Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Concept of Majority in America

Tocqueville spends a lot of time discussing the merits and shortcomings of democracy, a form of government of which he disapproves, whose primary function is to place political power in the hands of a majority of its people. From this, Tocqueville derives the notion that all democracies are subject to the will of (i.e, enslaved by) the vagaries of public opinion. Since all power resides with the majority, contrary opinions tend to be suppressed over time, either through the political process or the weight of public shame, resulting in a gradual consolidation of ideas. Lacking the benefit of superior wisdom, as might otherwise be available from a higher class of people (e.g., an aristocracy), government by democracy becomes tied to a hodgepodge of middle class values based primarily on a vulgar pursuit of wealth and a common disdain for the finer virtues of civilized life.

For Tocqueville, the result of all this cultural uniformity is the death of freedom, since departures from the majority view will increasingly be viewed as threatening by a middle class whose modest fortunes are imperiled by any confrontation with new ideas. He imagines a majority which grows ever bold in its grasp of political power and intolerant of opposing views. This gradual usurpation of power by the majority results in a hegemony which, in a more modern context, can be described as totalitarian in its total mastery of the political landscape. Without the saving grace of aristocratic values, the middle class of society (especially in America) will hold everyone else hostage to a uniform conception of the world, one in which the higher virtues are no longer esteemed and humanity is dragged ever lower to satisfy our base cravings for money or momentary pleasure.

This, in a nutshell, is Tocqueville's vision of democracy. It is government by opinion, not reason, and certainly not informed by any higher ideal than pecuniary gain. But the problem with this view is that it confuses the idea of majority with a fixed class of people, for example, all Protestants, all vegetarians, or all members of the Fabian Society. What Protestants or vegetarians have in common is a shared set of beliefs and principles. But what do members of a hypothetical majority have in common? Nothing. A majority is a mere statistical label of a quantity, technically meaning greater than half or more than 50 percent of a voting public. This does not describe an existing body of people with shared values. But Tocqueville insists upon linking the notion of majority with the tyranny of public opinion. He feels that public opinion in a democracy will always be monolithic, that only one voice will be heard because all others will be drowned out by the noise of the crowd. In other words, democracy is a kind of mob rule in which the many will intimidate the few into silence. But the reality is just the opposite. Although we have a two party system, anyone is free to run for public office provided you satisfy the minimal requirements for inclusion on the state ballot. This is why in every presidential election you have multiple names on the ballot, even though the chances of a third-party candidate getting elected are slim. Having a voice in American politics is simply a matter of having sufficient money to finance your campaign. No rules enforced by any ruling majority will ever prevent you from buying time on the networks to get your message out. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees this right.

The truth is we have a pluralistic society which is not dominated or controlled by the single voice of a standing majority. Tocqueville failed to distinguish the social status of a hereditary class like aristocracy from the coalition politics of a dynamic regime like democracy. Americans are less vulnerable than other people to the threat of an elite ideology like fascism because we reject conformity. Nothing could be less congenial to the American spirit than a weak surrender to universal truth. Even a passing acquaintance with American values would suggest how wrong Tocqueville was about the perils of majority rule. What he depicts as an inevitable failure of democratic government is only one possible future of a people unable to rule themselves. This indeed was the outcome for many regimes (e.g., in France) that collapsed in the turmoil of revolution. But not here. Other than the Civil War, democracy in America has never been seriously challenged. Whether or not that track record of social stability will continue into the future remains to be seen.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 3, 18-26)

Which is more important to Americans: honor or money?
Is revolution a real possibility in modern-day America?
Can democracies wage long sustained wars effectively?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 3, 1-17)

Are Americans soft-hearted idealists or hard-headed realists? Are we a people of cleanliness and friendliness or basically a bunch of slobs? Of course we’re not the same Americans that were living in the 1830s. Lifestyles have changed as much as the technology. But Tocqueville asks a question that is just a valid today as it was back then: Are we more sensitive than our fathers? Some folks would say absolutely. Just look how far we’ve come in civil rights, women’s issues and gay pride since the 1950s. Therefore we’re much more sensitive about these kinds of things than our fathers were. Other folks would say absolutely not. Just look at the movies and music today, not to mention the trash coming over the Internet. You call that being more sensitive? Would you want your mother to see and hear that stuff? The freedoms which are a democracy’s strength can also be its Achilles Heel. Tocqueville believed that freedom affected the way people behave in both aristocracies and democracies. His final analysis was: “Nothing does more harm to democracy than its outer forms of behavior. Many people who would be willing to put up with its defects cannot tolerate its manners.” Well that’s his opinion. He’s a Frenchman and you know how snooty they can be. But Tocqueville goes on to say, “In their relations with foreigners Americans seem irritated by the slightest criticism…” Who, me? I’m not offended. Tocqueville understands that too. He points out that “Americans share a vindictive temperament…They hardly ever forget an offense but are not easily offended. Their resentment is as slow to kindle as it is to go out.”

One of the reasons Americans share a vindictive temperament is because we’re not really sure where we stand in the world’s eyes. We live in a society that’s constantly shifting and the rules keep changing on us. Tocqueville points out that “In the Middle Ages men believed in the immortality of families, social conditions seemed fixed forever, and the whole of society appeared so stable that they imagined that nothing was ever going to change within it. In times of equality men think in quite a different way. They readily imagine that nothing lasts and are haunted by the idea of instability…In democratic ages when everything is unstable the most unstable of all is the human heart.” In spite of all its problems the people living in the Middle Ages at least knew where they stood. Americans aren’t so sure where they stand – even in their own families: “From the moment the young American nears manhood the ties of filial obedience slacken from day to day. Control of his own thoughts soon extends to his own behavior. In America there is no real period of adolescence. At the close of boyhood the man appears and begins to trace out his own path.” Very few boys know where the path to manhood will take them.

If it’s hard on the boys it’s also hard on the girls. These “boys” are potential marriage partners. In aristocracies girls don’t have to worry because “In aristocratic countries, marriage aims rather to unite property than individual persons.” That’s not very romantic to Americans. What kind of marriage is that? Americans want to choose their own spouses thank you very much. But the fact is many American girls pick their husbands when they’re barely out of adolescence themselves. They have to grow up fast and Tocqueville admires that. He tells us “No free society ever existed without morals and…morals are made by women.” American girls have to be both soft-hearted idealists and hard-headed realists at the same time. Otherwise they may end up marrying a slob.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy Questions (Volume 2 / Part 3, 1-17)

Is America becoming a kinder, gentler nation?
Does equality make families closer or drive them apart?
Are women better off in a democracy or in an aristocracy?