Threats to American Democracy

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled from France to United States. Based on his interviews, direct observations, and research, he wrote the book Democracy in America. He described with awe the new political system: democracy based on public consent rather than divine right, tradition, or pure force. He was particularly impressed by how white men treated each other as equals in public and how Americans came together to form associations to solve problems in common. De Tocqueville’s ideas and those of other classic authors are relevant to issues today, such as who should govern, why would people elect people with authoritarian tendencies, what can we do to create unity and avoid the tyranny of the majority.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of slavery was prophetic, writing that, “Whatever efforts southerners make to keep slavery, they will not succeed indefinitely” ( 2007:307). He wrote that slavery of the black race was a “wound inflicted upon humanity” (391), and that in some states, “slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary” (393). Contrary to popular opinions at the time, he believed abolition would not end racism but rather increase segregation and prejudice — something that still holds true.

In addition to his commentary on slavery, he also warned Americans about the threat of tyranny. He saw that the tyranny of a populist majority could be tempted to democratically elect somebody who could end democracy in America from within. De Tocqueville was not convinced by the idea that the division of powers in the three branches of government would be enough since they could all be controlled by the party in power: “If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.” Alexander Hamilton similarly wrote, “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part” (298). In de Tocqueville’s assessment, democracy is endangered when the numerical majority in power is bent on governing over ethnic, racial, sexual, and numerical minorities through the full force of the oppressive side of the state.

Elaborating on de Tocqueville, Charles Tilly argues that democracy is a two-directional process. The expansion of rights and the political inclusion of previously excluded categorical groups along racial, ethnic, gender, and national lines strengthens democracy. In contrast, the curtailment of rights and opportunities for groups of people living in a territory signifies de-democratization or democratic erosion. Democracy was won through collective struggle, but it can be lost if a tyrant is elected and supported by the numerical majority — even if the majority is obtained by the slightest margin or through the electoral college rather than popular vote.

Since the break with the British King George III, Americans have been distrustful of monarchs and titles of nobility. Why would Americans elect a tyrant? Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” (Chapter III). De Tocqueville also noted the importance that Americans put on accumulating wealth. The German scholar Max Weber visited America in 1904 and argued in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that in the United States, the virtues of the pious puritan person destined to go to Heaven led unintentionally to savings and re-investments in small business, such that wealth itself became associated with virtue. This gave a charismatic appeal to the wealthy, an ill-conceived social mark of intellectual, moral, and religious superiority.

The rich and famous may be appealing and have an advantage in mass electoral politics because of name recognition, but they are not the best people to govern — especially not those too eager to govern. Plato thought that “The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst,” and urged people to look for rulers, “who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life” (The Republic, Book VII, 514a-520a. Translated by Benjamin Jowett). Plato recommended to have philosophers as leaders because of their wisdom, but it is hard for wise people aware of complexity, uncertainty, and nuance to compete with sound bites and emotional appeals in a time where reality TV or 1-minute TikTok videos are so widely consumed. Furthermore, in the United States, elected leaders are expected to be just like the average member of the polity.

What if a leader with authoritarian tendencies, their party, and a large part of the population supporting them do not want to give up power even after losing an election? The people would have to come together and reclaim popular sovereignty. History shows that social movements and contentious politics are the avenues available for minorities to be included when the electoral route is blocked. As de Tocqueville wrote, “the liberty of association is become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority” (sic 217). One of the great virtues of democracy is that sovereignty lies in the people as a whole. Individuals from all walks of life can work together to reform the laws that are unjust and to reach compromises to cooperate towards policies for the common good.

Nevertheless, before we can work together, we must address prejudice, self-righteousness, ignorance, isolation, divergent worldviews, and apathy. Our democratic struggle is a struggle with ourselves and our brothers and sisters. Discussing classic texts and developing a genuinely critical thought are essential tools for this task. In the meantime, may leaders with wisdom prevail in showing us the way to democratization and protect us from those who feel destined to govern, abuse, and impose their will on others due to — a real or compensating — feeling of individual and racial superiority.

Ernesto Castañeda is an Associate Professor of Sociology at American University in Washington DC. @ec2183

Originally published at on October 12, 2020.



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