Intellectual Tyranny of the Majority

In reviewing Volume Two of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America I began thinking about the concept of majority-thinking.

He argues that in democracies, “men are no longer bound together by ideas, but by interests (issues); and it would seem as if human opinions were reduced to a sort of intellectual dust, scattered on ever side, unable to collect, unable to cohere.”

He somewhat worries that this can lead to anarchy and disconnection and failure of society, but doesn’t think it will happen because:

[man’s] readiness to believe the multitude increases, and opinion is more than ever mistress of the world. Not only is common opinion the only guide which private judgment retains among a democratic people, but amongst such a people it possesses a power infinitely beyond what it has elsewhere. At periods of equality men have no faith in one another (as individuals), by reason of their common resemblance; but this very resemblance gives them almost unbounded confidence in the judgment of the public (the masses/ the group); for it would not seem probable, as they are all endowed with equal means of judging, but that the greater truth should go with the greater number.

The same equality which renders him independent of each of his fellow-citizens taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater number.

It does not pursuade to certain opinions, but it enforces them, and infuses them into the faculties by a sort of enormous pressure of the minds of all upon the reason of each…In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.”

John Stuart Mill talks about this using the words “cultural despotism” or “social tyranny”. If individuals don’t think for themselves, a culture of majority-thinking arises which is dangerous in a situation where the “majority rules.” The minority is then totally trampled because no one with influence is thinking outside the dominant paradigm.

The intellectually dominion of the greater number would probably be less absolute amongst a democratic people governed by a king than in the sphere of a pure democracy, but it will always be extremely absolute; and by whatever political laws men are governed in the ages of equality, it may be foreseen that faith in public opinion will become a species of religion there, and the majority its ministering prophet.”

This is precisely why the opinions of the dissident need to be heard, to prevent the majority from becoming a tyranny. The problem is that currently the demos are so easily influenced (because of the dumbing down of the curriculum in school that teaches students what to think, not how to think) that the aristocracy can convince the demos that it is their duty to fight foreign wars for their “security” with the demos paying the cost and the aristocracy reaping the benefits. The argument can be made that all foreign wars the U.S. has been involved in are motivated by economics, but that will have to wait for another day.

Fundamentally, as a democracy, we have the freedom to think independently. I know that it’s a novel concept, but we must begin exercising that freedom.

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