intelligent foreign policy. Ignorance is no less important, but apathy is either the mother or the daughter of ignorance. One may go even further and say that indifference is the greatest single barrier to the successful operation of a democratic government.

If it is true that eternal vigilance is the price we must pay for liberty, it is no less true that eternal vigilance is the price that we must pay for a successful democracy. More than a century ago the penetrating young French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, recorded after visiting America that democracies are incompetent to manage their foreign affairs wisely, because those who manage them are ignorant of them, and they are ignorant mainly because they lack interest in them. Apathy slays republics. It is the sole epitaph that need be written over dozens of republican corpses in the political graveyard.

Indifference is not a failing peculiarly American. Other democracies have it as well, and in some cases to an even greater degree. England, though close to the rising fury of Hitler, slumbered under Baldwin about as peacefully as we did under Roosevelt.

Nor is indifference to be found only in foreign affairs. At times it is even more pronounced in our domestic affairs, and with much less excuse. One can understand why the American people could sleep in the 1930's, separated as they were from Hitler by three thousand miles of billowing ocean, but they sleep no less soundly while a stench arises from the city hall under their very noses. The Teapot Dome and other scandals that oozed from the Harding administration should have turned a vigilant and liberty-loving people against the party in power, yet Coolidge and the Republicans were triumphantly reelected by a thumping majority. The nation was mentally and morally dulled by prosperity.

The stay-at-home voter--the citizen who votes with his feet--has long bedeviled American politics. We have suffered and continue to suffer from government by the "Don't Cares"--government by default. Normally only about half of the eligible voters cast their ballots, and in some Congressional elections as few as one tenth have straggled to the polls. In 1946 critics noted that the American turnout was behind that of every other large democracy that had recently voted: Australia, France, England, Canada, and even

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