Electoral Reform and Tocqueville’s Crisis

18 August 2020

This entry was the co-winner in our spring-summer Blogging Democracy Contest. We asked University of Chicago undergraduates whether Tocqueville was right to describe national elections as moments of great “agitation.” Below is Deven Mukkamala’s reply.


Electoral reform aimed at further democratization of the American presidential election has grown quite popular since the 2016 presidential election, which Donald Trump won despite losing the popular vote. This election outcome was not without precedent, but it inspired a new fervor against the electoral college. Besides the abolition of the electoral college, there have been calls for a number of similar reforms: universal vote-by-mail, for example, has been cast into the limelight in the wake of the coronavirus as an alternative to in-person voting. It is not an unworthy activity to endeavor to understand how Alexis de Tocqueville would consider such proposals given his reputation as an authority on American democracy. To do so, we must understand the election of the American president as Tocqueville understood it in Democracy in America.


As Tocqueville writes in the first volume of Democracy in America (1.1.8), “The election of the [American] president is a cause of agitation” and “a period of national crisis.” The election becomes central to political life, becoming “the greatest and so to speak sole business preoccupying minds.” As a result, factions “redouble their ardor,” and “all the factitious passions that the imagination can create in a happy and tranquil country become agitated in broad daylight.”


Throughout the period of election, factions battle to win the majority, or at least claim to have done so. This idea is reflected in political parties, who have an interest in winning an election “not so much to make their doctrines triumph with the aid of the president-elect as to show by his election that those doctrines have acquired a majority.” For this reason, the president who ultimately wins the election “prostrates himself before the majority and often, instead of resisting its passions, as his duty obliges him to do, runs to meet its caprices.” Because of the great power that the majority wields during elections, during these periods the danger of the “tyranny of the majority” is greatest.


To say nothing of its aforementioned capriciousness, Tocqueville is especially wary of the majority’s tyranny over thought. According to Tocqueville, “in America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought,” and anyone who ventures outside of those limits becomes “the butt of mortifications of all kinds and of persecutions every day” (1.2.7). For Tocqueville, the majority has only one message to such a person: “Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death” (1.2.7). The majority demands conformity with regard to important and divisive political issues—evidenced today in part by “cancel culture”—which is doubtless problematic for democracy. That this conformity is “worse than death” may seem at first glance rather extreme, but for Tocqueville this conformity is akin to torture. While the subject maintains his life, his goods, and even his privileges, he loses his “rights of humanity” and is forced to live as a stranger among his people—the first walk in Rousseau’s The Reveries of the Solitary Walker comes to mind.


There is no absolute remedy for the tyranny of the majority. Rather, “It is of the very essence of democratic governments that the empire of the majority is absolute; for in democracies, outside the majority there is nothing that resists it” (1.2.7). Tocqueville nonetheless offers a partial remedy—maintaining an element of “aristocracy” in democratic society. In his chapter “On What Tempers the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States” (1.2.8), Tocqueville includes the section “On the Spirit of the Lawyer.” According to Tocqueville, lawyers play an important role in curbing majoritarianism: “When the American people let themselves be intoxicated by their passions or become so self-indulgent as to be carried away by their ideas, the lawyers make them feel an almost invisible brake that moderates and arrests them” (1.2.8). Naturally inclined towards the “tastes and habits of aristocracy,” the legal profession remains “strongly opposed to the revolutionary spirit and unreflective passions of democracy.” Lawyers themselves are well equipped to temper the passions of the majority by virtue of their roles in counter-majoritarian institutions such as the courts. But regardless of whether contemporary lawyers share the same tastes and occupy the same social position as they did in Tocqueville’s time, we can nonetheless say that this “spirit of the lawyer” persists in American democracy.


It is this spirit that may provide the remedy for the tyranny of the majority that becomes a recurring danger for democracy during the crises of elections. In times of intense pressure towards ideological conformity, it is crucial to channel this spirit through communication in the public sphere. Academics, journalists, and other writers who resist the dictates of “cancel culture” perform an important task by arresting the passions of the online mob at the height of political crises.


Proposals for electoral reform today—such as the abolition of the electoral college or the establishment of universal vote-by-mail—aim to expand the electorate and ensure that elections represent a greater number of Americans. Though Tocqueville would not necessarily oppose such reforms, it is quite evident that he remained concerned with the excessive passions that the election inspires and the danger of the tyranny of the majority. These electoral reforms might succeed in fully democratizing the vote, but they will do little to address the crisis fundamental to democracy which looms beneath each election.


Photo credit: Drawing by Robert Cruickshank via United States Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


Tags: , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  • Initially, I was inclined to think of the 2016 presidential outcome as “Tocqueville’s worst nightmare,” where passion and emotion played loose with the facts and the least qualified candidate in the history of the country was elected over, arguably, the most qualified (unclear whether Alexis would have been comfortable with a woman running for high office, but otherwise HRC was exactly the type of seasoned, educated, reflective person that he favored to hold the office). But slowly I realized that the election outcome was the result of a tyranny of the minority, not of the majority, due to the vageries of the Electoral College. So unclear what Alexis would pronounce about the 2016 outcome. But, to be sure, he would be most concerned about the “excitement” and “passion” that already surround the 2020 round and will only get worse between now and November 3rd (and maybe thereafter, if no clear winner emerges immediately after that date)..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *