Emotion and the Thinking Cap, October 1912




The problem of carrying a Presidential election is mainly how by iteration to excite the voters to believe in some real or artificial peril to the country. The bellows of emotion is used to kindle the untouched coal of feeling, first to a red-hot state and then to a devouring flame. Men who at the beginning of a campaign have presented an excellent imitation of sober-minded citizens actually contemplating questions of government become by November, through a contagion of catchwords, as blind and mad in their [partisanship] as young lovers in their love. This repetition of party cries suggests George Eliot's saying that "iteration, like friction, produces more heat than light." Sometimes the peril suggested as imminent is the destruction of American manufacturers, with, incidentally, the ruin of the American working-man; sometimes, on the contrary, it is the subversion of liberty itself by one or the other of these classes. Whatever may be the measure of actual danger, it has hitherto been the business of the [partisan] manager, the political organ, and the "spellbinder" to throw the voter into a state in which his reason will give way to his prejudices, and an epithet will have more power with him than an argument.

There are two considerations which would seem to point to a diminution during the present year in the susceptibility of the electorate to these hectic influences. One is the fatiguing excitement of the Presidential primaries, which is likely to react in intelligent people to a serener state of mind. Human nature simply cannot keep up the racket. To quote again the ten-year-old saying of Woodrow Wilson's, "Life is not all running to a fire," though sensational journalism would have us think so. The second consideration is to be found in the abundant prospect of "bumper" crops. There are now, as heretofore there have been, and as hereafter there will be, plenty of social and economic ills to be cured, and it behooves one to speak with respect of all sincere attempts to cure them; but these cannot be traded upon by politicians as readily in a year of commercial promise as in one of dire distress.

On the other hand, two new elements must be taken into account, as tending, in certain quarters, to an increase of emotion. For the first time in a Presidential election the votes of women in six States are likely to have a large total effect, and these will add an influence from the sex which, on the whole, is moved more by feeling than by reason, and which, moreover, is an influence likely to be played upon easily by politicians. Again, the campaign has taken on an entirely novel phase in what may be called the political capitalization of benevolent work, which is sure to emotionalize politics to a very great extent. The "settlement," for good or ill, is now fairly in the political field, and before long we shall discover whether this movement is likely to do more good to politics than harm to benevolence. Perhaps the time may come when, in addition to Tammany benevolent associations, we may have Progressive college settlements, Republican dispensaries, and Democratic outdoor relief. Nobody seems to be considering the social peril involved in [partisan] charities.

We are very far from meaning to say that emotion should have no place in politics. Great wrongs call for great indignation, and indignation comes to the surface in emotion. But it is important to bear in mind that government is a practical adjustment of means to ends, a difficult and complicated business, to which emotion may supply a motive, but for which it alone cannot provide a solution. In politics emotion is one of the most manifest of all the causes that conspire to blind Man's erring judgment and misguide the mind. [page 2]

Apparently, there never was a campaign when it was more desirable to put on one's thinking-cap and to keep it on.