Into the Canon: Tocqueville and the Despotic Majority

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One of the reasons I'm enjoying Democracy In America is you can see so much of the varying American political traditions coming together in one place. I hesitate to take anything William F. Buckley said in that Baldwin debate seriously. Nevertheless, his quip (and the whole thing was quips) that the problem with Alabama isn't that so few black could vote, but that so many whites could. In Buckley's rendering it's just snobbery, a shadow of an argument. But in Tocqueville you see a more serious critique of the now untouchable notion of a sovereign majority.

And you see libertarianism -- this deep skepticism of what a monarchical many might impose on the individual few. You see Emerson's "Self-Reliance"
Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater
There's probably even more. Certainly there is the black freedom struggle which premised itself on the notion that there had to be checks against a despotic majority.

Again, as I've said before, we all now believe in democracy as the best system of government the world has developed. Where Tocqueville challenges me is the same place that Iraq War and this urge to reinvent the Middle-East at rifle-point challenged me. Democracy may well ultimately be best, but is it -- at every stage -- always best? 

We wish that women's suffrage had come earlier. But one reason it wasn't supported by many of the abolitionist was that women's suffrage in a post-War South would have surely been a human rights disaster for African-Americans. Yet it was a disaster anyway. What do we say?

At any rate, to the text. Please try to read with big eyes:

Democratic republics extend the practice of currying favor with the many, and they introduce it into a greater number of classes at once: this is one of the most serious reproaches that can be addressed to them. In democratic States organized on the principles of the American republics, this is more especially the case, where the authority of the majority is so absolute and so irresistible that a man must give up his rights as a citizen, and almost abjure his quality as a human being, if te intends to stray from the track which it lays down. 

In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States I found very few men who displayed any of that manly candor and that masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters, wheresoever they may be found. It seems, at first sight, as if all the minds of the Americans were formed upon one model, so accurately do they correspond in their manner of judging. 

A stranger does, indeed, sometimes meet with Americans who dissent from these rigorous formularies; with men who deplore the defects of the laws, the mutability and the ignorance of democracy; who even go so far as to observe the evil tendencies which impair the national character, and to point out such remedies as it might be possible to apply; but no one is there to hear these things besides yourself, and you, to whom these secret reflections are confided, are a stranger and a bird of passage. They are very ready to communicate truths which are useless to you, but they continue to hold a different language in public. 


If ever these lines are read in America, I am well assured of two things: in the first place, that all who peruse them will raise their voices to condemn me; and in the second place, that very many of them will acquit me at the bottom of their conscience. I have heard of patriotism in the United States, and it is a virtue which may be found among the people, but never among the leaders of the people. 

This may be explained by analogy; despotism debases the oppressed much more than the oppressor: in absolute monarchies the king has often great virtues, but the courtiers are invariably servile. It is true that the American courtiers do not say "Sire," or "Your Majesty"--a distinction without a difference. 

They are forever talking of the natural 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; they do not give him their daughters and their wives to be raised at his pleasure to the rank of his concubines, but, by sacrificing their opinions, they prostitute themselves. 

Moralists and philosophers in America are not obliged to conceal their opinions under the veil of allegory; but, 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." It would have been impossible for the sycophants of Louis XIV to flatter more dexterously. 

For my part, I am persuaded that in all governments, whatever their nature may be, servility will cower to force, and adulation will cling to power. The only means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one with that unlimited authority which is the surest method of debasing them.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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