In the present political spectrum, democracy is essentially understood as both the most humane and effective means by which to govern a body politic. While democracy is currently relatively non-controversial, this was not the case during its establishment. The democratic experiment in America was viewed somewhat indifferently by many of the world’s prominent political philosophers. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill existed among those most apprehensive of the democratic experiment. To each of these men, democracy certainly possessed certain positive attributes, but at the same time, represented a potential threat to the individual freedoms of man, through a much feared ‘tyranny of the majority’.
De Tocqueville and Mill both cite the possible oppression of minority groups as a significant drawback to democracy. While each author cites the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as a possible problem, their perceptions of the alleged problem differ in scope and definition. De Tocqueville regards the above mentioned problem largely as a hindrance to actual action on the part of minority groups and individuals; Mill discusses it relating primarily to the oppression of minority thought. De Tocqueville recognizes the ability of the government to regulate thought, but does not focus on it to the extent that Mill does.
One of the fundamental questions raised by De Tocqueville is, “When a man or party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn?”(252) In the American democratic experience three separate branches of government exist, but, de Tocqueville does not feel that this mitigates the threat towards tyranny. Furthermore, he states, “in a democracy organized on the model of the United States there is only one authority, one source of strength and of success, and nothing outside it.” (255) Under De Tocqueville, this “authority” is the majority and its reign absolute. De Tocqueville’s primary fear is the government, particularly the legislature, as a tool of the masses, will have no constraints upon it to stop it acting solely in its own best interest.
While De Tocqueville references the majority’s ability to silence minority action, Mill is more concerned with its capacity to marginalize minority thought and opinion. In the realm of Mill’s world, the majority has a strong, overpowering effect on how those in the out-group think and form beliefs. The control the majority has over the minority in this respect is so great, that he goes as far to say that the minority likely will essentially lose their entire identity. To this he comments, “One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has character.” (62) Furthermore, Mill hypothesizes that through this marginalization of individual thought, the “despotism of custom” will inevitably ensue. Basically, the suppression of individual thought leads to a uniform culture which in the end deprives people of one of the fundamental elements of being human.
In analyzing De Tocqueville and Mill’s arguments, I did not find either one of them to be particularly compelling. The fears that both encompass in their writings may have been sincere worries at the time, but reflecting upon them from within the American democratic experience many years later, I find many of their worries to have been unfounded.
Regarding De Tocqueville’s position, the factors he mentions which have the potential to ‘temper’ a tyrannical majority; the absence of administrative centralization, the importance of the legal profession, the jury system, and religion, seem to have done exactly that. I find this evident especially regarding the role of the judiciary. De Tocqueville was extremely accurate when he stated, “Force is never more than a passing element in success; the idea of right follows immediately after it.” (272) As it operates today, the judiciary is very much a critical and important feature in democracy.
The essence of the judiciary alone will serve to fight against the tyranny of the majority. With the power of judicial review at democracy’s inception, came the power to make a difference. Although the legislature is a powerful body, it does not have the absolute and overarching power De Tocqueville attributes to it. The separation of powers among the three branches of government and the role of judicial review ensures that parties wronged by the government certainly have a place to turn and find justice
I found De Tocqueville’s theory that the majority could oppress minority actions to be more salient than the opinion that the majority could oppress a person’s beliefs, values, and ideals. Conformity is always a danger, but probably not any more so in a democracy than in monarchy or communist state. Mill later suggests religion and its commitment to others as a means to mitigate the above mentioned phenomenon. To this there may be some substance, but even in the absence of religion; I do not think a large conformity of the mind would occur.
To conclude, De Tocqueville and Mill both held reservations about the fundamentals of democracy, largely regarding the impact the majority would have on the minority. I found that the worries held by each author were probably logical at the time they were written. However as of yet, these are not large problems. In the history of America, the minority has eventually risen above the majority in several situations. Not the least of which are; the abolition of slavery, the granting of women’s suffrage, and the continual fight for civil rights. As far the tyranny of the mind, I think one of the most beautiful liberties in this country is that to have your own opinion. Even in a community such as the University of Michigan campus, thousands of views on countless of topics are not only represented, but accepted. The danger of losing our ability to dream and determine our goals for ourselves has been anything but realized. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ has not permeated the spirit of democracy.