Dickens and Contemporary Political Thought
When Dickens introduces politicians as characters, they are typically buffoons or villains. Think of James Harthouse, or Lord Boodle, Coodle, Sir Thomas Doodle, or even the Duke of Foodle. In this essay, I will focus on Dickens’s lampooning of Mr. Gregsbury from Nicholas Nickleby, who is an underrated example of this Dickensian character type. In these buffoonish or villainous characters, Dickens expresses his own well-documented personal hostility towards politicians. It is an antipathy that was gained early in life from his experience as a Parliamentary reporter, and that he carried with him throughout his life (Engel 948). In a series of letters included in Monroe Engel’s excellent article The Politics of Dickens’s Novels, for example, he reports that Dickens says that he wished “to have […] every man in England feel something of the contempt for the House of Commons that I have” (Letters II 585), that he was “hourly strengthened in [his] old belief that our political aristocracy […] are the death of England” (Letters II 695), and that we seem “to have proved the failure of representative institutions […] what with teaching people to"keep in their stations,” […] what with flunkeyism, toadyism, letting the most contemptible lords come in" (Letters II 695). He places most of the blame on elected leaders: “My faith in the people governing is on the whole infinitesimal”(Letters III 751). Indeed, Dickens held the members of Parliaments in such low esteem that it was surely part of his calculus when he refused to even stand for an uncontested seat when offered to him (Engel 950), stating that “no consideration would induce me to become a Member of that amazing institution” (Letter II 838).
While this antagonism towards politicians is well-documented, and Dickens’s own political beliefs about representation and politics are in general well-known, what is not appreciated enough is how Dickens’s commentary on elected representatives anticipated contemporary thinking on representation, responsiveness, and the role of elected officials. I use the example of Mr. Gregsbury for this essay, because of all the sketches of politicians, Dickens’s discussion of Mr. Gregsbury most neatly connects with contemporary discussion about the relationship between elected representatives and those they represent. Specifically, I show how Dickens anticipates arguments about the role of self-selection, communication, the electoral incentive, representation and responsiveness, the specter of elite domination, and reliance on national imagery.
Mr. Gregsbury’s office in in Manchester Buildings, a place famous for its political residents, who “after wriggling themselves into Parliament […] find that it, too is no thoroughfare for them; that, like Manchester Buildings, it leads to nothing beyond itself; and that they are fain at last to back out, no wiser, no richer, not one whit more famous, than they went in” (Dickens 191, ch.16). Dickens suggests here that these prospective politicians enter politics mainly with the intention of gaining riches and fame. Certainly, Mr. Gregsbury seems no exception. In interviewing Nicholas for a job, he informs him that one of his tasks will be “sitting in the front row of the gallery, and saying to the people about—“You see that gentleman […] that’s Mr. Gregsbury—the celebrated Mr. Gregsbury”—with any other little eulogium that might strike you at the moment” (199, ch.16). Dickens here identifies what subsequent scholars would call a problem of self-selection. Every electoral democracy struggles with the problem of self-selection of leaders. That is, people self-select into becoming politicians, and a frequent concern is that the type of people who would like to hold office are perhaps also more likely to be the type of people who have a natural aspiration for having power and fame (Guerrero 168). Although initially political scientists characterized this self-selection as purely one of attracting individuals with a personal search for power (see summary in DiRenzo 217), subsequent research has focused more on the role of personality. A seminal work in this line of scholarship was Constantini and Craik’s personality test of over 2,000 politicians (641-661). They found that politicians differ significantly from the general public in terms of self-confidence and dominance, and lower in terms of deference. If Mr. Gregsbury were a participant in their personality test battery, I dare say he would share these traits.
