Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
The democratic rule of the majority is paradoxically ethical and tyrannical. “Democracy in America,” by Alexis De Tocqueville analyzes the tyranny of the majority theory and its role in forming political ideology and the constitution in America. In England, John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty” also describes the social and political effects of the tyranny of the majority. The system of democracy has arisen as a result of oppression by aristocracy and monarchy. Aristocrats and monarchs pledged allegiance to Catholicism and often suppressed certain liberties. As the world’s first modern democracy, America stands as a beacon to the world. Marked disparities lie in both narratives of De Tocqueville and Mill. Both De Tocqueville and Mill carry onerous burdens about the tyranny of the majority in their theses; however, they both attack the same topic, justifying their fears about the majority rule using different premises. On one hand, De Tocqueville takes note of American democracy as it implements the majority as its government its distinguishing traits and also downfalls; on the other, Mill is more predisposed to liberty considerations, detailing the distinctive qualities of liberty – both tackling the pitfalls of governing the individual, threats to individuality and by extension the nation under the rule of the majority.
De Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,’ are similar because they both have numerous legitimate concerns about the right and plight of the minority and individual in the face of a system of politics ruled by the majority. Both thinkers delve into these pertinent subjects to substantiate their points. The narratives of both political thinkers also concur because they continue to dissect all forms of government and trace the effects of certain governmental structures and distributions of power.
De Tocqueville’s main preoccupation is the definition and sovereignty of the American people, whereas Mill’s is the supremacy of the general will. These differences exist because De Tocqueville’s argument centers on the system of democracy – a brand of government for the people, of the people and by the people. De Tocqueville reasons that for government, one party must be lesser, while the next must be greater. Following this logic, he realizes that even democracy has its inequalities. He refers to the origins of democracy – a system of government put into effect by the people, for the people and of the people. However, he is quick to underscore that there are some weighty implications with the rule of the people. Collective government is evidently encapsulated in the U.S. Constitution, “We, the people.” The elections, the democratic process, is actually glaring evidence of the rule of the majority in which the people elect a government based on a majority count. Since minorities are not given enough say or authority, American democracy ultimately tyrannizes the minority, empowered with the ability to ignore conveniently, prosecute and persecute dissidents. By elucidating on the repressive origin and character of democracy, De Tocqueville informs that American democracy is ruled by a majority and suppresses the minority.
Likewise, John Stuart Mill critiques the power of the general will or public opinion and its ability to crush the individual’s will, undermining individual sovereignty. Mill fears “the ascendancy of public opinion in the State…(so that) there ceases to be any social support for non-conformity” (Mill). He notes that government derives its power only because of the surrendered wills of individuals; the government contains no power independent of the people. However, the public opinion is more and more becoming the yardstick by which a people is governed. The democratic government has the responsibility to protect citizen’s rights to liberty and property. Sovereignty can be vested neither in a singular person nor in the public. It is mandatory that all citizens follow the law. All citizens have a part to play in the formulating of laws and following them. In the face of the steamrolling effect of the majority, Mill perceives that the non-conformists will be threatened to the point of effacement or unjust victimization. Inevitably, the preponderant force of the majority challenges true democracy and forceful shapes the conscience and bends the individual’s will to compliance.
De Tocqueville and Mill also foresee the damage that the tyranny of the majority accomplishes when to the extent that individual rights are relinquished. De Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” reveals that “the authority of the majority is so absolute and so irresistible that a man must give up his rights as a citizen…or as a human being” (De Tocqueville). Here, De Tocqueville alludes to individual right and the state’s power through the majority to override due considerations for the individual. The only other type of government whose control is absolute is a tyrannical dictatorship, in other words, he is comparing a democracy governed by public opinion ironically to a dictatorship. De Tocqueville poses some weighty questions on the tyranny of the majority. First of all, the majority is a juggernaut force “which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest, but all controversy” (De Tocqueville). Consequently, once a majority yields, the State has latitude do whatever it proposes. Democracy accords little or no attention to the individual. In time of controversy, the individual is compelled accede to the demands of the government for the sake of the common good or what the majority believes is right.
John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (1859) argues for the respect for the individual and respect for the assertion of individuality instead of inclining toward public opinion. He establishes his argument on the premise that were an opinion to be stifled, not everyone would be given the opportunity to test it and judge its veracity and were an opinion to be stifled, no opportunity would be granted for an open forum for public discussion, exchange of ideas and to prove the contrary of the argument since no argument is infallible. Man’s deference to the opinion of an authority or ruler shows not only a lack of confidence in self but a limitation of his power of decision-making and personal independence. Opinions are formed through personal experience and through the environment in which one was born therefore, man is unqualified to judge or restrict another’s opinion simply because they are perceived as wrong and do not align with his judgments. The proscription of the individual’s liberties by government would signify tyranny and imply corruption and the transgression of the ethic of genuine liberty. The freedom of expression of opinion should never be curbed. The power to rein the expression of opinion is never under the jurisdiction of a group of people or ruling regime. Mill illegitimates restriction of both public and private liberty. Heresy in one generation could well be truth for another; therefore, condemning diverse or unpopular opinions counteract against the welfare of society. Imposition of judgment is never an option unless by careful consideration truth is attained.
