Imagine a dinner table. At the table sit two foxes and a hen, and all three are discussing what to have for dinner. The analogy of the two foxes and a hen is often used to describe the concept of “the tyranny of the majority,” a theory in political science that epitomizes the power of the masses over the elite and the power they wield over the existing regime in establishing change. While “the tyranny of the majority” has been hotly debated for hundreds of years (ever since John Adams coined the term in 1788), any discussion regarding the influence of mass movements and harmony in society cannot progress without acknowledging the power the masses have played in national movements throughout history. Some experiments in nation-building (such as the Weimar Republic and the Republic of China) have proven to be disastrous, with many blaming those failures on a dictator seizing the power of the masses to gain absolute power, while other experiments in nation-building (the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China) have like-wise proven wildly successful, resulting in the formation of two of the most powerful nations on this Earth. However, whereas in the United States a dictator did not seize the power of the masses, in China one did, and yet both have proven to be successful examples of statecraft and leadership.
It would be a mistake to simplify the past in terms of what we do not understand. Many have characterized the rise of Nazi Germany as the fault of a people who allowed a dictator to take control because they were tired and disenfranchised (which may have been true, given that a loaf of bread in 1919 cost 1 German mark, but by 1923 that same loaf of bread cost 100 billion marks). However, the truth is that underneath the veil of a different time and culture, life was just as vibrant, with networks of various people in connection with each other (even in small villages), such as athletic clubs, religious organizations, charities, trade guilds and unions, and professional associations. In China before Mao Zedong, the country was perhaps even more vibrant, with a new literary era on the cusp of transforming word and art, modern technology and contemporary strategic theory introduced into the military, the establishment of universities and higher educational academies, a unified banking system, political and constitutional reform, as well as joining the international spectrum of athletes as a contender for the Olympics. The idea of a “mass society” composed of a “social void without attachments, alienated, rootless, and normless” is as fallacious as stating that dictators come to power because the people don’t want them to, but had no choice because the dictator seized this mysterious element in society and forced them to bend to his will. In most situations, the dictator is merely a sign of the culture, and the masses are an illusion used by political scientists to try and absolve the details of significance. While Hitler rose to power in Germany, similar movements inspired by race and despotism were taking place all over the world; Hitler may been at one side of the extremes, but he was not an outlier.
This discussion leads us to the question: if the masses are an illusion, then why did the 20th century see such an upswing of dictatorial governments and fascist tendencies? Societies are formed of complicated and amalgamated structures of inter-twining realities, and many of those realities influence one another like vines growing onto the trunk of a tree and branches joining with other trees to form multifarious organisms. It is not simple enough to say: the Great Depression allowed Roosevelt unprecedented power in changing the role of government, and neither is it simple enough to say that the struggle of China’s peasants empowered Mao Zedong in overcoming the Kuomintang elites. However, a more important question rises from this: how can we understand the complexities of culture, as well as train our leaders in the abilities to recognize and manage positive change in this hidden web of interests? As observers of other cultures and nations, how can we identify cultures of “false harmony” and prevent the volatility of violent revolution that inevitably will justify itself?
Many people see truth as an absolute concept, rooted in the interplay and consequences of moral quandaries as they unveil themselves in our chosen culture. When those consequences change, the subtle underpinnings of our morality may also shift, and if shifted too far in one direction may justify the radical movements we saw in the 20th century. The fallacious “cloaked outrage” that spurts out in revolutionary violence is a myth we used to absolve ourselves of the moral responsibility we have in guarding ourselves against own selfish desires for criminal justification or unethical ineptitude.
In China, one of the key political phrases of Hu Jintao was for his country to become a “harmonious society.” Overused, underestimated, and laughably hopeless, nevertheless it was the dream of the politiburo to wean China of inward tendencies towards social outbursts and contain the massive growth of a country heaving in an industrialized fervor from throwing itself off the mountain too quickly. The two foxes sit on the other side of the dinner table and have a staring contest with the hen, but who are the foxes and who is the hen? In political theory the foxes have often been considered as the masses, but in China logic defies and the masses are actually the hen, with the two clever foxes looking at the hen, knowing they could never withstand a full-frontal assault so they must play the angles.
We started this discussion trying to understand why the masses elected Hitler and Mao to be their defenders. However, what we have not recognized as yet is that Hitler and Mao understood exactly the play of the field and wielded the complexities brilliantly. Both men in their respective countries played people against one another, stole power from their contemporaries, and were intense intellectuals who understood and loved power. Leadership, as we can see, stands at the crossroads of the illusion of the masses. We believe that we live in a world that is free from the sins and madness of the 20th century, but we only delude ourselves. Napoleon believed that genius was the ability to recognize opportunity, but opportunity is more complicated than just random chance, but a nexus of circumstances sacrificing themselves on the same altar, under the shadow of the opportunist.