Tocqueville on public opinion and democracy

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Regarding my article today, a reader points out that the problem of public opinion crushing dissent seems to be not just an American problem.

I think that Tocqueville would have said that America’s near total lack of true freedom of thought and opinion did not exist because America was America, but because America was so excessively democratic. Thus, as mass democracy spread to other countries, the phenomenon would spread as well.

The reader also says: “However a noted exception to this in Canada is in Quebec. Perhaps the lack of this phenomenon in the US is because there is little ethno-religious tensions so they aren’t many large groups of people still stewing over wrongs committed centuries earlier? Perhaps the view of Democracy as the final stage of human governance is another reason for this phenomenon? Once “the will of the people” has spoken can you reverse it? And if Democracy is bad then what form of government would be better?”This cuts to the larger context of Tocqueville’s arguments that I was quoting. Tocqueville was noting that public opinion was unassailable in America because the majority ruled everything so tyrannically. In Europe, even where democracy existed, old aristocracies and churches and monarchs would constantly provide competing ideas and ideologies to those of the democratic mass.

Or, as the reader notes, there were competing ethnic groups and religious groups. American public opinion has generally regarded any serious allegiance to ethnic groups or institutional churches to be more or less treasonous, so perhaps diversity in opnion has always been crushed before it even gets started. At least, this is the general vein of what Tocqueville is saying.

So what’s the solution to this dictatorship of public opinion fostered by democracy?

Well, I don’t dismiss democracy outright as a workable form of government (the Swiss do a pretty good job with it), but Tocqueville would say that there needs to be a healthy number of non-democratic institutions that can balance it out. I would also suggest Rothbard’s model of “radical decentralization” as a means of protecting minorities and minority opinion.

6:20 pm on September 15, 2007