Center for Civic Education

Democracy and the New Millennium

Saving Democracy from Its Friends: The Three Faces of Majority Tyranny

J. Jackson Barlow

A paper presented at
Democracy and the New Millennium
International Conference
Malibu, California
October 2000

"The majority [in America] lives in perpetual adoration of itself...."
   --Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The theme of our panel is "Democracy and Dynamism," a theme that has always been of particular interest to political theorists because democracy seems to be both irresistible and unpredictable. It is irresistible because it draws on the great power of the majority. Democracy alone can focus the energies of an entire society. But democracy is unpredictable because the majority seems unable to use its great power either consistently or well. Speaking of the classical Greek democracies, Alexander Hamilton says in Federalist 9 that they "were kept in a perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy." Democracy is threatened the most by the very group it empowers, the majority. Indeed, democracy paradoxically appears most problematic when it is at its strongest, when it has no rivals for power. In these circumstances, the dynamic of democracy inevitably seems to drive it into tyranny of the majority, and then to collapse. The classical philosophers for this reason always diluted democracy by incorporating its rivals – aristocracy and monarchy – into government in a "mixed regime." Pure democracy was too dynamic for its own good.

At the beginning of this new millennium, we may be entitled to claim that democracy’s rivals have, at least for the moment, been defeated. Certainly in the West, no alternative principle seems to be a serious challenger to liberal democracy. Yet if the West has been successful in defending democracy from its enemies, it may be time to ask whether our next task is to save it from its friends. Can contemporary majorities use their unchallenged power well? Our concern is that democracy’s success may undermine its ability to deliver on its promises of equality and human dignity. Acknowledging no appeal from the opinion of the majority, democracy may lead to the absolute victory of the majority’s way of thinking, a victory that may eliminate the very possibility of meaningful dissent.

In order to help us understand how we got to where we are, it may be useful to review the history of modern concerns about majority tyranny. These fall into three categories, corresponding to the three faces of majority tyranny. The first, which I associate with James Madison, is most concerned with the majority’s control over the institutions of government. The second concern was described in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. This second face of majority tyranny came into view as a social phenomenon; the majority’s control of the government was accepted and only of incidental concern. Today, the majority has uncontested control of government and society both; Vaclav Havel has described it as the "consumer society." Unlike Tocqueville’s America, consumer democracy prides itself on the empowerment of the individual and the satisfaction of all desires; but is this the majority tyranny’s attempt to seduce its last rival? Each of these authors raises in a different context the question of whether democracy can be safe from its friends.

For Madison, tyranny of the majority means in essence mob rule. "The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice," he says in Federalist paper number 10. The vice in question is faction, and especially majority faction, "the superior force of an ... overbearing majority." Madison’s concern is twofold: he speaks of "character" as well as "fate." By this he means that tyranny of the majority makes democracies unjust, or gives them a bad character, and also makes them short-lived. The problem of democracy, Madison believes, is that majority rule might both undermine the democratic idea of the rights of the individual, and destroy itself. In this respect, we can see that Madison, like his coauthor Hamilton, is still operating in some ways within the classical framework.

Majority tyranny is the problem of democracy. It is a danger inseparable from democracy because, in Madison’s words, it is "sown in the nature of man." Human beings do not spontaneously act for the good of the group or the society. They require persuasion, and specifically persuasion powerful enough to overcome the self interest, prejudices, mistakes, and passions to which people are subject. But such persuasion is not a feature of democratic politics, which more often resembles the headlong rush of a mob, even when the people try to deliberate. Already by 1787 the American states had begun to succumb to democracy of this kind. Their policies showed clearly that when the people move as a mass, it is powerful but not good. Democratic governmental structures simply cannot restrain the passions of their rulers. How can democracy become more clear-headed?

I am sorry to report in this company that Madison rejects the idea of civic education. It is impossible, he says, to instill in all citizens a common opinion about what is good for the society, and a common passion to achieve it. At least, it is impossible to do this in a free society. But Madison also rejects the classical solution to majority tyranny, that of mixing democratic and non-democratic elements in the constitution. Adding a non-consensual element, or a "will independent of society," might, in theory, allow the government to include the wisest elements of the community, those who are capable of seeing the common good most clearly. In practice, of course, non-consensual institutions tend to represent property holders, i.e., those who have the most to lose from unrestrained majority rule. In either case, only a strong and independent force would be able, according to Madison, to withstand the collective power of the majority. But however desirable such an external check on the majority might be, it is not politically possible. For Americans, there can be no alternative to a "wholly popular" government.

