Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need? Our hour-long discussion on Alexis de Tocqueville’s section on the “Tyranny of the Majority” from Democracy in America culminated when a student posed this wonderful perennial question.
This past Monday, I taught my third university-level textual analysis class. So far we have read John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, James Madison’s Federalist no. 10, and most recently a small section of Democracy in America. Our overarching theme has been an inquiry into American identity. In my first lecture I argued that the United States is in an identity crises. Our civil discourse is becoming increasingly polarized and there is not a consensus regarding what the common good is let alone how we can achieve it. Where and when did the breakdown begin? How can we reconstruct it? Should American identity be remade or rediscovered?
I began our discussion of de Tocqueville with these words from our reading:
I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.
Why does Tocqueville say that there is no real freedom of discussion in America when our “freedom of speech” is one of the freedoms we are most proud of in America? I think this reaches to the heart of our current identity crises and political gridlock. Freedom of speech is largely an illusion in America because the majority has deemed some words and ideas anathema. It is impossible to enact a plan to cut the debt because one plan is labeled “elitist” another is “socialist.” The majority has decided that both aristocratic elitism and socialism are politically incorrect words that should not even be considered. So, while candidates call each other “elitists” and “socialists” their ideas are not given a deep consideration in the public discourse.
First we asked, “Who is the majority?” After a brief discussion, we decided that the majority was a group united around a common ideal opposed to another less powerful group united around the opposite ideal. We then went back and forth between whether or not the majority is worthy or unworthy to rule. One group seemed to be echoing Thomas Paine by saying that the majority should rule because they best represent the needs of a society while the other side took up James Madison’s argument that needs of the majority should not oppress the minority. While we argued about whether or not our mixed government and free speech on the internet provide protection and a voice for the minority a student asked the question at the heart of the argument. Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need?
When Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835 he asserted that, “If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” It does not exist in America, according to Tocqueville, because anyone who publicly speaks contrary to the opinion of the majority is made “a stranger in his own country.” We have had some great writers and orators since 1835. Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. became some of the heroes who showed us who we are and gave us a path forward.With the presidential election days away, we need to ask ourselves who we are and what do we really need. Where is the literary genius who can shine a light on who we really are? Are we left so intellectually and spiritually impoverished by the tyranny of the majority that the heroic literary genius described by Tocqueville is among us, but is merely another voice crying in the wilderness; and nobody hears.