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An Unhinged Democracy in America

Democracy, in the sense of majority rule, needs restraints, just like any other system of government. In the US, as elsewhere, key traditional restraints – including religion, professional journalism, and party establishments – are falling away.

NEW YORK – Alexis de Tocqueville, a liberal French aristocrat, visited the United States in 1831 ostensibly to write a study of its “enlightened” prison system (locking people up in solitary confinement like penitent monks was the latest modern idea). Out of this trip came de Tocqueville’s masterpiece, Democracy in America, in which he expressed admiration for American civil liberties and compared the world’s first genuine liberal democracy favorably with Old World institutions.

But de Tocqueville had serious reservations, too. The biggest danger to US democracy, he believed, was the tyranny of the majority, the suffocating intellectual conformity of American life, the stifling of minority opinion and dissent. He was convinced that any exercise of unlimited power, be it by an individual despot or a political majority, is bound to end in disaster.

Democracy, in the sense of majority rule, needs restraints, just like any other system of government. That is why the British have mixed the authority of elected politicians with that of aristocratic privilege. And it is why Americans still cherish their Constitution’s separation of governmental powers.

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