Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Can there be a tyanny of the majority without a majority?

Last fall, I noticed a strange thing while teaching Democracy in America. My students energetically agreed with Tocqueville that the tyranny of the majority is a serious problem, and professed to know this from experience because they were its victims. All being holders of minority views, they lived in fear of social repercussions from the tyrannical majority. But, of course, it is empirically impossible that all of my students can hold minority views. Their positions range from center-right to far left, and if some sizable portion of them don't reflect the majority, then who does? Even granting that discerning a general majority "view" at the national level is an elusive and probably impossible task, at the very least, my students are the majority in the immediate context of the university. How could most of them fail to see that they hold an institutionally-dominant outlook?

At the time, I wondered if Tocqueville's account is either wrong or more complicated than it appears. Our regime doesn't produce a recognizable majority position and a small embattled minority at the mercy of the majority. Maybe there were moments in the past that looked like this: liberalism vs. communism during the Cold War, or Jacksonian populism vs. Whig elitism in the 1830s. Instead, we're in a situation in which everyone feels himself to be part of an embattled minority waging a lonely war against an amorphous but pervasive majority tyrant, who's maybe not immediately in here, but certainly out there. Why?

One possibility is that there just aren't majority views anymore. Our membership is in subcultures instead of a broader culture, so that there are just various group views in constantly-shifting coalitions, all strongly held, all equally susceptible to the Tocquevillian criticism that they're being held for the sake of social approval more than sincere intellectual conviction (ie, the ubiquitous virtue-signalling accusation), and equally subject to Tocquevillian social penalties. Or, another way to put this may be that different spheres are ruled by different subcultural majorities - education and culture by the left, the military by conservatives, national politics and business are somewhat evenly divided, etc. And there are even finer gradations and differences of emphasis in each sphere, so that even fellow-partisans may sometimes feel marginalized, as for example liberals who reject identity politics in academia and journalism, or social conservatives in otherwise economically conservative business firms. But in a regime of subcultures, there really aren't majorities, just coalitional pluralities, so perhaps my students are right to see all their views as embattled.

Another possibility, which recalled this question to my mind recently, is what Yuval Levin describes as a widespread repudiation of "insider" status in institutions, even by obvious insiders:
People with roles to play inside institutions instead see those institutions as platforms for them to perform on, and the performance they offer up is generally a morality play about their own marginalization. As a result, too often no one claims ownership of the institutions of our society, and so no one accepts responsibility for them.
Levin is describing national political institutions, but this is also an attitude that could explain the perceptions of students (and likely faculty) that they're embattled minorities within institutions that look to all reasonable observers as the most hospitable places to them in the history of the world. They are right in a certain way, since undergraduates are, by design, outsiders in a university; they pass through quickly and can hold only the most insignificant governing roles. But in their view, they seem to be also outsiders among themselves, not just relative to the faculty or the administration.

You often come across claims like this at Harvard: this or that aspect of this school makes me feel excluded and unwelcome here. The wealth of the majority, its whiteness, liberal politics, family connections, etc. make me feel like I don't really belong here. Women and racial minorities would back this assertion with a claim about how the institution "was not built for people like me" to ground their present, abstract sense of exclusion in a history of concrete exclusion. In a way, these students were completely right about their discomfort and outsider-ness. Harvard is undoubtedly one of most unwelcoming institutions in the country. It's entirely plausible to me that no one has ever felt that he belonged there, for whichever of 12,000 personal/familial/financial/ethnic/religious/sexual/intellectual/aesthetic/political/artistic/social deficiencies that prevent him from being the very best at everything, which is what those who really belong at Harvard are. One of the great ironies of the push for "inclusion" is that even the kinds of people usually described as avatars of belonging and blamed for everyone else's feelings of exclusion at places like Harvard -  rich, white guys who are members of social clubs and fraternities - can now make a plausible claim to feeling unwelcome based on their identities, since their rich, white male social life is under attack by the university administration. So, at this moment, precisely no one is an insider at elite universities. We are all standing outside an empty building, imagining that we are protesting its occupants while actually protesting each other.