When the general will and interests take precedence over society, the outcome proves ruinous to the individual. Violators of the general will or public opinion will be obliged to conform for the welfare of the country. This step proves injurious to the individual since the objective of the State is to work toward common good. The danger is compounded by the fact that the common good is embedded in the will of the majority. A clear differentiation is necessary in the respect of the individual right and the general rights of citizens. The yielding of the individual right only is justified where its ultimate end is for communal use and the common benefit of the community. Government derives its power only because of the surrendered wills of individuals; the government contains no power independent of the people. The democratic government has the responsibility to protect citizen’s rights to liberty and property. Sovereignty cannot be invested in a singular individual. It is mandatory that all citizens follow the law. All citizens have a part to play in the formulating of laws and following them. Public virtue is the most fundamental principle of Democracy which has at its base the love of country and of its laws. Mill supports democratic government without monarch, or aristocrats, where the citizens are only moved by patriotism and the public good to make the lives of the residents more perfect. In times of adversity, the primordial consideration is that Mill deems terror or tyranny as a natural product of public virtue in time of civil unrest to punish offenders of national pride and public virtue.
To accede to power, both De Tocqueville and Mill comment on elections and the concomitant dishonesty of politicians who seek to procure power. In America, election campaigning’s purpose is wooing and winning public favor. Owing to this practice, many issues at stake and important less-voiced views are silenced for what is popular. As a result of the tyranny of the majority, democratic politicians aim to please the crowd and debase moral standards to pander to the whims of the populace. Propaganda is a tool wielded to influence the masses and sway public opinion. Men in power attempt to channel the passions of the multitude, provoking certain reactions against events, systems, institutions and people. These ideologues gain support and wield the power resulting from the tyranny of the majority; therefore minorities, causing them to suffer under the tyranny of the majority. since the government does not include a place for the dissenters or the minority. is threatened. If liberty were not jealously guarded, any government would be in jeopardy.
De Tocqueville broaches the theme of the tyranny of the majority from the democratic standpoint as opposed to Mill who mounts a venerable defense for liberty on the principles of the respect individual will and sovereignty. De Tocqueville dissects the American democracy-its infrastructure, strengths and weakness while Mill discusses differing categories of liberties that must be protected. Hailing from a French democracy, American culture and democracy fascinate De Tocqueville. He analyzes the branches of power (executive, judicial and legislative), the U.S. Constitution, the reasons for the cohesion of the American people, the advantages and disadvantages of democracy, race relations in America and the tyrannical rule of the majority. Contrariwise, Mill’s fixation is on the subdivisions of liberty, the ramifications of liberty, the threats to liberty, the means to preserve liberty contextualized within the relationship between the individual and the government.
Examining further the despotic nature of the majority in America, De Tocqueville reports that the majority and as a consequence politicians refuses to entertain, dismisses and even scorns views that run against the grain of public opinion. For politicians who want to save their careers, they must conform to mainstream interpretation. In yielding to the majority, the politician betrays himself and also his country because the public would have lost an opportunity to critically consider another line of thinking. The worst curse to befall a politician siding with an unpopular opinion is the countenancing of the public’s frown. He has “offended the only authority which is able to promote his success.”
Despite the negative corollary, there are a few noted pluses to the majority rule. The preservation of the majority for the survival of the humankind stands according to the law of necessity. Although the rule of the masses over the few implies the support of a dictatorship, it averts the possibility of the oppression of a few. This point of view validates mass politics so that the paramount objective is to obtain a consenting majority sides with the politician through mass rallies and propaganda. In mass politics, the individual receives the sense of belonging to something bigger, the sense of community and the power of large numbers to override a particular decision. Acceptance of the rule of the majority, facilitates a gain in consensus, and ultimately leads to more uniformity. It should be noted that out of the tyranny of the majority proceeds terms such as mass society, mass politics, mass media, mass production, mass communication, mass destruction etc.
The combination of all these causes forms so great a mass of influences hostile to Individuality, that it is not easy to see how it can stand its ground. It will do so with increasing difficulty, unless the intelligent part of the public can be made to feel its value—to see that it is good there should be differences, even though not for the better, even though, as it may appear to them, some should be for the worse. If the claims of Individuality are ever to be asserted, the time is now, while much is still wanting to complete the enforced assimilation.
Mill separates liberties into three main divisions: freedom of conscience, thought and opinion; freedom of one’s life direction; and freedom of association. These liberties are essential and critical to the support of freedom of any country. Mill understands that freedom can only be freedom if retained in certain limits; therefore, liberty is characterized in such a way that it does not negatively affect others. Freedom is not licentiousness or anarchy. Persons must draw the borders of their freedoms within the law. Any democratic government has to highly regard these individual liberties. For Mill, the individual’s will carries great import. The irony is that in a democratic government with the tyranny of the majority deciding the issues and the course of the country. The individual will is likely to be displaced for the popular good. Individual sovereignty has to be maintained even in the democratic setting or else, this environment would be conducive to the persecution of the individual or the minority.
Mill also discerns that for just process to occur, the individual’s will cannot and should not be suppressed. Man is not vindicated in silencing anyone for public good. This opinion turns the system of democracy over its heels. Because of the freedom of thought and conscience, one must make way for the freedom of expression of those thoughts and convictions. It is only natural. As such, guaranteeing the freedom of the press is an indicator of the strength of liberty in any territory. Also, people should not swallow and accept values without having a clear knowledge of them, else they will be reduced to forced adoption of beliefs as in slavery. The healthy debate of questions then is crucial to freedom, ensuring that all angles of an issue are explored and critiqued by everyone. Providing reasons for beliefs and decisions is a step that helps the public to understand the underlying implications of a problem. Truths are variable in Mills eyes and must be espoused intelligently. If one forces someone to accept a value without comprehending it, the truth then collapses into a “prejudice” or a “dead dogma.”
Hence, in the narratives of John Stuart Mill and Alexis De Tocqueville, one sees the dangers and implications of the tyranny of the majority as a contradiction of liberty and the irony of democracy. As a result, the coexistent principles of individual will, sovereignty and the rights of the minority must be elevated to the consideration that they deserve. Principles which guided civilizations such as democracy can do untold damage by encouraging the despotic rule of the majority, which fact only degenerates politics to a popularity competition.