A Subtle Regime: Tocqueville on the Tyranny of the Majority.

“Thought is an invisible and almost intangible power that makes sport of all tyrannies” [1]. Thus, Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, describes the Achilles heel of the traditional tyrant. No matter the physical constraints or social constructions that a tyrant might try to impose on his citizens, he cannot fully suppress thoughts hostile to the regime. In fact, a tyrannical monarch who tries to impose unjust restrictions on his citizenship will usually increase indignation rather than decrease it; tyranny breeds rebellion. In the words of Aquinas: “Tyrants [do not] have any reason to complain if they are not loved by their subjects, for they do not exhibit towards them any behavior for which anyone deserves to be loved.” [2]. History has borne witness to this truth by elevating as heroic those great figures who hold true to principles in the face of tyranny: Jesus to the Jews, Plato to the Athenians, and Maximilian Kolbe to the Nazis. These few historical saints are among thousands who have exposed the ultimate futility of a tyrant’s impositions; neither torture, imprisonment, nor even death can control man’s hidden desires.

Contrast this historical tyranny with America’s democratic republic. Unlike a tyranny, the United States prizes the autonomy of the individual. The framers saw that any polity teeters between granting power to the monarchical elite and to the democratic majority. Coming from the despotism of George III, they strove to implement into our country the “principle that the interest of the greatest number ought to be preferred to those of the few.” [3]. This is not to say that they wanted a strict democracy. On the contrary, they tried to build our government such that the legislature could provide a safeguard against the whims of the fickle majority. Nevertheless, as Tocqueville points out, ultimately, the source of influence and moral power in our polity comes from the majority; the United States Government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” [4].

From the brief comparison above, American ideals seem antithetical to those of the classical tyranny. And they certainly are, at least in principle. However, Tocqueville observes a more subtle, subversive form of tyranny prevalent in the United States—one that he calls the “tyranny of the majority.”

i. Definition.

Tyranny of the majority, for Tocqueville, refers to the staggering power that the democratic mob has on the moral fabric of American society:

A king… has only material power that acts on actions and cannot reach wills; but the majority is vested with a force, at once material and moral, that acts on the will as much as on actions, and which at the same time prevents the deed and desire to do it. [5].

That is, in our society, the vocal majority has the power to not only sway legislation and policy, but influence thought and opinions as well. Like a wave collecting the tide, the majority swallows dissent though the overwhelming force of popular opinion. Our natural desire to “fit in” conjoined with our fear of dissenting from the mob cumulates in the tyrannical control of the majority. Unlike the prudent man, the majority naturally tends toward tribalistic beliefs and pays little heed to their veracity. Truth becomes a fashion statement for the democratic majority.

The power of fashionable beliefs to sway the undiscerning mind is apparent in all levels of society. F. Scott Fitzgerald smartly paints a satirical image of  “fashionable belief” through the eyes of naive movie star Rosemary in Tender is The Night.  As Rosemary watches the dinner conversation of wealthy aristocrats, she overhears the voguish Violet McKisco defend her affinity for soviet communism:

“Why do you want to fight the soviets?” McKisco said. “The greatest experiment ever made by humanity? And the Riff? It seems to me that it would be more heroic to fight on the just side.”

“How do you know what side it is?” asked Barban Dryly.

“Why—usually everybody intelligent knows.” [6].

Unfortunately for our country, McKisco’s propensity to unquestioningly believe that which “everybody intelligent knows” is all too common. According to Tocqueville, what manifests as peer pressure on a small scale magnifies in America’s democratic republic as the tyranny of the majority: “once [mob opinion] has formed on a question, there are so to speak no obstacles that can… delay its advance, and allow it the time to hear the complaints of those it crushes as it passes.” [7].

ii. In Government.

On a governmental scale, the tyranny of the majority impels our legislature. For better or worse, American politicians get elected by appealing to the popular opinions of their demographic. There is no real motivation to become a virtuous, prudent legislator, unless virtue and prudence happen to align with popular opinion; virtue is simply accidental in our political hierarchy. As public opinion evolves, so must the politician’s. If not, the public need only elect the another, more moldable official—one willing to “move along with the times.” The political life is not conducive to principled men. Tocqueville observes:

Among the immense crowd that flocks to a political career in the United States, I have seen few men indeed who show that virile candor, that manly independence of thought, that often distinguished Americans in previous times and that, everywhere it is found, forms the salient feature of great character. [8].

It would be too simplistic to say that men of integrity have never existed existed in our country’s history. Nevertheless, Tocqueville bemoans the inevitable state of our republic—one that breeds sleazy, salesman politicians.

