The Grand Illusion: It’s Coming Right on Schedule
By Paul Greenberg
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
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?