Democracy Can Have Serious Problems
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America
Kem Stone - 25 May 2008
A French intellectual who criticises American democracy would today be the epitome of everything the majority
of the American public hates.  Were Alexis de Tocqueville to write his treatise,
Democracy in America today, he
would no doubt be the subject of a great deal of ire and nationalistic hatred, his work ignored and his views
unwelcome within the public discourse.  Ironically, this would be a symptom of the very criticism that de
Tocqueville levels against American democracy, which is the all-powerful tyranny of the majority and the mass
conformity of public opinion that makes this nation even more intellectually stifling than most monarchies or
despotisms of the 19th century.  But although de Tocqueville’s criticism is valid, his central thesis that the popular
will of the majority is the strongest social force in the United States is no longer true.  It may have been true in the
1830s, but much has changed since then, most importantly the basic shape of American democracy, if such a thing
can be said to even exist anymore.  Without much background knowledge regarding American society in the early
19th century, I can not speak to whether de Tocqueville was right or wrong about democracy during this
particular historical period, so I will limit myself to considering which aspects of de Tocqueville’s arguments are
true in contemporary society, and which are false or simply obsolete.

De Tocqueville begins by clearly putting forward his presuppositions regarding the ethics of government: that one
social power must always predominate over the others (thus distinguishing himself from the socialists and
communists) but that this power must be checked in order to ensure the preservation of basic liberties.  He
believes that there should be an ultimate authority in society, but that no authority is worthy of absolute, all-
predominant control.  This is the danger he sees when it comes to American society.  “In my opinion the main evil
of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe; from their
weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which
reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny” (493).  De Tocqueville is
speaking here not of the tyranny of a ruler or even a particular class, but of the same sort of tyranny that John
Stuart Mill warns against, the tyranny of the majority.

De Tocqueville asks to whom an individual can turn for redress when wronged in the United States, and illustrates
how there is nowhere to turn but to the majority.  If the backing of public opinion is sought, it is the majority that
determines public opinion.  If he turns to the legislature, the legislature is appointed by the majority.  The same
goes for executive power, which rests in the hands of those who are also elected by the majority.  The troops are
merely the army of the majority, the jury is the majority with the duty to hear judicial cases, and even the judge is
elected by majority in many states.  There is nowhere to turn but to the majority, which in and of itself is not a
terrible state of affairs, but the fact that a legislature is not merely appointed by the majority but is often a slave to
its passions is what opens the door to tyrannical abuse.

To further illustrate this point, de Tocqueville draws a distinction between tyranny and arbitrary power.  Tyranny
may be lawful and therefore not arbitrary, and arbitrary power may be exercised for the public good and therefore
not be tyranny.  It is when tyranny is employed by arbitrary means that liberty is threatened.  “In the United States
the unbounded power of the majority, which is favourable to the legal despotism of the legislature, is likewise
favourable to the arbitrary authority of the magistrate.  The majority has an entire control over the law when it is
made and when it is executed…it considers public officers as its passive agents, and readily confides the task of
serving its designs to their vigilance” (494).  When the functionaries in American government exceed their bounds,
they are protected by popular authority, which is usually more concerned with achieving the desired outcome than
the means by which that outcome is achieved, even if it means stepping beyond the law.

De Tocqueville warns that such habits within a democracy may one day prove fatal to its liberties.  The Patriot
Act is a perfect example of de Tocqueville’s warning coming to fruition.  In the months following the terrorist
attacks of September 11, the popular majority was so concerned with catching terrorists before another possible
attack that they were willing to sanction the elimination of many of their own civil liberties.  The executive branch
continues to illicit information through illegal wiretapping, but because the popular will is more concerned with
catching the criminal than doing so within the bounds of the constitution, they are able to blatantly step beyond
their authority with almost complete impunity.

The constitution was founded on certain intellectual principles, but the popular majority rarely has any concern for
such principles, particularly if they stand in the way of the desired ends.  De Tocqueville writes that intellectual
principles have so little influence over the people that they may as well be invisible.  Discussion over a particular
issue may be carried out as long as the majority is undecided, as in the case of whether a Negro ought to have the
same rights as a white man, but once a decision has been reached the public lapses into a submissive silence, with
both friends and opponents of a measure assenting to its propriety, as in cases when hawks and doves alike stand
behind the troops when a decision has been made to engage in military action.  “The authority of a king is purely
physical, and it controls the actions of the subject without subduing his private will; but the majority possesses a
power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it
represses not only all contest, but all controversy” (494).

America champions the liberty of opinion guaranteed to its citizens by the constitution, but there are very clear
boundaries within which an author of political opinions must remain if his ideas are to be accepted.  Should the
author step beyond these intellectual barriers, his political career is over.  Having offended the only authority which
matters, he will be ostracised from public life.  Despotism used to be carried out through means of physical
coercion, but American democracy has refined it and turned it purely into an affair of the mind.  The sovereign
does not threaten the dissenter with pain or death, but merely has to say, “You are free to think differently from
me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are
henceforth an alien among your people….You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of
mankind.  Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your
innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn.  Go in peace!  I have given you your
life, but it is an existence incomparably worse than death” (495).

De Tocqueville admits that the mental tyranny to which he alludes is still very subtle and barely perceptible in
political society, but warns that the negative influence these tendencies have on the national character of
Americans is growing.  Public officials are becoming more and more slaves to the popular will, and the practice of
currying favour with the majority is becoming widespread among all the classes, not just the elite.  The result is that
it seems “as if all the minds of the Americans were formed upon one model, so accurately do they correspond in
their manner of judging” (496).  There are those who will break from the widely held view of things, but they will
only confide their dissent with a sympathetic ear in private conversation.

