Reason for repost: I first posted this extract from Democracy in America December 14, 2009. Nonetheless, some thoughts stick in the mind. So when I got into a furious debate with Tony at this post, SHOULD CHRISTIANS PARTICIPATE IN POLITICS?, Alexis De Tocqueville‘s words came to mind.
We live in an era almost like any other in America’s history. Our flesh tempts us to shout our opponents down or make our opponents look like fools. In the extreme, when we allow our pride and our fears dominion, we will name our opponents the enemy of the People.
What we believe becomes a part of us. So when another disagrees, we feel rejected, and we angrily return that rejection. Therefore, this rejection of another human being is the instinctive and predictable response of our animal nature. What can we do to resist?
Usually we do not think of majority rule as tyrannical. Alexis De Tocqueville, however, had no such illusions. He understood that more than one republic had passed into despotism because of majority rule. And from his observations of 1831-32 America, he also understood just how tyrannical the majority might be.
What follows is an excerpt from Democracy in America, Chapter II, Section 1 Volume 2 (of 2). In this excerpt, Tocqueville explains the frightful power with which the majority can enforce its will.
When the ranks of society are unequal, and men unlike each other in condition, there are some individuals invested with all the power of superior intelligence, learning, and enlightenment, whilst the multitude is sunk in ignorance and prejudice. Men living at these aristocratic periods are therefore naturally induced to shape their opinions by the superior standard of a person or a class of persons, whilst they are averse to recognize the infallibility of the mass of the people.
The contrary takes place in ages of equality. The nearer the citizens are drawn to the common level of an equal and similar condition, the less prone does each man become to place implicit faith in a certain man or a certain class of men. But his readiness to believe the multitude increases, and opinion is more than ever mistress of the world. Not only is common opinion the only guide which private judgment retains amongst a democratic people, but amongst such a people it possesses a power infinitely beyond what it has elsewhere. At periods of equality men have no faith in one another, by reason of their common resemblance; but this very resemblance gives them almost unbounded confidence in the judgment of the public; for it would not seem probable, as they are all endowed with equal means of judging, but that the greater truth should go with the greater number.
When the inhabitant of a democratic country compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows, and to place himself in contrast to so huge a body, he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness. The same equality which renders him independent of each of his fellow-citizens taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater number. The public has therefore among a democratic people a singular power, of which aristocratic nations could never so much as conceive an idea; for it does not persuade to certain opinions, but it enforces them, and infuses them into the faculties by a sort of enormous pressure of the minds of all upon the reason of each.
In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we look to it very narrowly, it will be perceived that religion herself holds her sway there, much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a commonly received opinion. The fact that the political laws of the Americans are such that the majority rules the community with sovereign sway, materially increases the power which that majority naturally exercises over the mind. For nothing is more customary in man than to recognize superior wisdom in the person of his oppressor. This political omnipotence of the majority in the United States doubtless augments the influence which public opinion would obtain without it over the mind of each member of the community; but the foundations of that influence do not rest upon it. They must be sought for in the principle of equality itself, not in the more or less popular institutions which men living under that condition may give themselves. The intellectual dominion of the greater number would probably be less absolute amongst a democratic people governed by a king than in the sphere of a pure democracy, but it will always be extremely absolute; and by whatever political laws men are governed in the ages of equality, it may be foreseen that faith in public opinion will become a species of religion there, and the majority its ministering prophet.
Thus intellectual authority will be different, but it will not be diminished; and far from thinking that it will disappear, I augur that it may readily acquire too much preponderance, and confine the action of private judgment within narrower limits than are suited either to the greatness or the happiness of the human race. In the principle of equality I very clearly discern two tendencies; the one leading the mind of every man to untried thoughts, the other inclined to prohibit him from thinking at all. And I perceive how, under the dominion of certain laws, democracy would extinguish that liberty of the mind to which a democratic social condition is favorable; so that, after having broken all the bondage once imposed on it by ranks or by men, the human mind would be closely fettered to the general will of the greatest number.
If the absolute power of the majority were to be substituted by democratic nations, for all the different powers which checked or retarded overmuch the energy of individual minds, the evil would only have changed its symptoms. Men would not have found the means of independent life; they would simply have invented (no easy task) a new dress for servitude. There is—and I cannot repeat it too often—there is in this matter for profound reflection for those who look on freedom as a holy thing, and who hate not only the despot, but despotism. For myself, when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke, because it is held out to me by the arms of a million of men.
“For nothing is more customary in man than to recognize superior wisdom in the person of his oppressor.” Consider some examples.
- Do you believe in global warming? Are you familiar with the argument that global warming must be true because it is supposedly the overwhelming consensus of scientists? Consensus? Is that the way science is suppose to work?
- Do you think the two-party system consisting of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party is best? Why? What would be wrong with a multi-party system?
- What is the importance of polls? Do you feel reassured that you are right only when you are in the majority?
- Why was the idea of Negro inferiority so difficult to overcome?
- What is the basis for the argument supporting same-sex marriage? Does it have anything to do logic or “majority consensus”?
- Why do political advocates work so hard to “prove” the majority sides with them?