[According to the popular idea democracy] is a form of government where the government does what the people want; and the people secure a government, which acts according to their interests, by participating in governmental procedure through the election of legislative representatives and executive and judicial officers who depend for their reelection on the conduct of affairs while they hold office. This is a fairly correct description of the structural side of democracy, and the only trouble with it is that the structural side does not mean very much.
We know—through the efforts of the leading scholars who have analyzed the problems of parliamentarism and popular representation in the last hundred years, through Hegel and Bagehot, through Grey and Renan, through Mosca, Pareto, LeBon, and Max Weber—that the essential problem of a working democracy is not the vote of the people but the type of the governing elite and its relation to the mass of the people. The election of men and the voting on issues is the last and relatively least important phase of the democratic process. The decisive question is, Who shapes the issues and who presents the men?
[The plebiscite was used by the Nazis] because it is a procedure accepted as legitimate in the world of Western political ideas; and it was used effectively insofar as, at least for a while and by certain segments of Western public opinion, the view was taken that after all it was up to the Germans if they liked the Nationalist Socialist regime to the extent that election and plebiscite figures seemed to prove. The effectiveness of the plebiscite screen on Western minds is conditioned by the fact that in the prevailing public opinion the idea of democracy has become formalized.
For the purpose of this study we may say roughly that the democratic quality of a government hinges on three points: (1) the type of the elite who shapes the issues, (2) the issues themselves, and (3) the state of mind in which a voter goes to the polls. The three problems are closely interwoven.
The first condition of democracy is that the governing elite permit only issues to be shaped that do not stir up emotions too deeply and are not apt to produce an irreconcilable cleavage in the people. This requires, of course, an express or tacit gentlemen's agreement between the party leaders to refrain from vote-getting by stirring up emotions beyond a definite limit. It requires a relation of mutual confidence between the leaders that none of them will take undue advantage of the others by using unfair means of rabble-rousing in his favor.
When a situation exists like that in Germany [up to the time of this essay: November, 1939 —ed], where the National Socialist party, even during the days of the Weimar Republic, persistently arrogated to itself the monopoly of fighting for national honor and resurrection and branded everybody else as a traitor to his country and a subhuman beast fit to be wiped out, democracy is gone, even though its forms are preserved and are used to gain power in a legal way.
This brings us to the third point, the voter's state of mind. When the voter is worked up to a state of hysterical frenzy by permanent unmeasured calumniation of the opponent, by constant appeal to and glorification of aggressiveness, by Jew baiting, etc., he is not a democratic voter even if he casts his vote as a secret, free vote. At least the classic democratic thinkers of the eighteenth century and the fathers of the constitution of this country would not have acknowledged him as such. And he is even less a democratic voter when he casts the vote against his will because he knows what will happen to him if he does not.
To summarize: The plebiscite is an effective screen pattern because the idea of democracy has become formalized, and because the opinion-shaping agencies such as newspapers, intellectual magazines, texts used in the educational organization, etc., seem not to be even aware that there is the problem of substantial, as distinguished from formal, democracy. The knowledge of the problem is reserved to types of men and literature who have no possibility of influencing opinion to a politically relevant degree. FN
FN. The analysis of the National Socialist technique as an abuse of a formalized democratic structure is not the belated insight of the interpreter. On the occasion of the Reichswehr trial at Ulm in 1930, Adolf Hitler testified in court concerning the legality of his movement: "The National Socialist movement will try to achieve its purpose in this state by constitutional means. The constitution limits our methods, not our purpose. We shall try to win by constitutional means the decisive majorities in the legislative bodies in order, as soon as we have got that far, to remold the state."