Should anyone go so far as to dissent openly, they must preface any speech with an appeal to the intelligence of
the populace they serve.  “They do not debate the question as to which of the virtues of their master is pre-
eminently worthy of admiration, for they assure him that he possesses all the virtues under heaven without having
acquired them, or without caring to acquire them…before they venture upon a harsh truth, they say: ‘We are
aware that the people which we are addressing is too superior to all the weaknesses of human nature to lose the
command of its temper for an instant; and we should not hold this language if we were not speaking to men whom
their virtues and their intelligence render more worthy of freedom than all the rest of the world’” (497).  De
Tocqueville believes that in all governments, servility will cower to force, and adulation will cling to power.  The
only preventative measure that can be taken is to invest no one with unlimited authority.  Though this is the basic
principle of American democracy—to keep the power of the executive in check by placing the authority in the
hands of the people—by giving all power to the people they have invested unlimited authority in the will of the
majority, which commands servility by the force of its numbers and maintains power through self-adulation.

De Tocqueville has shown why the Europeans who believe that democratic governments are naturally weak and
impotent are wrong.  The United States government will not perish from weakness, but it may fail due to the abuse
of its force or the misemployment of its resources.  Although the power which directs society in democratic
republics is prone to change hands and move in new directions, the force of its momentum in any direction is
almost unstoppable.  “If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the
unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige
them to have recourse to physical force.  Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by
despotism” (497).  De Tocqueville sees the fatal flaw in American government as the same fatal flaw in despotic
governments throughout history, but merely in a different form.

My initial reaction to de Tocqueville’s arguments was that he was either wrong or out-dated.  I see no great
conformity in public opinion today, as it seems this country is greatly divided between two ideologies, with
religious conservatives on the right and secular liberals on the left.  The opinions that are shared with the public
range right across the spectrum and are often on the extreme end of one side or the other.  There is no perceptible
“popular will” to speak out against, and those who do voice unpopular opinions are often the subject of praise and
admiration for their courage.  Minorities may have been victims of the force of the majority until very recently, but
today they are a very powerful social force.  Does all this mean that we have successfully heeded de Tocqueville’s
warnings and prevented our democracy from lapsing into political despotism?

Upon further consideration, I realised that the answer is no, and that much of what de Tocqueville writes is still
very true and relevant today, especially in the case of the mass media.  The tyranny of popular will was most
evident during the period immediately following the attacks of September 11, as the cable news networks took on
the role of “patriotism police” and vigorously derided anyone who spoke ill of the president, who protested the
invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, or who made even the slightest suggestion that the United States might be partly
to blame for provoking the anger that led to the attacks in the first place.  During this time, I was still quite young
and naïve, but I was of the opinion that our hostile foreign policy towards the Muslim world in the Middle East
invited the attacks, and that our response should have been to reach out and extend the olive branch towards
those we may have wronged, rather than drop bombs and kill more innocent people.  I provoked a great deal of
anger whenever I spoke in this way, and when I wrote my opinions down and forwarded them to people who
posted them on-line, my words were removed from a number of message boards because apparently the
moderators did not like my “anti-American” comments.  This is a case in which de Tocqueville’s arguments can
be seen as both completely accurate and prophetic.

There are other examples that go beyond this small period of time.  It is, and has been for quite some time,
practically unthinkable for a political candidate to run for president as an atheist.  Because the majority of
Americans are religious, for a candidate to show any hint of scepticism about religion or the existence of God
would be political suicide.  And just as politicians can never speak ill of God, religious leaders can never speak ill
of America.  To use an example from recent current events, the presidential candidate Barack Obama lost a good
deal of support in the democratic primary due to his mere
association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who
suggested that the government of the United States has blood on its hands from the Native Americans it
obliterated and the Africans it enslaved.  The opinion of the majority is that America is always right, even when it
is wrong.  To suggest that God might not
bless America but damn America for her crimes is tantamount to high
treason in the minds of the many, and Reverend Wright found himself morally crucified at the hands of the self-
appointed spokespersons for popular opinion: the mass media.  Just as de Tocqueville describes, Wright was
derided, ostracised, deemed hateful or insane, and ultimately rejected as a “true American” in spite of his military
service and decades of service to his community.  Clearly, the problems that de Tocqueville pointed to in our
democracy are still very much with us.

However, de Tocqueville ultimately failed to see the emergence of a different kind of threat within democracy: that
a particular minority would become powerful enough to undermine even the will of the majority.  Today, that
minority is the wealthy elite who own all of the major corporations that make up the United States economy.  
Regardless of popular will, these few operate with nearly complete freedom and total impunity.  The majority of
Americans favour withdrawing our troops from Iraq, but the corporations (mainly oil companies and defence
contractors) with a vested interest have control of the executive branch, and rather than drawing troops down we
end up sending more.  This may change if a democrat is elected president, and that will be a very good measure of
the remaining strength of American democracy, but in many other areas of life the popular will is an impotent
force.  The FCC has been able to consolidate more and more media outlets into the hands of a few major
corporations despite overwhelming opposition, lobbyists continue to keep dangerous products on the market in
the face of public protest, and tax breaks continue to be given to the wealthiest percentile of Americans while the
remaining 99% struggle to afford a basic cost of living.  American democracy is failing its people, but not because
the will of the people is too strong, but because the will of the powerful has become strong enough to trump it.  De
Tocqueville’s arguments are therefore rendered invalid not because he drew the wrong conclusions but because
he failed to foresee the rise of the corporation as a political force more powerful than the government or the
people it represents.