Emile Durkheim on Zell Miller

by Kieran Healy on September 3, 2004

Well, OK not really — Durkheim died in 1917. But there’s more to crowds than “being able to estimate prices accurately”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/002357.html and “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0029079373/kieranhealysw-20/ref=nosim/ is without doubt the place to begin when reflecting on the Republican Convention once the speeches are all done:

The force of the collectivity is not wholly external; it does not move us entirely from outside. Indeed … it must enter into us and become organized within us … This stimulating and invigorating effect of society is particularly apparent in certain circumstances. In the midst of an assembly that becomes worked up, we become capable of feelings and conduct which we are incapable when left to our individual resources … For this reason all parties — be they political, economic, or denominational — see to it that periodic conventions are held, at which their followers can renew their common faith by making a public demonstration of it together …

In the same way, we can also explain the curious posture that is so characteristic of a man who is speaking to a crowd — if he has achieved communion with it. His language becomes high-flown in a way that would be “ridiculous in ordinary circumstances”:http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ericzorn/chi-zornlog.story#zell; his gestures take on an overbearing quality; his very thought becomes impatient of limits and slips easily into “every kind of extreme”:http://andrewsullivan.com/index.php?dish_inc=archives/2004_08_29_dish_archive.html#109409893313020605. … Sometimes he even feels possessed by a moral force greater than he, of which he is only the interpreter … This extraordinary surplus of forces is quite real and comes to him from the very group he is addressing. The feelings he arouses as he speaks return to him enlarged and amplified, reinforcing his own to some degree. … It is then no longer a mere individual who speaks “but a group incarnated”:http://yglesias.typepad.com/matthew/2004/09/zell.html and personified.

Continuing in a “Durkheimian mood”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emile_Durkheim, it strikes me that, by holding the convention in New York, the Republican Party has managed to have it both ways with the _conscience collective_: Party solidarity is enhanced positively as the delegates make a reverent pilgrimage to the site of the September 11th attacks, but also negatively through the buzz they get from feeling angry at and superior to the actual New Yorkers loudly protesting their presence. Thus the real New York of September 2004 provides the raw emotional energy used inside the convention hall to sanctify an image of the New York of September 2001.



Thomas 09.03.04 at 5:16 am

Reading the quoted material–particularly the “gestures” taking on “an overbearing quality” put me in mind of John Kerry as much as anything: “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.” Accompanied by a salute!


Kieran Healy 09.03.04 at 6:05 am

Well, it’s a general theory. But Zell was out there with the mad charismatics of yore, if you ask me.


Bob 09.03.04 at 9:35 am

When all is said and done, or not done, as the case may be, surely this can’t be true:

“TONY Blair has snubbed George Bush’s pleas to fly to the US and pick up his ‘war medal’ ahead of the Presidential elections.” – at: http://www.sundaymirror.co.uk/news/news/tm_objectid=14558467&method=full&siteid=106694&headline=don-t-medal-name_page.html

All of which leads me to better appreciate the scientific precision of international relations as an academic discipline. According to this recent assessment of scenarios ahead, the Iraq war could cause Iraq to fragment or not and the war might spark a shake-up of the Middle East, or not: http://www.riia.org/pdf/research/mep/BP0904.pdf?PHPSESSID=8f8c2f1b6a1d7c2fda9b53258370ed13


bad Jim 09.03.04 at 9:58 am

Zell was definitely out there.

Since the speeches were written and published in advance and generally as much read as spoken, some of Durkheim’s remarks about orators and crowd behavior may no longer be entirely on point. Contemporary accounts of this week’s festivities have yet to regale us with tales of celebrities hung from lamp posts.

The political life of previous centuries always sounds more entertaining than what we get now.


abb1 09.03.04 at 11:09 am

Right, I agree. Psychobabble is fun, but in reality this was a professional, precise, poll-tested operation targeting specific segment of the voting population (mid-western rednecks?) while the potential loss of support in other segments (single women?) was deemed an acceptable tradeoff. The essence of it is not buzz, not enthusiasm, but a boring cost/benefit analysis.


Tom T. 09.03.04 at 1:19 pm

the buzz they get from feeling angry … and superior

Surely this is an attribute universal to humanity.


tina 09.03.04 at 2:19 pm

abb1: did you just call Durkheim’s theory psychobabble? That’s a bit of a stretch, if you ask me.

Regardless of the speechwriting and the planning, the delegates lapped up Miller’s speech like a bowlful of cream, while a more reserved speech like McCain’s fell flat. What I’m learning about Republicans this convention really frightens me.


Howard Dean 09.03.04 at 4:17 pm



P O'Neill 09.03.04 at 4:25 pm

The difference from when Durkheim wrote is the presence of television. The passage does indeed capture the apparent dynamic inside MSG. But of course on television, Zell’s performance went down very differently. Zell got his moment of one-ness with the crowd, but now the discussion is whether his TV podium face most resembles that of Freddy Krueger or the Emperor Palpatine. Not necessarily a good thing.


bob mcmanus 09.03.04 at 5:06 pm

“The difference from when Durkheim wrote is the presence of television.”

