The Fatalism of the Multitude

I recently read James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth for the first time. Bryce was British and, in the style of Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote a book in the late 19th century about his visits to America. One of Bryce’s fascinating ideas was “The Fatalism of the Multitude,” by which he meant that a danger in a democracy was that the minority would submit quietly to the will of the majority. In essence, the minority may conclude at some point that it will never be a majority and could not influence the majority. This acquiescence, Bryce thought, was a problem partly because it would allow the majority’s errors to go on uncorrected.

This phrase strikes me as an excellent description of excessive political polarization. The risk posed by polarized public opinion is that one side (or maybe both) will conclude that their efforts at persuasion are futile because the other side will not listen to what they have to say. I’m not saying that we are at that point, but you can certainly hear some people who sound exasperated in that sense.

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5 Responses

  1. Jane Roving Wifi says:

    Europe is dozens of countries because they have agreed to disagree on politics and instead each form their own country. China is one country because everyone agrees on everything–zero political polarization. Which is better? The Chinese model works well for California where everyone thinks the same. The European model works better for flyover country where people think differently.

    We could eliminate political polarization tomorrow by making each state its own country, since almost all the states are politically homogenous–like Canada. But would that make America better? Or is it better to have politcally heterogenous countries?

    Would it be better if third-term abortion was legal in California at the expense of all abortion being illegal in South Dakota, so long as South Dakotans can travel to California (political polarization)? Or is it better that first-term abortion is legal everywhere but third-term abortion is outlawed everywhere? (political homogenization)

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      “China is one country because everyone agrees on everything”

      In China, everyone “agrees” on everything because they don’t want to be killed. It’s very important when looking at totalitarian states to remember that the people there aren’t free to publicly disagree with the government, and thus their apparent “agreement” really doesn’t tell you much about public opinion.

    • Joe says:

      This is a somewhat simplistic view of China.

      Separately, my own comment here is that at some point certain things become basically so verboten that only a tiny minority supports them. The fact, e.g., some minority doesn’t think their opinion the chattel slavery is a good thing is something they can publicly talk about since they would be shunned isn’t a horrible thing.

      OTOH, there are lots of things where there is room for debate.

      • Brett Bellmore says:

        The problematic area for that is the case of what’s called “preference falsification”, where an opinion is actually fairly widespread, but people don’t express it because nobody else is expressing it, and so everybody thinks they’re part of that tiny minority. And consequently stays silent.

        Totalitarian states put a lot of effort into suppressing the expression of public opinions hostile to themselves, just so that the people who hold them will be under the impression that they’re in the minority. But when the effort fails, the visible face of public opinion can change very rapidly, a “preference cascade”, as people realize they’re not in the minority after all, and speak up.

        The US itself had some serious preference falsification going on before the internet hit its stride, due to the capacity of the MSM to act as “gatekeepers”, keeping some quite common opinions from being expressed where they’d be heard.

        I’m not at all sure all of that has worked its way out of the system, either. We’re still discovering what public opinion really is on one topic after another, as the system’s capacity to intimidate people into lying about their views erodes.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “ The risk posed by polarized public opinion is that one side (or maybe both) will conclude that their efforts at persuasion are futile because the other side will not listen to what they have to say. “

    It’s important to keep in mind that they may have listened, and simply found it unpersuasive.