Madison realized that in such a popular government, the only power strong enough to counteract the majority was the majority itself. Thus, having rejected external checks on democracy, in the form of an independent will, Madison must find internal ones. The key to the solution was to enlarge the boundaries of the country – what we have come to call the extended republic. This would fragment the majority and thus, Madison reasoned, improve its ability to govern. Madison relied on the natural articulation of society into different interests for the principle to rival the power of the majority. A natural division of society, complemented by a natural leadership class, would combat the levelling instincts of the majority. By fragmenting the majority into many minorities each group would first face the need to create or discover its own leadership, and second would be reminded of its own vulnerability and dependence on other groups. Such reminders are helpful in persuading people to make compromises, and even sacrifices, if they can be shown to advance the good of many groups. A governing majority can in this way be created out of bargaining and coalitions among groups in such a way that no "outside" group is ever permanently excluded or ruled out of the game. All the groups, and their leaders, must learn to trust the other groups if the game is to work. In thus creating incentives for deliberation, consultation, and trust, the extended republic provides a far more effective civic education than any classroom instruction could accomplish.

Madison’s solution of the problem of the governmental tyranny of the majority was to use constitutional structures to prevent the majority from concentrating its power. The Madisonian proposal improves majority rule by making it necessary for different groups in society to negotiate with one another. As American democracy developed, this negotiation – as Madison himself did not foresee in 1788 when he wrote Federalist 10 – soon began to take place outside formal structures of government. It now seems to us almost inevitable that a structure that does not provide for representation of each social group in the government (as in the classical mixed regime) would move the process of accommodation outside those institutions. The American party system, of which Madison himself became an architect, functions as such an extra-governmental mechanism for adjusting social interests. By replacing competition among social classes (as at Rome, for example) with competition among political parties for control of the government, the American party system has succeeded in preventing the kind of majority tyranny that Madison feared.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he found that Madison’s extended republic had in fact worked to provide a kind of civic education for American citizens. Everywhere he went, Tocqueville discovered a robust, engaged citizenry. Indeed, Americans did not even rely to any significant degree on formal governmental institutions and structures to carry out their ideas of the common good. Instead, their typical solution was to form an association to take care of the problem, and leave the government out of it. Yet if its governing style was episodic and ad hoc, the majority’s influence on mores was permanent and systematic. Tocqueville understood that the majority, diverted by Madison’s decentralized institutions from its ambition to control the government, had instead channeled its energies into controlling society. This social tyranny held sway over opinions, thoughts, and tastes. The natural leadership of the best, which Madison had counted on to rival democratic control of the government, had given way to a social democracy that tolerated no rivals. While Madison had feared the tyranny of the mob, Tocqueville believed Americans had created a tyranny of the average.

This was a majority tyranny of an entirely new type – one that does not coerce actions, but opinions. In this type of tyranny, there need not be any persecution of those we might call "dissidents." Why? Because there are no dissidents; or if people dissent from the majority opinion they do not express their disagreement. For such a majority, control of the institutions of government is superfluous, for it has created a tyranny far more effective. It controls dissent before it is even conceived or felt: Tocqueville goes so far as to conclude that "there is no freedom of mind in America." While this power of the majority, Tocqueville concludes, has so far been well used in America, he is careful to note its potential for being used badly: "I speak only of the power in itself. This irresistible power is a continuous fact, and its good use is only an accident." Tocqueville’s majority is different from Madison’s turbulent, levelling mob. It is decidedly middle class in its outlook and tastes. It is decent and orderly and respectful of property rights, because it is composed of property owners. Above all, Tocqueville’s majority believes in its own collective wisdom as expressed in social structures, be they mass politics or mass markets. Self doubt is not among its qualities.

Hastening the majority’s progress toward control of the public mind is the rise of individualism. Tocqueville defines individualism as:

a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.

Individualism cannot counteract the democratic tendency to tyranny of the majority, according to Tocqueville. In America, individualism does not come to sight as proof of the individual’s independence of society, but rather of his dependence on society. It accelerates the completion of majority tyranny by making each individual aware of his aloneness – it is the Madison principle carried to the individual level. As Madison had said, "the reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires ... confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated." Tocqueville agrees, seeing in this human characteristic a powerful means of extending the majority’s tyranny over thought. Individualism cannot rival the power of the majority.