From this pendulous political life comes fickle laws. In the same way that politicians must change to appease the majority, American jurisprudence must adapt as well. Thus, “America is the [country] in which the laws have the least duration… It is not that American democracy is the more unstable than any other by its nature, but it has been given the means to follow the natural instability of its penchants in the forming of laws.” [9]. Our country’s legal system necessarily follows the will of the people. Constitutions are always open to new amendments and interpretations, and legislation is subject to change. Despite the slow, tedious path that our legal process was meant to take, the laws inevitably end up aligning with the will of the many.

A pertinent example of Tocqueville’s diagnosis can be found in the writings of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a renowned legal scholar of the early twentieth century. Holmes, having lived through the Civil War, saw first-hand how abruptly public opinion and the governing laws of our country can change. He watched his countrymen divide over the issue of slavery, each side convinced of their absolute moral rectitude. Both North and South prayed to the same God, appealed to the same bible, and fought with the same moralistic vigor, yet their convictions resulted in drastically different conclusions. As a relativist, Holmes does not try to explain these differences in the light of natural law. Rather, the Justice uses the volatility of the law as a basis for his theory of legal positivism. Legal positivism, similar to material positivism, is the idea that there is no ontological basis for our jurisprudence. Put simply, our country’s laws should not be anchored in natural law, but rather in an ever-changing, “living” reality; Law should mold to the sensibilities of the times. Using this as a premise, Holmes disrupted the religious mores of previous scholars, and greatly influenced the trajectory of our legal system. He argued strongly that we should abandon the rigid thinking of the past, and view laws as purely utilitarian means to enact the views of a given time:

The provisions of the Constitution are not mathematical formulas that have their essence in form, they are organic, living institutions transplanted from English soil. Their significance is vital, not formal; it is to be gathered not simply by taking the words and a dictionary but by considering their origin and the line of their growth. [10].

Justice Holmes embraces what Tocqueville bemoans—the inconstancy of the American legal system. Holmes and like-minded scholars have since influenced American Jurisprudence to openly sever itself from natural law. What Tocqueville predicted has manifested in our current legislative life. As the vocal majority in our culture has become more debased and void of religious values, the laws have necessarily trailed behind. This has resulted in many legislative acts and judicial rulings that abandon natural law for the sake of majority opinion, from Roe v. Wade declaring abortion to be a federal right to Obergefell v Hodges declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right.

iii. In Culture.

On a cultural level, the tyranny of the majority condemns genuine dialogue and free discussion of ideas. Tocqueville claims that he does “not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.” [11]. He goes on to explain that America’s freedoms certainly allow anyone to believe what they want. Yet, one who holds an unpopular opinion is inevitably held from entering the public forum. The majority does not have time for dissent, and anyone who holds a controversial opinion will not last long in the public eye. The mob does not need physical force to silence disagreement, it need only turn on a dissenter to subject him to ridicule:

In America, the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fe [burning at the stake], but he is the butt of mortifications of all time and of persecutions every day. A political career is closed to him… He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth. [12].

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon in our culture today. A chilling instance (one I am sure most readers are familiar with) is the cancellation of the controversial When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement, by Ryan T. Anderson. [13]. In his book, Anderson offers a leveled, scientific response to the transgender movement—one ultimately critical of our culture’s jubilant and encouraging response to gender ideology. Amazon, the world’s largest book distributor, decided to ban the book from its (online) shelves, citing “hate speech” as a reason for the cancellation: “[Amazon has] chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.” [14]. The company, as well as mainstream culture, has no interest in encouraging debate and legitimate scientific inquiry. Rather, to the adulation of the “woke” mob, Amazon can simply cease sales of the book and hope that its consumers will forget that such opinions ever existed. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence—similar things have happened to Dr. Seuss, Huckleberry Finn, and other similarly “offensive” literature.

What is particularly troubling about these sorts of cancellations is the influence behind them. Unlike Nazi book burnings, born from decrees of a tyrannical government, the cancellation of Anderson’s book came from the self-righteous will of the mob; it was born from consensus. Amazon, perhaps understandably, has no interest in standing up for the dialectic or freedom of expression; consumeristic ideology dictates that it does whatever it takes to appease the cultural facade. In order to keep a good face with their consumers, Amazon will adopt any ideology and fight for any movement. This is apparent in other cultural hubs as well. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has found its advertising in brand deals, sports stadiums, and presidential speeches; transgenderism infiltrates Hollywood movies, Facebook advertisements, and elementary school classrooms. Whatever the latest trend, corporations, celebrities and media companies track it like a hound. Those who stick up for morality are simply “prudes,” “behind the times,” or “Nazis.” As Don Lemmon (CNN anchor) said of the Vatican’s refusal to bless homosexual unions: “That is not what God is about.” [15].

