Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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