What does enable Americans to overcome the democratic dynamic that produces social tyranny? It is not clear to Tocqueville that they have done so. But to the extent that they have, for Tocqueville, the counter-principle is that of "self-interest well understood." It is a principle that is compatible with, and complementary to democracy; like Madison’s extended republic it uses democracy’s strength to check itself. As Tocqueville explains,

Self-interest well understood is a doctrine not very lofty, but clear and sure. It does not seek to attain great objects; but it attains all those it aims for without too much effort. As it is within the reach of all intellects, each seizes it readily and retains it without trouble. Marvelously accommodating to the weaknesses of men, it obtains a great empire with ease, and preserves it without difficulty because it turns personal interest against itself, and to direct the passions, it makes use of the spur that excites them.

This principle curbs the excesses of democracy by inculcating good habits in the majority – habits of thrift, hard work, and self-sacrifice. It provides the antidote to individualism by impelling citizens into the public sphere, encouraging them to associate with others and undertake common tasks. Self-interest provides a way of measuring public policies and majority opinions that is independent of majority judgments.

A democratic society that is not a place where free thought flourishes or actively seeks its own enslavement seems a strange idea, perhaps, but to Tocqueville it is a possible, and even likely, outcome of the dynamics of the democratic principle. Individualism might create such a society, made up of atomized individuals who share the opinions and tastes of the majority but feel no sense of solidarity with it and no sense of kinship with their fellow citizens. Some may even deceive themselves into thinking that their opinions are theirs alone. Such a majority tyranny might become complete if self-interest well understood were to become an instrument of it, with each member socialized into understanding his own interest as being in conformity with the majority’s habits and tastes. This paradoxical solidarity in isolation is the theme of Vaclav Havel’s writings.

The second half of the 20th century seemed to offer a stark choice between two allegedly democratic and egalitarian social models. On one side stood the capitalist West, and on the other stood the Communist East. Each proclaimed its commitment to the equality and dignity of its citizens, although critics argued that both systems failed to make good on their promises. If the Communist tyranny was more obvious, owing to its control of the government, the capitalist or consumerist tyranny was, especially in the U.S., equally absolute. In the 1970s and 1980s, Vaclav Havel wrote a series of essays in which he exposed the tenuous foundations of the Czech communist regime. In the spirit of Tocqueville, Havel demonstrates the way in which the communist regime exploits the dynamics of democracy. He also, most importantly for our purposes, saw more clearly than many that the West’s alternative to communism may simply be a different kind of tyranny. Havel argues that there is little to choose between communism and capitalism in their encouragement of social fragmentation and alienation. Because he has reaffirmed these views since the end of the communist regime, and because he saw capitalism from the vantage of its rivals, I think Havel’s observations have a continuing application to our understanding of the problem of democratic tyranny.

In his "Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak" (1975), Havel argues that the stability of the communist system was assured by the mostly-hidden power that forced people to "live within the lie." Like Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority over Americans’ thinking, the communist system not only represses things that are published, but prevents them ever being written or thought. Communism is thus hostile to the human need to create and explore; as we might expect from an artist, Havel concludes that it is hostile to life itself. Life is a struggle against entropy – against monotony, levelling, or sameness. Communism had created stability but at the price of suppressing life-affirming human dignity. Havel warns Husak that the impulse to life will reassert itself, but may take unpredictable forms – perhaps it will reveal itself as a desire for revenge against the Communists. (It perhaps need not be added that Husak was unmoved by this threat.)

The Communists had divided the social dynamic of democracy against itself. They used, or rather, misused, the principle of equality to suppress rights and human dignity. But Havel sees a similarity between the aims of communism and that of capitalism. The Soviet system, he says, "is simply another form of the consumer and industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual, and psychological consequences." He elaborates on the meaning of this consumer society, describing it as embracing an

aesthetics of banality, which misses the truth much more inconspicuously, acceptably, and plausibly, and (since it is naturally far more digestible for the conventional mind) is far better calculated to perform the role accorded to culture in the consumer philosophy: not to excite people with the truth, but to reassure them with lies.

Those in the West who have been curious about Havel’s ambivalent and reluctant acceptance of the consumer society would do well to read these early essays. Havel understands – understood even under the Communists, when he lacked direct access to Western culture – the difficult and paradoxical dynamics of modern society. The aloneness of each individual leads to a social timidity and conformity. It encourages people to think and act in herds for fear of being isolated. But as Tocqueville did not foresee, Havel understands that enlightened self-interest has not become a principle that draws people out of their own individualistic circles, but rather has become the captive of Tocqueville’s tyranny of the average. Consumerism contracts the sphere of self-interest, applying it strictly to the immediate ends or satisfactions of the citizen. For capitalist and Communist alike, self-interest becomes simply minding one’s own business. It ceases to rival individualism and instead becomes its instrument. It has been co-opted by the tyranny of the majority.