Politicians may enter politics for reasons of self-aggrandizement, but their success therein is highly determined by their rhetorical ability. Dickens’s own work as a reporter taught him this truth first-hand (see John Drew’s essay Dickens, Miscellanies, and Classical Traditions of Satire, 221). As his friend George Augustus Sala put it, Dickens’s work meant that he “had listened to masters in every style of rhetoric: he had followed Henry Brougham the Demosthenes, Shiel the Cicero, O’Connell the Mirabeau, of their age” (36-37). He was thus familiar with politicians’ penchant for “pouring forth a torrent of words without sense or meaning” but who are nonetheless “expert performers,” as Dickens himself describes politicians in The Pantomime of Life. And in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge sarcastically inquires why his eloquent nephew does not try for parliament given his apparent speaking prowess (Dickens 7). It was taken as a given that oratory was essential. Which brings us to Mr. Gregsbury, who has “a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed” (192, ch.16). Although a well-known trope of political leaders even in Dickens’s day, the ability of politicians to harness their “tolerable command of sentences” to achieve their desired political ends has always raised the specter of demagoguery among political thinkers. Even in the earliest known democracy, that of Athens, the ancient writer Thucydides cautioned about the undue power political communication can have (in the hands of a skillful orator) in a democracy (171-182). Thucydides records a debate between two Athenian politicians about whether to embark upon a course of war. This is clearly a momentous decision to have to make, and yet Thucydides suggests that the voters are mostly swayed by the better orator—there was “a change of feeling” after the more skillful one finished (183). Later in his history, Thucydides shows how Athenian leaders refused to allow a public hearing about an issue (from a delegation from a foreign city) because they might “deceive the ears of the multitude by seductive arguments” (351). In the modern era, the fulfillment of such fears was embodied in populist leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao; leaders who could bring audiences to tears, rouse them to passion, and ultimately, encourage unthinkable violence.
This has led us rather far from Mr. Gregsbury, however, whose “command of sentences” was not used in demagoguery, but rather in evincing a new sort of communication (or perhaps non-communication), that of empty political phraseology. This was a type of communication that had so grown in usage subsequent to Dickens, that George Orwell could write a whole essay about it (Politics and the English Language | The Orwell Foundation). See if this sounds familiar to language Mr. Gregsbury would venerate: an objective to move “away from concreteness,” of “gumming together long strips of words […] and making the results presentable by sheer humbug […] leaving your meaning vague.” For politicians who use such language, Orwell suspects that they are self-consciously seeking to bury the human element of communication:
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity (Politics and the English Language | The Orwell Foundation).
While I have no doubt that Mr. Gregsbury would object to this dehumanization thesis, it remains clear that the policy of politicians to use communication as a tool to remain deliberately vague is one that Dickens noted which has been subsequently developed by later authors. And indeed, the type of obfuscation that Mr. Gregsbury practices is well-known within political science. In many instances, it is in political candidates’ best interests not to make their issue positions clear (Conover and Feldman). Clarifying many issue positions risks alienating large swaths of the population; it is better to have voters infer favourable stances on positions except when one can contrast one’s position more favourably compared to the opposition. In Mr. Gregsbury’s case, his positions on such things as stopping the abundance of coughing and sneezing (194, ch.16) are obviously unpopular to his constituency, and so he takes care to obfuscate until deliberately pinned down as to what his position is.
The electoral incentive
In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens introduces us to a class of professional politicians who will do whatever it takes to gain and keep power, who are “wriggling themselves into Parliament by violent efforts and contortions” (191, ch.16). Such politicians, like Mr. Gregsbury, will make whatever promises they see fit in order to get elected (even ones as outlandish as stopping coughing and groaning), which they will break if expedient (provided they can get away with them). Their very natures are as ephemeral as the policies they propose. Consider Mr. Gregsbury’s reaction to his constituents after he wins the election:
The deputation, who had only seen him at canvassing or election time, were struck dumb by his coolness. He didn’t appear like the same man; then he was all milk and honey; now he was all starch and vinegar (194, ch.16).
The “wriggling,” “violent efforts and contortions” necessary to win election (and re-election) that Dickens describes presages one of the most famous maxims in political science. That is, that politicians are “single-minded seekers of reelection” (Mayhew). In other words, the model that performs best when seeking to understand elected officials’ behaviour is the one that assumes that their actions will be guided entirely by what it takes to win the election in the first place, and subsequent ones after that. Of course, Mr. Gregsbury’s dismissal of his constituents does not fall neatly into Mayhew’s maxim, but perhaps that is just compounding his incompetence—he does not know where his bread is buttered. An alternative explanation is that he thinks his initial constituency is powerless; he has moved on to bigger and better things. It is not that he is careless about losing his seat, it is that he thinks following the demands of this particular group of constituents will not lead to that. I will discuss some additional evidence that supports that in the section on elite influence.
Representation and responsiveness
When asked to justify his actions, Mr. Gregsbury gives this defense:
My conduct has been, and ever will be, regulated by a sincere regard for the true and real interests of this great and happy country […] Next to the welfare of our beloved island—this great and free and happy country, whose powers and resources are, I sincerely believe, illimitable—I value that noble independence which is an Englishman’s proudest boast, and which I fondly hope to bequeath to my children, untarnished and unsullied. Actuated by no personal motives, but moved only by high and great constitutional considerations, which I will not attempt to explain, for they are really beneath the comprehension of those who have not made themselves masters, as I have, of the intricate and arduous study of politics (192, ch.16).
