In his history defining and seminal work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explored the ins and outs of early nineteenth century American democracy. Of de Tocqueville’s concerns about American governance the most famous was a critique that has become known as the Tyranny of the Majority. According to Tocqueville, the majority in America is “omnipotent.” This omnipotence ultimately translates into oppression over the rights of the minority, blindness to ancillary issues not within the aegis of the majority and legislative instability. “Hence the majority in the United States enjoys immense actual power together with a power of opinion that is almost as great.”
De Tocqueville’s criticisms of American democracy are valid. Democracy in America should be required reading for all Americans. Most especially to one who studies the sociology of knowledge is the nineteenth century philosopher’s unwitting nod to postmodernism when he suggests that the tyranny of the majority can be even more oppressive than any monarchy by virtue of its ability to define the very ideas of the citizens.
“The most absolute sovereigns in Europe today are powerless to prevent certain thoughts hostile to their authority from silently circulating through their states and even within their courts. The same cannot be said of America: As long as the majority remains in doubt, people talk, but as soon as it makes up its mind once and for all, everyone falls silent…I know of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”
In going back to the well thumbed pages of my volume of Democracy in America I am still humbled by de Tocqueville’s analysis. It’s no wonder that sociologists claim him as one of our own. However, I’m left to wonder just how de Tocqueville would analyze our current debate on health care reform.
No doubt de Tocqueville would be confused. Throughout the health care debate poll after poll demonstrates that majority opinion supports the foundation of a public option to control costs by providing an alternative to private insurance. This, despite the negative PR blitz of this last summer and the veracity of a Tea Party movement venomously against health care reform or the prospect of even the slightest government interference in the free market. If ever a majority had made up its mind it is with regard to the public option.
Yet the fate of the public option is in peril? How could that be? How could de Tocqueville’s famous analysis be so far off in this (and many other matters, but that’s a different blog)?
Of course, we can’t be too hard on a nineteenth century social commentator. How could he have ever predicted the rise of what I now call Pathological Liebermanism or The Tyranny of the Lieberman? This is a phenomenon in which the processes of American democracy invests disproportionate power into the hands of one elected official (in this case “Droopy” Joe Lieberman, but also Ben Nelson). The majority of Americans support the public option. The majority of legislators support the public option. But majorities are not good enough. Individuals like Lieberman and Nelson can bring the “omnipotence of the majority” to flaccid humility.
We must remember that our founders and their immediate heirs had very little regard for the will of the majority. They established norms through which they could thwart “mob rule” in the chambers of Congress. Among those rules was the filibuster. And the filibuster has become the weapon of choice for minority political parties. Now, to be honest, I’ve supported the filibuster when it was being used to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. On the other hand, the filibuster was also used to delay crucial civil rights legislation. It seems that we have a love/hate relationship with this particular Senate rule. In matters of health reform including a public option, an issue which I support, it is maddening to think that one senator, a Lieberman or a Nelson, can stall the will of the majority of Americans.
It is equally maddening that such senators can, in essence, put their filibuster busting potential on the sale block. In Nelson’s case it was an agreement that the federal government would pick up the tab of health care reform for the citizens of Nebraska…and only Nebraska. Why should the people of Nebraska benefit at the expense of the rest of Americans who would have to pay more to make up for the absence of that state? Because Ben Nelson won’t shut up? In Lieberman’s case it was the elimination of popular reforms, the public option and the expansion of Medicare. Why should Lieberman, a man who himself enjoys the benefits of a single payer, government run health program, be able to deny the same for the rest of us all by himself?
Indeed, de Tocqueville would be obliged to add a chapter or at least a long addendum to his master work to address the Lieberman Syndrome (another cool name for what we are witnessing).
De Tocqueville was also not privy to the idea of modern lobbying and money politics. In almost every case the politician with the largest campaign coffers wins. De Tocqueville’s assertion that our legislators change rapidly, leading to instability in our houses of government has turned out to be false. Indeed, the majority of seats in congress are considered “safe” seats in which the sitting representative will almost certainly be re-elected. This fact, however, rather than stabilizing our legislature as one might predict using de Tocqueville’s reasoning, has lead to an entrenchment of ideas and ultimately to an institutional polarity that one might suggest is even more destabilizing in effect.
This polarity is linked to campaign contributions. Think about it. A two party system is much easier and cheaper to fund than one in which multiple parties and ideas are competing for recognition. As it stands, most corporations hedge their bets by donating large sums of money to both parties. Imagine if there were three or four or even five parties demanding such control!
The polarity between liberal and conservative is also fed by campaign contributors. In the health care debate The Center for Responsive Politics has done interesting research on campaign contributions and positions in health care reform. They created a ratio between contributions from labor organizations and contributions from health care corporations and compared this ratio to the voting records of our senators. Those senators with higher ratios, thus higher comparable contributions from labor, were more likely to vote yes to the Senate bill. Of course, they were also more likely to be Democrat, indicating a traditional tendency for labor unions to contribute to this party. Those who voted against the bill were more likely to have received larger contributions from the health industry. It is important to understand, however, both health and labor organizations are sure to hedge their bets by contributing large sums to both parties. It is also paramount that the money does not necessarily represent a “majority” view.¹
When it comes to money and health care, those who are least satisfied with the status quo are almost certainly the least likely to contribute large sums to politicians. Labor organizations such as unions may have larger coffers to represent the interests of working people, but this is only a segment of the population so affected. Obviously the tyranny of the majority is not driving this debate, nor is the majority in any way “omnipotent” in the de Tocquevillian understanding of the term.
The health care debate might help us define American politics in a post de Tocquevillian way. It is the Lieberman Doctrine (Yes, coining terms is my new hobby!) that seems to be the new “omnipotent tyranny” influencing contemporary American democracy.
Now this post is not a condemnation of the filibuster, nor is it a confirmation of the legitimacy of majority rule. In this matter I happen to have the comfort of speaking with the majority. That is not always the case. When I do represent the minority opinion I want to have processes in place, like the filibuster, to protect my interests. I also recognize the reality that the majority is not always right. But certainly these ideas must be revisited.
It is the contention of the Journal of a Mad Sociologist that any great disparity in power, regardless of the holder[s] of such power, is a danger to democracy and humanity. The concentration of power in the hands of the majority has the potential to be just as oppressive as the concentration of power in the hands of Joe Lieberman. Neither should have the power to over-ride what this outlet has defined as a human right, the right to health care.
- In most cases this moneyed politics tends to limit the differences between parties. In health care, however, polarization is the result as a conflict between funding sources emerges to define the debate.