Alexis de Tocqueville's "Tyranny of the Majority"
Sean Wilentz offers some insight into the origin and perceptiveness of the idea in his review of a new biography — Discovering Tocqueville:
- No idea in Democracy is more influential than that of the potential "tyranny of the majority," by which Tocqueville meant the conformist impulses that quietly pervade American politics and society. Yet Tocqueville picked up the concept in Boston from the literary eminence Jared Sparks, the biographer of George Washington and eventual president of Harvard, who alerted him to the possibility that a majority in a state legislature might abuse its powers and pass laws harmful to the minority. (In fact, the fear was an old one, dating back to the political turmoil of the 1780s that led to the framing of the federal Constitution.) Sparks was infuriated at how Tocqueville appropriated the term and changed its meaning: Any majority that actually passed oppressive laws, Sparks wrote, would "certainly be changed at the next election," whereas by conflating the majority with public opinion, he said, Tocqueville had merely identified a sheepishness common to all political orders.
Only many decades later would the full value of Tocqueville's misunderstanding become clear. It was an early description of the kind of self-censorship that led to what the journalist and sociologist William H. Whyte would call "groupthink," a reluctance to break ranks or court disfavor, even in the absence of formal state censorship. Tocqueville detected that reluctance among his favored Brahmin bien pensants, who were unwilling to say too much too publicly against the growing democratic dogma. In time, the sons and grandsons of the Brahmins would end their silence and loudly, bitterly, and at times effectively rail against what they beheld as the intrinsic corruption and stupidity of mass democracy. But the power of conformism persisted, as ubiquitous in our own time in campaigns and movements of the left as of the right, its message unmistakable if unspoken: Toe the line, say nothing critical of the anointed idea or personality, or risk ostracism and humiliation.