The approach exemplified by Mr. Gregsbury is often called Burkean representation. Edmund Burke, of whose illustrious career Dickens would have no doubt been aware, set out the principles of such representation in his famous “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” (Representation: Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol). In it, he tells prospective voters that a representative who prioritizes the will of the voters over his own judgment, does those voters a disservice. Once elected, “he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament […] where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good […] of one nation” (Representation: Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol). Sounds remarkably similar to Mr. Gregsbury’s speech does it not? Perhaps Burke was a model? Both believe (or at least publicly purport to believe) that true representation dictates that local interests should be inferior to national interests. Both men also view the judgment of the representative as being more vital than the judgement of the district.
Note also that Mr. Gregsbury defends his actions by stating that they can only be understood by those who “have made themselves masters, as [he] has, of the intricate and arduous study of politics” (192, ch.16). This is another dimension of Burkean representation—that the elected official (by virtue of his experience, position, and wisdom) is best equipped to act in their constituents’ interests, even when the constituents themselves do not see that. It suggests that it is more important to safeguard constituent interests rather than merely follow their preferences. Another way to say this is that Mr. Gregsbury purportedly believes that representation is not mere compliance with the public will, it is promotion of the public interest; those two things are not necessarily the same.
We might regard this form of representation Mr. Gregsbury advocates as distinctively unresponsive. He does not seem to consider being responsive to his constituents as particularly important. And indeed, this argument about how responsive elected officials ought to be has continued to be vigorously debated. In general, responsiveness is thought to be a vital quality needed in a democracy, although there are notable exceptions. Both Kolodny (22) and Sunstein (7) point out the fact that responsiveness to constituent preferences can be problematic given that preferences can be manipulated, or simply bad. In a similar vein, Przeworski maintains that it is the job of the electorate to elect people and let the governing occur through them; the only responsibility left to the people at large is to evaluate the elected officials through some type of retrospective voting (35). He quotes a couple of famous line from, first, Walter Lippmann in 1956: “Their duty is to fill the office and not to direct the officeholder”, and second, Joseph Schumpeter in 1942: “[voters] must understand that, once they [have] elected an individual, political action is his business not theirs. This means that they must refrain from instructing him what he is to do.” Certainly, Mr. Gregsbury feels the same way about being directed in his officehood. Notice the back and forth here between Mr. Gregsbury and the constituent spokesperson, Mr. Pugstyles (Dickens, 194, ch.16):
“Have you any explanation to offer […] sir?” asked Mr. Pugstyles." This is in response to their first complaint.
‘Certainly not,’ said Mr. Gregsbury."
And then later, after hearing their second complaint (194, ch.16):
“Go on,’ said Mr. Gregsbury.
‘Nothing to say on that, either, sir?’ asked the spokesman. ‘Nothing whatever,’ replied Mr. Gregsbury.
Likewise, with their third complaint, Mr. Gregsbury smiles, calmly taps his nose, and declines to answer their question (194, ch.16). His brazenness could be a reflection of the sentiment uttered by the political scientists I mentioned—that the officeholder ought not to be directed by those under their care.
As I wrote earlier, such sentiment has more dubious appeal today among citizens, but in Dickens’s time this was more acceptable.1 In a review of the history of political representation, Bernard Manin writes about an early stage of representation he calls parliamentarianism (202-206). Parliamentarianism puts the role of the representative squarely as a trustee, rather than an instruction-seeker. Policy is decided by deliberation within the Congress or Parliament, and not by politicians bringing their own district interests with them after elections. And elections in this model are not to select like-minded candidates, but to make sure that trustworthy elites acquire office (202). Public opinion within this model reaches the representative through means of social movements and somewhat ad-hoc organizations (like temperance bodies), rather than political parties (204). We do not know exactly who the group of constituents that confronted Mr. Gregsbury were, but they appeared not to be a political party or organization per se.
Notice too, that the constituents seem to refer to this point of trust when they address Mr. Gregsbury:
‘I am requested, sir, to express a hope,’ said Mr. Pugstyles, with a distant bow, ’that on receiving a requisition to that effect from a great majority of your constituents, you will not object at once to resign your seat in favour of some candidate whom they think they can better trust.’ (195, ch.16).
