The Grand Illusion It's Coming Right On Schedule

Posted: Aug 24, 2011 12:01 AM

Charles Mackay published his classic study "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" in 1841, but it remains regularly relevant to the affairs of man.

No wonder. For its author's purpose was "to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations." How little has changed.

Back in 1841, it might have been assumed that such manias arose randomly, in keeping with the rising and falling tides of men's passions. But thanks to the genius of American politics, this country has found a way to schedule extraordinary popular delusions and mass manias exactly once every four years, regular as the calendar, predictable as an eclipse. In this case, an eclipse of reason. These quadrennial fits are known as presidential elections.

By now this grand seizure lasts much longer than a year, for it extends from the prairie fires of enthusiasm just ignited in Iowa this month through the (not so) Spontaneous Demonstrations at our national political conventions -- and then on to the Thrill of Victory and Agony of Defeat election night. Stage by carefully delineated stage, the campaign proceeds like any other disease whose progress can be predicted.

The venerable Tocqueville compared an American presidential election to a great flood that sweeps over the whole landscape, covering all before it in paroxysms of enthusiasm, before it recedes as abruptly as it arrived, leaving all as before.

Some are wise enough never to mistake a politician riding the flood tide with a messiah who will perform miracles of hope and change: "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." --Barack Obama, June 3, 2008.

There is nothing like an American presidential campaign to inspire such bouts of grandiosity. For how can a presidential candidate, who is cheered and feted every day by the adoring masses, resist being carried away by his own inflated aura?

As for the hero-worshippers among us, their name is Legion. True believers, they tend to swallow the slogans whole. (Hope! Change!) They may awake only much later, as from a trance, sober up, and look around at what their adoration has wrought. And grow bitterly disappointed, especially in the candidate they were once wild about.

How long can a political mania last before it begins to ebb? Much depends on the degree of individual resistance to popular delusions and the madness of crowds. Or as Charles Mackay said of the moral epidemics he'd studied, men "go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one."

The better balanced among us never join the herd at all, as if they had some natural immunity to crowdthink. Or have learned from experience not to join the lemming-like rush over the nearest cliff.

At those times when popular delusions multiply and the madness of crowds mounts, as at the onset of an American presidential campaign, the best any observer of political manias may be able to recommend is a little salutary neglect. It can do wonders.

Whole empires, like the British one, were acquired almost in an absence of mind, then lost when imperial policymakers started to make plans and impose them on their colonies. Like the decision by crown and parliament to try taxation without representation in His Majesty's American colonies. Bad move. Said colonies reacted by becoming free and independent states.

Not an easy people to cow, His Majesty's subjects on this continent. They put up with abuse after abuse, but finally could take no more, and decided not to remain subjects at all -- for reasons recounted at length in our Declaration of Independence.

The only Rx this old-timer can offer for the quadrennial malady about to sweep the Republic once again, right on schedule, like a carefully scheduled nervous breakdown, is to take the ephemeral headlines with a strong dose of calm. And as much perspective as old Clio herself, muse of History, can supply.