Madison and Hamilton clearly thought that majority faction was the greater

Madison and hamilton clearly thought that majority

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that majority faction was the greater danger and they were especially concerned with reining in the legislative branch of government. The Anti-Federalists by contrast feared the power of minority factions – a power facilitated by the disengagement of the majority from active participation in politics - and they saw the chief threat of tyranny emanating from the executive and judicial branches of government and from organized special interests. While Tocqueville does not directly reference this debate, its themes find an interesting echo in Democracy in America. In next Monday’s lecture, we will discuss Tocqueville’s famous account of the problem of majority tyranny in the United States. Tocqueville’s notion of the tyranny of the majority is clearly related to the Madisonian notion of majority faction. Unlike Madison, however, Tocqueville doubts whether any set of political arrangements will be sufficiently strong to temper majority tyranny in a mass democracy of the sort the United States was rapidly becoming. Tocqueville sees majority tyranny as operating not just through the dominance of the legislative branch over the other two branches of government, but through the more insidious channel of public opinion.Given the strong emphasis on the danger of majority tyranny in the First Volume of Democracy in America, it is somewhat surprising to discover that in the Second Volume, which was published five years after the first, Tocqueville’s analysis of the dangers besetting democracy is closer in some respects to the Anti-Federalist’s concern with minority factions and weak majorities. In next Wednesday’s lecture, we will address the themes of individualism and soft despotism, which, as I noted previously, are terms Tocqueville uses to describe the tendency of citizens in mass democracies to withdraw from political engagement and allow themselves to be governed by a benevolent, but fundamentally despotic, “nanny state,” a state which cares for the welfare of the citizens, but does not provide them with any opportunity for meaningful political action. In other words, Tocqueville in Democracy in Americadescribes two quite different threats to liberty in modern mass democracies: on the one hand, the threat of a majority so strong and overbearing that it stifles even the capacity for independent thought and action. On the other hand, the threat of a majority 3
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so weak and apathetic that it willingly cedes effective control of political decisions to a central government dominated by organized interest groups. Both possibilities seem to be inherent in the rise of mass democracies. Whether these are two alternative accounts of the problem of democracy, or whether they are in some sense complementary is one of the issues we will have to grapple with in our reading of Tocqueville.
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