The vocal majority in our culture has created a castle for itself in the media, decrying all who oppose their agenda. Unfortunately, it seems at times that the principled few have no hope to make their voices heard, and fewer people have the will to stand up to the powers that be. Almost like a script to a movie, Tocqueville predicts in his age the social tenor of our modern times:

[The majority] does no intend to be made sport of… The slightest reproach wounds it, the least prickly truth alarms it; and one must praise it from the forms of its language to its most solid virtues. No writer, whatever his renown may be, can escape the obligation of singing the praises of his fellow citizens. The majority, therefore, lives in perpetual adoration of itself; only foreigners and experience can make certain truths reach the ears of the Americans [emphasis added]. [16].

A sorrowful diagnosis indeed.

iv. Conclusion

Regrettably, this post is doomed to end on an unsatisfying note, for there is no all-encompassing solution to counteract the tyranny of the majority. If I were to arrogantly attempt an answer, it would only ever be theoretical, never to be tried in the fires of reality. However, Tocqueville does hint at a practical step that we “debased” American citizens could take—resist the culture. Put in those terms, the platitude reads as bland, over-used, and simplistic. However, resisting the culture means more than simply disagreeing with the beliefs of the mob at a given time. One must resist those temptations and vices at the source of America’s mob-mentality. The tyranny of the majority stems from a human instinct toward tribalistic, undiscerning belief and intemperance. No one, not even those outside of the cultural mob, is immune from those vices.

To return briefly to the classic tyranny, Tocqueville notes that the masses underneath a despotic monarch usually submit to their tyrant out of habit, ignorance, or fear. The sin of those burdened by despotism is usually one of ignorance or naiveté. In fact, “people take a kind of pleasure and pride in sacrificing their will to that of a prince.” [17]. One is not as free to follow their own capriciousness when living under the rule of a despot. Because they are forced not to follow their own desires, they are inadvertently saved from vices like intemperance, sloth, and avarice. In a twisted way, the subjects of a tyrant have the benefit of another will to submit to; they are bound in obedience to the tyrant’s passions, and not their own. In an odd way, this mirrors the maxim of St. Benedict: “The first degree of humility is prompt obedience.” [18]. Thus, as Tocqueville observes “in these peoples one encounters much less degradation than misery.” [19].

In our society of freedom, on the other hand, we do not have to answer to anybody. In our day-to-day experience, we are not bound to believe any particular thing, perform particular actions, or answer to a particular person. Rather (for the most part) we are free to do whatever we desire. This is dangerous, for it allows us to more easily become bound to our passions. Freedom from despotism can lead to the slavery of concupiscence. Unless we actively strive toward virtue in our everyday existence, we will become adherent to our passions and influenced by the passions of our friends—just like the mob. As Tocqueville explains: “It is not that men are naturally worse [in America] than elsewhere, but the temptation there is very strong and is offered to more people at the same time. A much more general abasement of souls results from it.” [20].

Resisting the Culture, therefore, requires us to resist the temptations beneath it. We must recognize that our freedom from restraint can often leave us susceptible to our concupiscence. If we cannot fix the mob, we can at least turn our gaze inwards, recognize our own sinfulness, and strive to rid ourselves of our own intemperance and adherence to blind, tribalistic beliefs. As Socrates advises Crito: “We should not then think so much about what the majority will say about us, but what he will say who understands justice and injustice, the one that is, and the truth itself.” [21].

Citations:

[1]  Tocqueville, A. D., Mansfield, H. C., & Winthrop, D. (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (243).

[2]  Aquinas, Thomas. De Regimine Principium, Book 1, Chapter XI.

[3]  Tocqueville, 237.

[4]  Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address.” 1863.

[5]  Tocqueville, 243.

[6]  Fitzgerald, F. S., & W., W. J. (2019). Tender is the night: A romance. New York: Scribner. (45).

[7]  Tocqueville, 237.

[8] Id, 247.

[9] Id, 238.

[10]  Gompers v. United States, 233 U.S. 604, 610

[11]  Tocqueville, 244.

[12] Id.

[13] (Find Site Here).

[14] Id.

[15] https://thehill.com/homenews/media/543296-cnns-don-lemon-on-vatican-refusing-to-bless-same-sex-unions-god-is-not-about

[16]  Tocqueville, 245.

[17] Id, 246.

[18]  Benedict of Norcia, The Rule of St. Benedict.

[19]  Tocqueville, 246.

[20] Id.

[21]  Crito, 48a.

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