Tocqueville and the Tyrannical Majority

I thought of this section from Democracy In America while the debate below around centrism:

The right of governing society, which the majority supposes itself to derive from its superior intelligence, was introduced into the United States by the first settlers, and this idea, which would be sufficient of itself to create a free nation, has now been amalgamated with the manners of the people and the minor incidents of social intercourse. 

 The French, under the old monarchy, held it for a maxim (which is still a fundamental principle of the English Constitution) that the King could do no wrong; and if he did do wrong, the blame was imputed to his advisers. This notion was highly favorable to habits of obedience, and it enabled the subject to complain of the law without ceasing to love and honor the lawgiver. The Americans entertain the same opinion with respect to the majority.
One of the great intellectual tensions in my life comes from reconciling a deep belief in democracy with the fact of African-American history. What is unavoidable is that in America white supremacy has often been quite democratic. Tocqueville calls this sort of tyranny much worse because it bears the imprint of the "majority" and thus is imbued with a kind of moral justice. 

I've raised this with the New Deal, where you see, in several instances, programs which aided a majority but were only enacted at the expense of a minority. Indeed, I've long wondered about the invisible impact of allowing African-Americans as full citizens into the nation in the 60s. Is it easier to induce sacrifice in a democracy, when a majority of the country agrees upon its identity? That America was a white country for white people was once the consensus of the electorate. Black people were the insoluble other. Can you truly have a majority consensus without an other? Is this the great fear of the white racist, certain of cataclysmic racial war?

I am rambling into the speculative here. It's quite clear that the country would not have done much better besides blacks under a king, and well may have done worse. Ultimately it was the tools of democracy that forced the revocation of the "white country for white people consensus." And yet knowing how hard that process was, knowing how often the "majority" can embrace the immoral (not be "tricked" into the immoral but embrace it of its own volition and interests) gives me pause. It checks the instinct to believe in the immediate wisdom of majorities, or the sense that the right solution can always be found in a crowd.


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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.

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