Mme de Staël and the Mystery of the Public Will

Madame de Staël; portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810
Louvre, Paris/Bridgeman Images
Madame de Staël; portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

Two hundred years ago, Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker de Staël-Holstein put her finger on a phenomenon that is upsetting the American presidential race today. She called it “public opinion,” but she used that term in a new way to characterize the difficulty faced by a new breed of political leaders: How could they maintain the tie that bound them to the general public? Constitutions could be designed, electoral procedures devised, she said, but all kinds of representative government would founder if the political class failed to keep a grip on the “moral power” that connected it with the citizenry.

Mme de Staël did not present this problem as a matter of political philosophy. Although she frequented philosophers, notably Benjamin Constant, one of her many lovers, she was known primarily as a literary figure—a salon lioness, a romantic novelist, and the woman who defied Napoleon, preferring exile to subjection. Yet she grasped something that had eluded political theorists and that is still worth pondering. It was the importance of public opinion at the deepest level of political life—neither the shifting, short-term views of policies and politicians nor a preference that could be tallied in the form of votes, but rather a visceral, collective emotion that linked a people to its leaders.

Should that tie be broken, Staël maintained, the public could develop such a sense of estrangement that the political elite, whether royal ministers or elected officials, could no longer manage public affairs. This kind of disaffection ultimately explained the failure of the French Revolution, she argued, and she made the argument by working it into a full-scale history, Considérations sur les principaux événements de la révolution française (Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution), her last and most ambitious book, published posthumously in 1818.

It would be far-fetched to imagine professional politicians consulting a history of the French Revolution as a source of insight about electoral politics in 2016. But the US political class seems to be aware of a rupture in what Staël called “the link between the government and the governed.” William J. Bennett, a conservative pundit and secretary of education in the Reagan administration, recently told The Washington Post:

The party finds itself catching up to its base. Those very elegant papers it published and conferences it held may have been good and smart, but they didn’t really matter. Instead, everyone who’s been prominent for the last 15 to 20 years finds themselves getting pushed out.

In her history of the Revolution, Staël provided an account of how one faction pushed another out of power whenever it lost contact with the general public:

Public opinion always makes itself felt, even in the midst of the factions that oppress it. Only one revolution, that of 1789, was…

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