For the past few months, I have been reading various books and documents written around the birth of The United States of America. I slogged through the Federalist Papers a while back and looked more intensely at the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, along with many others who reside in the United States, I never looked at them as intensely as I should have prior to now, not even during grad school.
For the last few days, I have been reading Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville.  And the text has prompted me to ask even more questions regarding U.S. identity and politics, and how U.S. laws have been constructed over the past century or so at the federal level. The text has also forced me to place myself inside the shoes of this visitor to the United States, De Tocqueville, only decades before the American Civil War, which is a lot easier said than done.
Placing myself inside De Tocqueville’s shoes and time period while reading the text allowed me to keep a more open mind, especially when reading passages like this one:
As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured in it; for it is not only his country which is then attacked, it is himself. The consequence is, that his national pride resorts to a thousand artifices, and descends to all the petty tricks of personal vanity.
Nothing is more embarrassing, in the ordinary intercourse of life, than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. (p.104)
And especially this one:
If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America. (p.118)
Like most Americans who read this, my immediate reaction was something like, “Um, you’re irritable and jealous, De Tocqueville, and not exactly a genius [said with air quotes] yourself. Pfff.” And then I realized that that precise reaction was kind of what he was alluding to.
I’ll admit that when De Tocqueville gets into the nitty gritty of the “tyranny of the majority” in Democracy in America, his skepticism about 19th century Americans being able to think for themselves begins to make more sense.
One reason why the influence of the ruling majority was (and currently still is?) so dangerous, according to De Tocqueville, is because they maintain power over the mind and behaviors of their fellow Americans without necessarily needing to resort to physical violence or force. At least, not until the Civil War. And those who were in the minority in the 1800s ceded to the so-called majority at the time because they hoped to one day be the ruling majority themselves. So, the minority followed suit with, and probably even pretended to agree with, a lot of things that the majority did at the time because they wanted the same respect granted to them when they were to gain the majority in the future. Or at least, they had hoped.
Meanwhile, however, those who were in the majority did use their legislative powers in the 1800s to make laws while they were in power (as they do now)– laws that control the nonphysical opinions of the citizenry, as well as the physical bodies of the citizenry.
De Toqueville himself quotes Jefferson:
‘The executive power in our government is not the only, perhaps not even the principle, object of my solicitude. The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared…’ (p. 121)
Ultimately, one could conclude that it isn’t the majority of physical bodies per se that holds political power or sovereignty in a democratic state (as De Tocqueville alludes to elsewhere in the text), but the ruling majority’s opinion proposed by and indoctrinated by the laws they create and put into effect — opinions and laws that the American people, in general, don’t readily question or feel comfortable questioning. Why? Because that goes against their very personal and American identity, which indoctrinates them to believe that their laws are of, by, and for the people, themselves. Why would they question, or want to question, the opinions and laws of those who the supposed majority elected, especially if they want to become the majority themselves one day? And their complicity with what the ruling majority enacts reinforces the power of the laws the ruling majority makes and the power of the ruling majority itself, which isn’t necessarily the actual majority of the body politic (or the majority of human bodies that make up the American population).
Consider these other passages from Democracy in America:
Custom has done even more than law. (p.112)
Thought is an invisible and subtile power, that mocks all the efforts of tyranny. (p.116)
In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion… (p.117)
The nearer the people 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 judgement retains amongst a democratic people, but amongst such a people it possesses a power infinitely beyond what it has elsewhere. (p. 148)
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… 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. (p.148-9)
Overall, here are some questions that I’m left with after reading Book I of Democracy in America:
- How misguided can De Tocqueville be in his insight in Democracy in America, when he says that Americans are drawn to “the common level of an equal and similar condition,” which essentially makes their political opinions and private judgements the same? There were slaves, poor laborers, and women who didn’t have a vote, or weren’t even considered to have a voice back then. Did they also follow the majority opinion blindly, or were they just being ignored? If they were ignored then, are they still being ignored now? Were they simply sold the promise of equality?
- Are customs and thoughts, or supposed democratic beliefs, more important than the law itself when it comes to a democratic society and who the ruling majority is? Where and how do customs and laws of the ruling majority overlap and interact? Can such customs or laws ever really change, if they are so ingrained in the minds and hearts of individual Americans?
- Democracy in America was written before the American Civil War. Did the ruling majority in the U.S. actually change after the war? Has it ever changed over the course of the nation’s history? Or has the ruling majority remained the same, since their power was and is still codified into law since the birth of the nation? In other words, has the ruling majority of the U.S. always been wealthy white men who are seeking power and materialistic gain?
- Is it more helpful to think of the “majority” that De Tocqueville refers to in Democracy in America as an institution that was established via customs and social norms and beliefs? And not necessarily as existing by way of a particular political party or physical bodies of the largest group of people who could exercise their political rights and identities?
- In what ways do we conform to the tyranny of the majority now? Or in what ways might we be denying that there is a tyranny of the majority now? Or more optimistically, in what ways might the tyranny of the majority be coming to an end? Is that possible now?
- What insight does De Tocqueville offer about American democratic society, political systems, and institutions, that American citizens at the time couldn’t–or more importantly, wouldn’t–offer at the time Democracy in America was written? Are there any writers outside of the U.S. now who have some insight about U.S. democratic society, political systems, and institutions that Americans should consider more seriously?
 De Tocqueville, Alexis; Democracy in America. ISBN 0-451-62801-2
Subscribe to Daily Drafts & Dialogues