“The Tocqueville Effect”


Reviewing the extraordinary progress of the marriage equality movement over the past two decades, Jonathan Rauch coins a term for how changes in public opinion tend to happen in America:

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman whose observations of America in the 1830s remain shrewdly relevant, famously remarked on Americans’ deference to majority opinion: “As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.” Although he exaggerates, the broad point remains true: the legitimising effect of public opinion is such that, other things being equal, majority support tends to amplify itself.

Even if I have doubts about gay marriage, the fact that most of my countrymen are on the other side weakens my resolve and impels me to acknowledge the legitimacy of their view. The difference between support at, say, 55 per cent versus 45 per cent — that is, the different between majority and minority standing — is one of kind, not merely of degree. That is not to say that opposition evaporates or crawls under a rock when it loses majority standing. But its power and relevance are greatly reduced.

Another word for this is the tipping point. But more generally, we are indeed much more susceptible to accepting things that a majority seems to have settled on. My biggest experience of this is living for part of the year in Provincetown.

It’s a small New England fishing village in outward aspect but any day-tripper there will encounter much higher levels of gay visibility than they’re used to, drag queens walking to get groceries, transgender people in front of you getting coffee, gay couples with children in strollers, and the occasional glimpse of an unexpected bare ass in leather. The day-trippers come from all-over – for whale watching, taffee-buying, dune touring or nightlife. They are predominantly heterosexual. And yet within a few minutes of awkwardness, they just accept it. Because no one is paying attention to the weirdness, you learn not to as well.

The place itself simply imposes acceptance by majority rule and the visitors immediately seem to sense that and adjust. They may feel differently if a drag queen were holding up the line at Starbucks in, say, Revere. But in the little town of widespread nonchalance toward otherness, the culture shifts almost at once. As usual, Tocqueville was onto something – long before Malcolm Gladwell.

(Polling from Gallup’s latest survey on the question.)