Havel’s proposal for communist society was simply to stop living the lie and "live in truth," as he proposes in his essay on "The Power of the Powerless." In its simplest form, living in truth is a willingness to call a lie a lie. It is a refusal to accept further humiliations to one’s dignity as a human being, and so threatens the foundation of the communist state. It is an honorable self-assertion in the spirit of Tocqueville’s self-interest well understood. The power of living in truth is "incalculable," Havel says, for it is consistent with the aims of life itself, which include "a hidden openness to truth." As he defines it, true democracy cannot become ideological, for ideology is "a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them." To make an ideology of some aspects of democracy is possible, as the Communists demonstrate, but it runs precisely contrary to democracy’s affirmation of human dignity. Communism makes democracy itself a lie.

As Havel has discovered in his newer role as President of the Czech Republic, living in truth is easier to describe in an essay than it is to do in practice. Indeed, it may be that living in truth is simply not possible in the consumerist West. The end of Communism presented Czechs with entirely new, almost undreamed-of, opportunities for personal and social satisfaction. Havel has remained wary of the power of the consumer mentality to deflect a society from a concern with morality and the common good, and he has reminded us that democracy always remains an aspiration, but is never a fully accomplished fact, even in countries with a long experience of it. Comforting lies, whether they be in the form of consumer advertising or more overt forms of propaganda, fit remarkably well with the dynamics of modern democracy. People who are made insecure, either by the power of the state or by the power of society, will seek comfort at the price of dignity. They will not resist the power that can make or destroy their sense of self-worth.

The homogenization of life in the developed nations – "McDonaldization," as it has been called – raises the worst fears about the future of democracy. The market dignifies all choices, by promising to satisfy them, and yet diminishes them by making them all equal. The market cannot establish a rank ordering among preferences. Market tyranny thinks of citizens as consumers with tastes to be satisfied, not as moral beings whose considered judgments are to be consulted. It is, above all, unconcerned with the origins of tastes or their worth; it is "pragmatic." It is a tool of entropy or levelling, and hence as hostile to life as was Communism. The result is that citizens are simultaneously empowered and belittled, included and alienated, secure and adrift. It is probably oversimplifying simply to denounce the market’s promises of empowerment, inclusion, and security as simply a variety of "living within the lie." Yet clearly "living in truth" demands that we recognize the diminishment, alienation, and drift that modern market democracy has created. We have created powerful forces on the basis of the equality and dignity of each individual, and devoted great resources to the satisfaction of that individual’s desires. The way forward from market tyranny is not clear; Havel’s solution of "living in truth" is attractive but vague, and perhaps impossible. The search for a counter-active principle to market tyranny – a 21st century equivalent of Madison’s extended republic or Tocqueville’s self-interest – is perhaps our most important political and intellectual task. But we must also be wary of our own intentions. Madison’s and Tocqueville’s solutions, each in its own way, encouraged the formation of the consumerist tyranny we live inside today. We must be clear sighted about our own limitations, and cautious about the problems that may be created by our solutions.

The dynamics of democracy since the American Founding have led to three distinct types of concern about majority tyranny. The American Founders, like their classical counterparts, feared majority tyranny in the form of mob rule. Their solution was to prevent the struggle between majority and minority for control of the government by removing that struggle to the social realm. The majority would be less dangerous if its ambitions were deflected from a single large objective to many smaller ones. It was the majority’s victory in all of these many small contests that created the new face of majority tyranny described by Tocqueville. Having faced down its rivals, the majority in America had created a society that mirrored its own interests and tastes. Only the principle of self-interest well understood remained as a barrier to the majority’s complete control. That is, only enlightened self-interest could give individual Americans an ambition to take on great public tasks. Yet the third face of majority tyranny reveals that enlightened self interest itself has been overpowered by the majority and its form of individualism. Consumerism justifies each citizen in withdrawing from the public sphere and from fellow citizens. Whether such a society will long remain a democracy in other than the formal governmental sense remains to be seen. The task of the 21st century may be to save democracy from this third face of majority tyranny which has made us so comfortable. Perhaps we need to search for ways to save democracy from its friends.

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