Tocqueville’s Tyranny of the Majority and “The Red Scare”
Tocqueville’s concept of tyranny of the majority can be seen many years after his work was written in America’s “Red Scare” that took place during the late 1940s and early 1950s. One of Tocqueville’s biggest fears about democracy is the tyranny of the majority. The majority of the people would not understand that they are being tyrannical and democracy has the least wisdom built into it. Tocqueville says,
“The circle of novel ideas is, however, soon terminated; the touch of experience is upon them, and the doubt and mistrust which their uncertainty produces become universal. We may rest assured that the majority of mankind will either believe they know not wherefore, or will not know what to believe. Few are the beings who can ever hope to attain to that state of rational and independent conviction which true knowledge can beget in defiance of the attacks of doubt.” (p. 436).
Tocqueville is scared because people are ignorant. They are the ones making their own laws and pressure from the majority can take over and can lead to mistrust and hysteria, while failing to see the reality of situations. The same governmental structure that is pragmatic reminds Tocqueville of tyranny and hurts the minority. The majority can be irrational. Giving people the power to refute obstacles and structure creates the majority, but it also creates tyranny.
Tocqueville says that in a totalitarian government, they care that you do not say bad things about the government. A democracy challenges the individual’s soul and is cast out in a different way if you go completely against the majority’s view. Tocqueville says,
“Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us… You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.” (p.606)
He fears that despotism can begin to infiltrate democracy, in a much different way than other forms of government can. Irrationality can consume citizens. The majority can go against other views and become completely intolerant. He worries that democracy appears to be peaceful but there is a tormenting aspect of it that is not in other places, and democracy can start imposing norms.
Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority can be reflected through the Red Scare that took place in America in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Red Scare was a period in America when Cold War tensions were on the rise. During the cold war, the two major world powers were the US and the USSR. In the US during that time, the GOP led an initiative that if you were perceived to be a communist you would be blacklisted. Not only that but when they declared individuals to be communist, they also interrogated them and tried to get them to give up the names of other individuals who could possibly be communist. During this time, people in more left-leaning groups abandoned them in an attempt to conform and avoid these consequences. One could say that for a democracy, it is reasonable that citizens would be against communism, as communism is an anti-democratic mode of governance and it’s not like racism. However, the Red Scare was irrational and went beyond this reasonable measure. The majority targeted associated ideas such as socialism, anti-colonialism, pacifism with communism. Anybody remotely seen to be sympathetic to communism was ousted. Here you can see democracy taking away rights for those who do not fit the norm. They were alienated from their family and friends and fired from their jobs. Paranoia from the majority affected many people’s rationality
In the frame of Tocqueville’s argument, the majority is being irrational as they are taking away civil liberties. Most notably, the majority took away freedom of speech for this minority. The fact that the majority is denying people their right to free speech could be seen as irrational since it is in the Constitution. This was demonstrated in the 1951 United States Supreme court ruling in 1951 called Dennis v. United States. This case said that the free-speech rights of accused individuals could be diminished because their actions presented “a clear and present danger to the government.” Justice Black and Justice Douglas dissent. Justice Black said of the case that there was no evidence that the accused communists were trying to overrule the government. He also said, “No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the First Amendment forbids.” Obviously, the majority taking away constitutional rights of the minority because they are not aligned with the cultural norms at the time is irrational in Tocqueville’s argument and supports his theory of tyranny of the majority.
Dennis v. United States. Oyez, 25 Oct. 2018, www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/341us494.
“Red Scare.” History.com, AE Television Networks, 1 June 2010,
Tocqueville, Alexis de, 1805-1859. Democracy In America. New York :G. Dearborn Co.,
1838. iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/democracy-in-america-volume-1/