In this they are appealing to the principles of this parliamentarian model. The real affront is not that their political preferences were not met, but that they feel that Mr. Gregsbury is untrustworthy, and hence is not fit as an elected official. In this case, his untrustworthiness came from promising one thing and delivering another. In this way, the constituents perhaps are also perhaps working simultaneously within what Jane Mansbridge calls promissory representation, or an principal-agent conceptualization of representation where voters reward or punish politicians according to campaign promises (516). There is some evidence of this from the text, where Mr. Gregsbury’s constituents have recorded in specific detail (down to exact quotes made by Mr. Gregsbury) the promises made, and which they demand that he keep.
Mr. Gregsbury counters by trying to articulate another form of representation, however. I have variously called his type of representation Burkean, trustee, or parliamentarian. I think Mansbridge might offer yet another lifeline for Mr. Gregsbury in terms of type of representation: gyroscopic representation. Within this conceptualization, representatives look within themselves as a basis for action—to their own ideals, common sense, and principles (521). Could this not be what Mr. Gregsbury is trying to express in this following passage?
My conduct, Pugstyles,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, looking round upon the deputation with gracious magnanimity— ‘my conduct has been, and ever will be, regulated by a sincere regard for the true and real interests of this great and happy country. Whether I look at home, or abroad; whether I behold the peaceful industrious communities of our island home […] I clasp my hands, and turning my eyes to the broad expanse above my head, exclaim, “Thank Heaven, I am a Briton!”’ (192, ch.16).
Although his constituents see this as so much hot air, or “rather too much of a ‘gammon’ tendency” (193, ch.16), Mr. Gregsbury appears to be trying to argue that his actions are born out of his own patriotic background. He loves Britain so much that he cannot help but act in her best interests.
One of the complaints Mr. Gregsbury’s constituents lob at him is that he is more responsive to other elites than the ordinary people in his district:
Question number two. —Whether, sir, you did not likewise give a voluntary pledge that you would support your colleague on every occasion; and whether you did not, the night before last, desert him and vote upon the other side, because the wife of a leader on that other side had invited Mrs. Gregsbury to an evening party?’ (19, ch.164).
He has abandoned his promise to his constituents due to the mere occasion of getting to hobnob (or at least have his wife hobnob on his behalf) with the leaders on “that other side” in an illustrious evening party. Dickens further satirizes Mr. Gregsbury’s elitism by putting this sentence in his mouth during Mr. Gregsbury’s private audience with Nicholas: ‘and which one can’t be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?’ (198, ch.16).
Dickens’s worry about the tendency of elites to favour only elite interests has been the subject of much political science research, and generally the findings reinforce Dickens’s observations. Elected officials are much more responsive to elites than non-elites for two reasons in particular. Firstly, they tend to come from the ranks of elites themselves (Hill and Tausanovitch). The last quote given by Mr. Gregsbury certainly suggests that. And secondly, catering to elites tends to be a good strategy for reelection, both because of the costs of elections, and because of elite control over the policy process. Rigby and Wright describe this succinctly; maintaining that the earliest stages of the policymaking process, the point in which political parties aggregate diverse preferences and develop platforms, tend to be dominated by elites (552). This agenda setting power means that the issues that elites care about the most tend to be the ones that get the most airtime. And, as campaigns continually rise in terms of the monetary burden they require, reliance on political donations is more vital than ever. Of course, donors to political campaigns are disproportionately affluent, and thus rich or elite interests are more catered to than ever before (554). And unparalleled income inequality means that the resources to fund campaigns are now concentrated in the fewest hands (p.555). What this results in are policies that are developed that reflect the influence of the affluent rather than the middle class or poor. They test this by looking at the individual U.S. states and how the policy preferences match with what affluent, poor, and middle class voters’ preferences are. Affluent voters have their policy preferences met far more often in their analysis.
We do not know with any certainty what the elites’ policy preferences were in terms of putting down “the practice of coughing and groaning in the House of Commons” (193, ch.16), or “astonish[ing] the government, and mak[ing] them shrink in their shoes” (193), or “oppos[ing] everything proposed […,] divid[ing] the house upon every question” (194, ch.16), or “play[ing] the devil with everything and everybody” (194, ch.16), but presumably they were against it. We can suspect that the elites were pro-coughing, anti-shoe shrinking, and anti-devil playing by the fact that Mr. Gregsbury says that instead of fulfilling his campaign promises to put down such practices, he “would rather keep [his] seat, and intend[s] doing so” (195, ch.16). He must suspect that being responsive to elites’ preferences is more likely to earn him reelection than being responsive to this disgruntled delegation of less dignified constituents.
