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Tocqueville and cancel culture
It didn’t start with Twitter
“I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, following an extended visit to the United States. The Frenchman had traveled to America to observe the operation of democracy, which had taken hold there in the previous few decades.
“In any constitutional state in Europe, every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated, for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood,” Tocqueville continued. “If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.”
America boasted of its First Amendment, protecting free speech from government sanction, Tocqueville noted. But government wasn’t the only threat; opinion was more powerful in a democracy and more oppressive. “In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases,” Tocqueville said. “But woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe”—the torture employed against heretics in the Spanish Inquisition—"but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority”–popular opinion–“that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then, those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.”
The power of opinion was insidious and unavoidable, especially compared with previous times. “Fetters and headsmen”—executioners—“were the coarse instruments that tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has perfected despotism itself, though it seemed to have nothing to learn. Monarchs had, so to speak, materialized oppression; the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind as the will which it is intended to coerce.”
The democratic majority deployed its tyranny differently than other tyrants had. “The master”—now in the form of public opinion—"no longer says: ‘You shall think as I do or you shall die’; but he says: ‘You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.’”
Majority opinion was intolerant of challenge and utterly lacked a sense of humor. It never ceased praising itself, and it insisted that others praise it too. “Works have been published in the proudest nations of the Old World expressly intended to censure the vices and the follies of the times,” Tocqueville said. The most arrogant courts tolerated jesters. “But the ruling power in the United States is not to be made game of. The smallest reproach irritates its sensibility, and the slightest joke that has any foundation in truth renders it indignant. From the forms of its language up to the solid virtues of its character, everything must be made the subject of encomium. No writer, whatever be his eminence, can escape paying this tribute of adulation to his fellow citizens. The majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.”
The tyranny of monarchs enchained the body, but the tyranny of the democratic majority enchained the mind. “There is a great difference between doing what one does not approve, and feigning to approve what one does; the one is the weakness of a feeble person, the other befits the temper of a lackey.” Americans called themselves free but were slaves to whatever the majority decreed. “The majority is so absolute and irresistible that one must give up one's rights as a citizen and almost abjure one's qualities as a man if one intends to stray from the track which it prescribes.”
It was no accident that America had produced no great literature, Tocqueville said. Americans were too afraid to think great thoughts. “There can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America,” he said.
As an outsider, Tocqueville could write freely about America. But he didn’t think he would be read freely. “If these lines are ever read in America,” he predicted, “I am well assured of two things: in the first place, that all who peruse them will raise their voices to condemn me; and, in the second place, that many of them will acquit me at the bottom of their conscience.”
He wasn’t wrong. Americans liked much of what Tocqueville had to say about them in Democracy in America, his magnum opus on the subject. But most rejected his judgment on the oppressive nature of America democracy. Americans held democracy, as a mode of governance, to be above reproach.
They still do. Americans might rail against the outcomes democracy produces, but they won't allow a bad word to be said about American democracy itself. Nor will they elect anyone to important office who doesn't insist that the United States is the greatest country on earth.
And their intolerance of dissent against unorthodox opinion is as strong as ever, even if orthodoxy today has broken into two versions. The left has one orthodoxy; the right another. A Democrat who questions woke wisdom, or a Republican who declares that Donald Trump fairly lost the 2020 election, risks consignment to the oblivion Tocqueville described for heretics of his day.
Cancel culture in America is alive and well—at nearly two hundred years of age.