“Democracy in America” by Tocqueville (Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 7)

Chapter 7: The Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects

  • Democratic government’s essence is absolute sovereignty of the will of the majority
    • Legislature is chose to represent the majority directly for short terms – almost all government power is here
    • Laws weaken the executive to the point where it has no stability
    • Moral authority of majority rule is the number of representations is more important than how they’re chosen & there’s more wisdom in an elected body than in one man
      • power seems more legitimate it by majority
    • vs. ancien régime France – king could do no wrong & any blame was put on advisers, making obedience easier by exonerating the king of responsibility for outcome
    • Parties affect respect for majority because if nation is divided by irreconcilable differences, majority is disregarded as unpleasant to submit to
      • Aristocracy would have to give up its privileges to rule like a majority
  • I – How in America the Omnipotence of the Majority Increases the Legislative and Administrative Instability Natural to Democracies
    • Instability comes from turnover of representatives & Democracy is only applied to most important matters
      • laws & constitutions change, but activity never slows down which causes instability
      • omnipotence of majority & quick execution of laws make laws unstable because improvements are being made all the time
        • e.g. Prison reform was brought up, public got excited, prisoners & prisons were reformed due to the majority wanting it. Penitentiaries compared to old prisons & it became obvious new system was better.
  • II – Tyranny of the Majority
    • Majority shouldn’t have complete control
      • Justice forms boundary to people’s rights & majority is merely a representation of society – can’t go beyond justice & reason
      • Juxtapose majority to minority – no difference in character, only number
    • No such thing as a “mixed government” – society has some principle of action which dominates others
      • When contrary principles occur, revolutions happen & society crumbles
    • Necessary to place one social power over others but freedom is in trouble if that power can’t be restrained & moderated
    • When omnipotence in an authority, seeds of tyranny planted
      • in US, there’s a shortage of guarantees against tyranny
    • If you suffer injustice in US, where do you turn to?
      • All institutions are represented by majority
  • III – Effect of the Omnipotence of the Majority on the Arbitrary Power of the American Public Officials
    • Tyranny can use law as an instrument – no longer arbitrary but usually makes use of arbitrariness, can do without it
    • Arbitrary power can be non-tyrannical if used in public interest
    • Omnipotence of majority favors legal despotism of legislators & arbitrary power & magistrate
      • public functionaries passive agents – freer but rarely abuse power
  • IV – The Power Exercised by the Majority in America over Thought
    • Absolute monarchy can’t completely control thoughts hostile to it from circulating in courts & public
    • King’s power is physical, controlling actions not desires
    • People in US talk when majority is in doubt & then shut up when it’s clear, & act accordingly
      • Less independence of mind & freedom of discussion in the US
      • Only one authority & source of strength/success – nothing outside of it
    • Democracy restrains the intellectual area, threatening those outside of what’s acceptable it with ostracism & persecution
      • Bruyère & Molière criticized government of Louis XIV. As dangerous as this was in France, it would never happen in the US
      • Majority in US lives in perpetual state of self-adoration
    • No literary geniuses because there’s no freedom of spirit – absolutely necessary for them to arise
      • Even Spain under the Inquisition had opposition in public arena
  • V – Effects of the Majority’s Tyranny on American National Character; the Courtier Spirit in the United States
    • Outstanding politicians are rare due to despotism of majority in the US
      • A ton of them during the Revolution to guide men without tyrannizing them
      • Intellectual movement & their greatness brought honor to the nation
    • Courtiers flattered absolute monarchs but majority don’t, & only submitted out of weakness, rather than to abase themselves in bootlicking
      • In democracy, all opinions are given, & public & private life is mingled
        • As in the spirit of the court, put within the reach of all classes to participate
    • Majority having absolute & irresistible sway causes many to renounce their rights if they diverge from it
    • Not many willing to stray from public opinion – which is completely different to the generation of the Revolution
    • Despotism corrupts a man who submits to it than the man who imposes it. The absolute monarch may have virtues but courtiers are always vile.
    • American moralists excuse this by appealing to the majority’s vanity
  • VI – The Greatest Danger to the American Republics Comes from the Omnipotence of the Majority
    • governments collapse from impotence or tyranny – either power slips from its grasp or is taken from it
    • Anarchy in Democracy seen as nature of a democratic state to be weak but really, government influence stops during a war between 2 factions
      • Always abuse of strength & ill use of resources brings the government down
      • Usually from tyranny or inability – not impotence
    • Governments of US more energetic than absolute monarchs of Europe
    • If freedom is lost in America, it’ll be due to omnipotence of the majority making minorities resort to desperation & physical force
      • Madison – justice is the purpose of government & civil society. When a majority can oppress the weaker, anarchy reigns & we go back to a state of nature
      • Jefferson – tyranny exists in the executive but mostly in the legislative. Keep an eye on both

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