Patriotism as a political strategy
One of the strategies Mr. Gregsbury uses several times in his interaction with his constituents is an appeal to patriotism. Indeed, he begins his interaction this way:
My conduct has been, and ever will be, regulated by a sincere regard for the true and real interests of this great and happy country. Whether I look at home, or abroad; whether I behold the peaceful industrious communities of our island home: her rivers covered with steamboats, her roads with locomotives, her streets with cabs, her skies with balloons of a power and magnitude hitherto unknown in the history of aeronautics in this or any other nation—I say, whether I look merely at home, or, stretching my eyes farther, contemplate the boundless prospect of conquest and possession—achieved by British perseverance and British valour—which is outspread before me, I clasp my hands, and turning my eyes to the broad expanse above my head, exclaim, “Thank Heaven, I am a Briton!”’ (192-193, ch.16).
Unfortunately for Mr. Gregsbury, his constituents are wise to his act:
The time had been, when this burst of enthusiasm would have been cheered to the very echo; but now, the deputation received it with chilling coldness. The general impression seemed to be, that as an explanation of Mr. Gregsbury’s political conduct, it did not enter quite enough into detail; and one gentleman in the rear did not scruple to remark aloud, that, for his purpose, it savoured rather too much of a ‘gammon’ tendency” (193, ch.16).
Despite this chilly reception, Mr. Gregsbury tries again:
‘The meaning of that term—gammon,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ‘is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I am proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory’ (193, ch.16).
And later in the interview, Mr. Gregsbury reads from a letter in which he talks about the “welfare of our beloved island—this great and free and happy country, whose powers and resources are, I sincerely believe, illimitable—I value that noble independence which is an Englishman’s proudest boast” (195). These public statements about his “beloved island” are, of course, undercut somewhat by Mr. Gregsbury’s subsequent interaction with Nicholas, in which he says: “I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast” (198, ch.16). Mr. Gregsbury’s use of patriotic language is clearly a deliberate and studied choice, whatever his real feelings about his country.
If he were a political figure today, Mr. Gregsbury’s speeches would be studied carefully by political communication scholars to sense themes, tone, and type of vocabulary used. And I suspect he would fit into the general findings about political speeches—that they are filled with appeals to patriotism. For example, an analysis that compared all of the speeches by the American politicians John McCain and Barack Obama in the 2008 election (comparing them to recorded discourse of the entire U.S. corpus), found that both candidates were far more likely to use words such as ‘honour’, ‘freedom’, ‘patriotism’, (Savoy 15). We need not rely solely on academic work, however—we are likely all intimately familiar with both the benign (and sometimes very dark) use of patriotic language or national symbols by politicians. The history of modern nation states in the years following Dickens is replete with such examples. Dickens mostly preceded the great wave of nationalism that swept the world, but in this, yet again, he was remarkably prescient of the political future.
Worth noting is that the delegation of constituents in Nicholas Nickleby represents the high side of Dickens’s occasionally fluctuating regard for the ability of the people to smell phony patriotism (or “gammon” in their colourful usage). He is quoted in a letter to John Chamberlain as saying that “my faith in The People governed is, on the whole, illimitable” (Letters III). In another letter, however, he is much more pessimistic about the ability of ordinary people to see through the “gammon”:
I do reluctantly believe that the English people are habitually consenting parties to the miserable imbecility into which we have fallen, and never will help themselves out of it. Who is to do it, if anybody is, God knows. But at present we are on the down-hill road to be conquered, and the people will be content to bear it, sing “Rule Brit- tania,” and will not be saved (Letters II).
In this essay, I departed from the usual template of discussing the politics of Dickens as they relate to his own time period. Instead, I have attempted to show that in just one memorable scene in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens anticipated much of contemporary scholarly work on political representation, responsiveness, and the role of politicians within a democratic system. This speaks not only to Dickens’s strength as an author (to write so penetratingly in so few pages) but also to his underrated political acumen. When drawing upon work from the nineteenth century, political scientists tend to gravitate to the same few names: Marx, Engels, Weber, Dewey, Mill, and Bentham. I hope this essay shows that it is worth throwing Dickens into that group too. I limited my analysis to only a few pages of text from one of Dickens’s books; other scenes could certainly be added from his other work that would buttress this argument. I think the strength of including only the Mr. Gregsbury scene, however, shows just how brilliant Dickens’s analysis is, not to mention how economical. In just a few lines of text, Dickens wades right into the thick of contemporary political thought, anticipating much of the later arguments political scientists would make about representation and responsiveness.
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Although even in Dickens's time this type of representation was beginning to be challenged.
Matthew Bevis notes that Liberal thought at the time was moving towards the MP being a voice for local interests rather than a guardian of national ones (334). ↩︎