Alexis de Tocqueville Predicted the Tyranny of the Majority in Our Modern World
by Arthur Milikh
We often boast about having attained some unimaginable redefinition of ourselves and our nation. How odd, then, that someone born 210 years ago today could understand us with more clarity and depth than we understand ourselves.
Back in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville accurately foresaw both much of what ails us and our remarkable uniqueness and strengths. Tocqueville’s deservedly famous book, “Democracy in America,” was the product of his nine-month excursion throughout Jacksonian America. The purpose of this trip was to study our country’s political institution and the habits of mind of its citizens.
America’s Place in the World
Tocqueville correctly thought the then-developing America was the way of the future. As such, he foresaw that Europe would never be restored to its former greatness—though he hoped it could serve as the cultural repository of the West.
He also predicted Russian despotism, thinking that Russia was not yet morally exhausted like Europe and would bring about a new, massive tyranny. In fact, he conjectured that America and Russia would each “hold the destinies of half the world in its hands one day.”
The majority’s moral power makes individuals internally ashamed to contradict it, which in effect silences them, and this silencing culminates in a cessation of thinking.
He therefore hoped America would serve as an example to the world—a successful combination of equality and liberty. And an example of this was needed, since equality can go along with freedom, but it can even more easily go along with despotism. In fact, much of the world did go in the direction of democratic despotism—wherein the great mass of citizens is indeed equal, save for a ruling elite, which governs them. In a strange sense, Tocqueville would think that North Korea is egalitarian.
Despite his hopes for America, Tocqueville thought grave obstacles would diminish our freedom—though he didn’t think them insurmountable.