A matter of elite opinion

A DISTINGUISHED Englishman, a one-time ambassador to the United States, a member of the House of Commons and later the House of Lords, an Oxford historian, who died many years ago, is nevertheless at the centre of a rumbling academic dispute in America over public opinion polls.

By Phillip Knightley (One Man's View)

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Published: Sun 23 Dec 2007, 8:53 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:08 AM

The Englishman, James Bryce, has long been considered the inspiration for the public opinion polling industry and has often been acknowledged as such by pollsters like George Gallup of Gallup Poll fame. He and his peers believed that polling was democracy in action and that when the media publicised poll results, as it has now been doing for more than sixty-five years, leaders sat up and took notice. This was the view of the people in action, democracy at its best. But now Professor Katherine A Bradshaw, of the department of journalism at Bowling Green State University has challenged the reliance on Bryce’s work to link polling with democracy.

She says his writings make it clear that he was a racial supremacist who believed that only an elite few British-Americans living in the north-eastern part of the US, people he referred to as “native Americans”, had the ability to reason and govern. Further, he advocated the extending of the influence of these elite few to the masses in order to moderate the dangers of voting.

Writing in the American Commonwealth, Bryce said, “The ignorant masses of such great cities as New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, ought not be reckoned with the working class, but answer better to what is called in England ‘the residuum’. They are largely Irish and Germans, together with Poles and Russians, Bohemians, negroes [sic], Frenchmen, Italians and such native Americans as have fallen from their first estate into drink and penury. From the immigrants neither national patriotism not a sense of civic duty can be expected; the pity is that they have been allowed civic power.”

Bryce had been clearly influenced by racialist theories developed in the late nineteenth century, that blood, not environment made the Anglo-Saxon-Teuton people most fit to rule. It was widely assumed in many circles in the United States that these peoples would eventually replace all inferior races.

Professor Bradshaw quotes historian Reginald Horsman, with a view that must have contributed to America’s much-quoted concept of its “manifest destiny”: “The Anglo-Saxonism of the last half of the (nineteenth) century was no benign expansionism, though it used the rhetoric of redemption, for it assumed that one race was destined to lead, others to serve —one race to flourish, many to die. The world was to be transformed not only by the strength of better ideas but by the power of a superior race.”

Many historians at this time believed what today appears a nonsensical theory that a vigourous race of people had come from central Asia in ancient times and that they carried an “institutional germ”, literally in their blood, to the forests of Germany where they had displayed a unique spirit of freedom. But it was not until the germ was transported to the United States did it develop its full potential. Thus the Americans were able to take pride in a westward advance which had passed beyond England across the Atlantic to press on relentlessly across the American Continent, eventually to complete the grand trek by bringing civilisation back to the Asian homeland. As Horsman explained, enlightenment-inspired American ideals had changed from hope of progress of the human race into dreams of racial destiny for one superior race to advance civilisation. And this is what nature itself had decreed.

Bryce agreed: the descendants of the Anglo-Saxon-Teuton in the United States had a mission to civilise the world. Professor Bradshaw concludes that Bryce was no egalitarian; he was the patron saint of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy. Now all of this could be written off as a bit of historical ephemera, a moment of aberration in American history.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator

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