The close-up. The difference between watching Lincoln or Kennedy at 10 or 100 meters and feeling as if Zell Miller were two feet away is the difference between watching a speech and having a conversation or argument.

Someone has to have studied this. I find it completely invasive and oppressive, regardless of content, from sitcoms to sports, and the closeup is the primary reason my television is usually off. Maybe I am unusual, agoraphobic or autistic, for eveyone else seems to like it well enough.

I just don’t like people quite that much.


Ophelia Benson 09.03.04 at 5:38 pm

“Maybe I am unusual, agoraphobic or autistic, for eveyone else seems to like it well enough.

I just don’t like people quite that much.”

Well as Dorothy Parker said in a different but similar context, come over here and sit by me. Not everyone else; and I don’t either. One of the more obvious examples of that phenomenon, and one that invariably makes me want to throw everything I can lay hands on at the tv, is the interview two-step when (1) the interviewer induces the interviewed to cry and (2) the camera operator instantly zooms in on the face of the cryer so that we can all get a really good look.


abb1 09.03.04 at 5:40 pm

Sure, it was frightening in a way, but – to me – not as much as listening to soft-spoken Richard Perle, for example, or Frank Gaffney.


Another Damned Medievalist 09.03.04 at 6:24 pm

regarding preparation, etc being modern, I have just one word — Cicero?

Otherwise, what I find interesting is that, although the delegates seemed to love it (very frightening) people like McCain have had no problem distancing themselves.


Another Damned Medievalist 09.03.04 at 6:33 pm

The frightening goes with the delegates. oops!


Pedro 09.03.04 at 7:04 pm

Not having read ‘the wisdom of crowds’, I am still a believer in the folly of crowds. Whatever one may make of the former, the latter regularly manifests itself with vehemence in front of any sane person’s eyes.

I believe that the people planning and scripting the electoral campaign of the Republican party are approaching their task in a business-like fashion. They view the campaign as a business endeavor.

They know that short, catchy, quotable phrases translate into ‘talking points’, memes that are replicated with exasperating frequency on the media. They know that indignation has an audience–it is amusing at worst and strkes a chord with the feelings of voters at best. (The fact that it is divisive rhetoric matters very little: derision has a market, and can be amusing to many.)

They know that vague descriptions of Kerry’s positions work well to indict him, to erode public trust in him, and to incite journalistic scrutiny of his record, which puts him and his record on the spotlight, and at the center of controversy.

The propaganda machine of the Republican party is well honed, very professional. Witness the disciplined verbatim repetition of ‘talking points’ by infinitely many figures. Witness the propaganda machines of Talk Radio, Fox News Channel, the omnipresence of conservative pundits on the media, and the contrast with soft-spoken media like NPR.

Invest money in the repetition of, and commentary on, simplistic one-liners, and you manipulate public opinion. Force your opponent to defend himself from your attacks. Pretend like the attacks do not come from you–use different fronts! It may all sound like a conspiracy theory, but I think it is just state-of-the-art political marketing theory.

Crowds are stupid (or that metaphor applies sometimes), but marketing gurus are not. I am still waiting for Kerry to engage in the kind of responses to Bush’s attacks that I would expect from a savvy propagandist. Upon hearing the accusation that Kerry flip-flopped on the war in Iraq, Kerry should respond by using the same template that McCain used in his speech: President Bush would have us believe that authorizing him to use force is akin to giving him a blank cheque on Iraq. He would have us believe that … [insert here the Fareed Zakaria remarks on the war in Iraq that sometime ago were discussed in this blog]. That way, the attention goes back to Bush. Instead of defending his record, Kerry ought to be attacking Bush, with swift one-liners, simplistic pieties, and harsh dismissiviness of the Presidential talking points.


Steve 09.03.04 at 10:23 pm

Sure, it was frightening in a way, but – to me – not as much as listening to soft-spoken Richard Perle, for example, or Frank Gaffney.

I know what you mean. Miller was so over the top that he never achieved that bloodcurdling effect that somebody like Perle does when he’s coolly rationalizing the horrible deaths of thousands of people in the name of democracy and peace.

It’s interesting that so many people seem to feel that the closest recent precedent for Miller’s speech was Pat Buchanan’s (in)famous convention address in 1992. The big difference is that Buchanan, IIRC, delivered his call to “religious war” in the calm, measured tones of a seasoned talking head. Which made his speech all the more terrifying, and all the less susceptible to the derision and ridicule that’s been (justifiably) heaped on ZM.


Louis Wheeler 09.06.04 at 10:38 pm

There are only a few things which spoil your theory. Zell always was a rabble-rouser. He comes from an evangelical Southern culture– fire and brimstone preaching was still popular while he was growing up. He was on his best behavior the other night. Besides, he made some good points. Points that Kerry needs to address. Also, political conventions are but meaningless now. Technology and primaries have rendered them irrelevant, so they are just an infomercial. And too, the protesters outside were not native New Yorkers, but were from all over the country.

Other than that you have a dandy theory.

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