The institutional alienation at my current university, a much more inviting and egalitarian place despite occasional efforts at and pretensions to elitism, is much less intense. Unlike Harvard, Utopia University was not designed to make you feel like a perpetual bottom-feeder. But many of the same forces are at work here to make the feeling that one is an insider who represents the institution to outsiders hard to acquire. Among the students, most are the first in their families to attend this university, many are immigrants or the children of immigrants for whom the school was "not built," and the majority are from the most urbanized parts of the state whose residents come and go frequently, so they have relatively weak ties to the state itself. The faculty are in an analogous though less transient situation - a few are alumni, but for most, this is just the place they happened to get a job in a tight market, and they have no deeper loyalties to it than that, at least until they get tenure. Everyone can come to see the university as little more than a rung on their personal career ladders, one that should be organized primarily for their self-advancement rather than as some kind of inter-generational inheritance that they have to maintain for their descendants. (In a similar argument years ago, David Brooks blamed meritocracy for this state of affairs, because by elevating individual achievement above all other qualities, it turned everyone into a consummately self-serving free agent and severed the sorts of attachments that used to foster an inter-generational sense of institutional loyalty. I still think there is something to this argument, but it's also harder to cultivate an inter-generational sense of loyalty when you're the first generation to participate in the institution, and that's just an issue of the changing demographics of, in this case, college students.)

If this is right, then it would seem that we inflict ostracism on ourselves now, effectively dispensing with the need for any actual majority to do it for us.


Julia said...

I would dispute the idea that there aren't majority views anymore. We're all liberal democrats now, after all, and there's really no way to dissent from that without being considered socially untouchable. There are lots of details about liberal democracy that we collectively disagree on, thereby forming our respective tribes, but almost no one thinks that equality or democracy aren't good overall. Even people who want an authoritarian president aren't advocating that we dismiss Congress or eliminate elections (not yet, anyway). There are still lots of unthinkable thoughts.

Your students are clearly wrong about being in the minority, at least as Tocqueville defines it. Though it is curious that none of us feels majoritarian, even when we are all just that. I think it has more to do with modern individualism than anything else—the group can't possibly encapsulate us, because we are unique.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, the First Things people seem to be getting by ok while claiming to repudiate liberalism, though one might question whether they really are repudiating liberalism or just posturing. But on the whole, yes, that's right, we will basically be eaten for defending - or maybe only acting on - anti-liberal ideas. On the other hand, is that the kind of tyrannical majority Tocqueville has in mind? He himself warns against the kind of fruitless and ultimately debasing anti-democratic thinking that he sees among French reactionaries. He wants democrats to understand the aristocratic regime and its strengths, but not to fight against a "providential fact." I've always read the tyranny of the majority argument as describing the attitude towards more mundane questions than that of the regime itself. But there is no obvious reason to do that, so I am open to reinterpretation.

Individualism seems to be insufficient to explain this. I may be unique, but why should that make me feel oppressed by a majority, especially if everyone is unique, so unable to form a majority against me? Doesn't it seem more plausible that I would be unable to see how I comprise a majority b/c I feel powerless in my immediate setting, and without a sense that my immediate setting reflects me, how can I think the country as a whole does? Levin describes this outsiderism as a kind of blindness, which strikes me as right.

Julia said...

I would definitely call the bluff on the First Things dudes; they talk a good game, but I am extremely skeptical that anyone is actually in favor of returning to the 13th century. (Not even Catholics.)

I think Tocqueville leaves himself open to interpretation, so there may be evidence for both our readings. But yes, I think this is the kind of tyrannical majority that Tocqueville has in mind—though it doesn't just apply to political ideas, but also social and cultural ones (though I would disagree that these are mundane). I think the social and cultural minority views were more obvious in Tocqueville's day, but there are still some floating around now. Given the providential fact of democracy, it's no surprise that minority views are anti-liberal at the moment, and while I agree that Tocqueville wasn't a fan of the reactionary French project of his day, he was definitely in favor of tempering the excesses of democracy. But for T the point of the minority (liberal or anti-liberal) is not to become the majority—the majority will always be in favor of increasing equality, and there's really no way to change that. Tocqueville isn't saying that the minority is going to ever win the day. The point of the minority (I think) is to be sort of living examples of dissent, to demonstrate that we do not all have to think the same thoughts; that we can be citizens of the same country without being the same. According to Tocqueville the Americans were (are?) fairly good at allowing for kind of this dissent, thereby creating a better democracy, whereas the French were (are?) not.

I agree that individualism is not enough to account for what you're talking about—Levin's argument is interesting. I think Marx might also be helpful; there's lot of alienation and false consciousness going around if your students feel oppressed by some amorphous majority.