Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Tyranny of the Majority

Although, in many respects, Tocqueville presents himself as a careful observer of American society, his conclusions reflect the bias of one who sees but a portion of something larger, and having sifted the evidence before him, infers that what remains unseen must, mutatis mutandis, resemble the portion that he has observed. But, in fact, his generalizations concerning the defects of American democracy are limited by the constraints of time and experience. That is to say, he writes about the experiment of American democracy while it is yet in an embryonic stage of development, and from this sample he extrapolates to a vision of what our democratic progeny will be like in the future. For example, he thinks that every American is energized by the political process, and will continually make his voice heard through the simple act of voting. Thus, a greater number of simple minded farmers or days laborers will naturally flock together to elect disreputable, and likewise simple minded legislators who will vote in lock step with their constituency. The possibility of this scenario disturbs Tocqueville, who is suspicious of any government composed of the common man. The prospect of uneducated and uncultured men dominating the legislature is what Tocqueville means by the "tyranny of the majority." He assumes that a majority of any population will be unfit to govern, but will tyrannize over a minority of men who are better equipped by nature for the responsibilities of governing.

What Tocqueville seems to overlook is that most men are too busy earning a living to spend a lot of time on politics. He assumes that working class people will fall prey to wily, unscrupulous politicians who will use their power and influence to promote a kind of tyranny over the virtuous few in society. This, of course, is always a possibility when the less educated are faced with having to make decisions for which they are ill equipped. When Alan Greenspan testified before Congress several years ago that derivatives trading on Wall Street should not be regulated or interfered with because it would have dire effects on the economy, most legislators were afraid to challenge him. After all, who among them knew as much as Alan Greenspan about the global economy? Well, the sad reality is that Greenspan was wrong. Derivatives should have been regulated because men on Wall Street who pursue great fortunes cannot be trusted to always use sound judgment. What is the moral of this tale? That when it comes to the welfare of the nation, we cannot leave these decisions to a minority of elites.

The problem with Tocqueville is that he seems to have adopted the New England model for township meetings as the only viable form of American democracy. But given the fact that most 19th century Americans lived on farms, and could not afford the time to go to town hall meetings, this model has limited validity and weakens his argument concerning the nature of democratic government.

Rather than being obsessed with politics, today we see declining voter turnout and general apathy by most Americans when it comes to public policy. It takes a major event like the Iraq war or a Wall Street meltdown for most Americans to spend even 15 minutes of their leisure time thinking about these issues. The country today is more diverse than it was when Tocqueville made his observations. It has grown from a small, insignificant federation of states into a world superpower. We have many other concerns today than just worrying about the day to day business of Congress. Who among us takes the time to read the Federal Register or the House Journal to monitor what the government is doing? If we pay any attention at all, we get our information from CNN or Fox news. In other words, we let the media tell us what we should be concerned about.

The other misconception that Tocqueville is laboring under is the very notion of "majority." He seems to believe that a political majority is something tangible like the number of raisins in a bowl of cereal. But the reality is that a political majority is the least tangible of government assets. It lasts only for the term of office of any elected official. Even then, the majority party never has all its members voting in lockstep on any given issue. There are divisions within each party that prevent anything like a guaranteed outcome on bills before Congress.

The recent controversy over the so-called "bailout" package is just another example of how divided Congress can be on any given legislation. The truth of the matter is that no such thing as an enduring majority ever exists in Congress. It always comes down to building a coalition for the purposes of passing a particular bill. But Tocqueville assumes that the poor people of America will always align themselves against the interests of the wealthy, forming a kind of political roadblock to frustrate the attempts by the minority to influence government policy. But this is no more convincing than Karl Marx's idea of an inevitable class war between the working class and the bourgeoisie. The fact that policy issues are decided by a majority vote does not mean that the minority, whoever they happen to be, will be dispossessed of either their liberty or their wealth. That scenario doesn't occur because our distinguished "minority" will always use their wealth to buy influence in the legislative mall. Of course, in reality this will occur if a minority lacks all means of influencing Congress, as happened in the 102 years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of a civil rights bill in 1964.

Still, it is strange that Tocqueville thinks a majority will always be able to suppress the minority based on the electoral arrangements written into the Constitution. After all, the whole purpose of the original Bill of Rights is to protect the interests of the minority from any possible tyranny by a majority. Yet, it is clear that Tocqueville doesn't have much faith in the constitutional provisions drafted by our Founding Fathers. He, like other critics of democracy, assumes that the vulgar multitude (i.e., populists) is incapable of rising to the cultural level required for self-government. But he underestimates the potential for public education to offset the disadvantages of poverty. His claim that a natural aristocracy is the best form of government has very little support in the world today. Most people see that democracy works best when opportunities for self improvement are encouraged, and the values of a free society are embraced by a people united in that endeavor.


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