The Magazine

Tocqueville and College Football

From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: A defense of the Bowl Championship Series.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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In all walks of life, it is increasingly common for the god of public opinion to be thoughtlessly honored. When, on the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, CNN asked Americans whether the United States would have become involved in Vietnam had Kennedy not been assassinated, the roughly 40 percent "no" response was presented not as evidence of Americans' ignorance that the United States already was involved at that point, but as an important finding to be taken seriously. When children enter our public schools, they are encouraged not to learn what other people thought about things, but rather to "think for themselves"--which is crucial, but also fruitless without insights from beyond one's own mind or beyond the minds of one's similarly underdeveloped peers. When direct democracy trumps representative democracy, this development is often praised on the grounds that "the people have spoken." In each of these arenas, we have somehow lost sight of the crucial question: Have the people spoken well, or are they just babbling?

Questioning public opinion is not elitist but rather is necessary to encourage minority views that might be more just, though initially less widely held. Tocqueville argued in "Democracy in America" that Americans were becoming (if they were not already in the 1830s) slaves to public opinion. "I do not know any country," he writes, "where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America." An unwillingness to challenge the prevailing majority view is abundantly evident in response to the BCS, but it is characteristic of our politics as well. As Tocqueville writes, "In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States, I found very few men who displayed that manly candor and masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters wheresoever they may be found." (Certainly Sen. Joseph Biden did nothing to demonstrate any "masculine independence of opinion" when he parroted public opinion about the BCS at a recent Senate hearing. Biden declared the system "un-American" but provided no reasoned argument with which to buttress his grandstanding.)

Tocqueville also predicted the opposite swing of the pendulum, toward embracing authoritarian rule. While this would seem a most unlikely result in a nation so generally devoted to popular opinion and popular rule, it nevertheless does occur. For example, there is hardly a domestic policy issue of note that the federal courts are not now in some prominent way involved in deciding.

Perhaps the key to this phenomenon is found in Tocqueville's insight that our love of equality--which he thought to be Americans' defining trait--can be satisfied either by all of us equally becoming rulers, or by all of us equally becoming subjects. This helps explain both Americans' distrust of Congress and the comparatively greater trust they display toward unelected government officers. And it helps to explain how such deference to authority can prevail among a people who otherwise so fervently embrace popular opinion and popular rule.

There is, of course, a middle ground between these extremes. Politically that middle ground is republicanism, which incorporates popular opinion but also checks it, limiting majority tyranny. And love them or hate them, the Bowl Championship Series standings represent a similar moderate middle ground in the world of sports. The BCS formula combines public opinion (the polls) with more objective standards (computer rankings, strength of schedule rankings, etc.) that refine such opinion. As such, it is a system combining popular opinion and justice, neither fully rewarding nor fully eschewing either.

One might add a final similarity between college football fans and Americans generally: Fans who clamor for a generic playoff fail to foresee what ill-effects such a change would have on college football's uniquely dramatic regular season. This failure to foresee the unintended effects of policy change is also a common feature of our politics. (On the whole, however, college football fans admirably exhibit far more respect for tradition than is typical in our society.)

Embracing the extremes of unchecked public opinion and authoritative rule is unhealthy. Both in the world of college football and, more important, in that of American politics, we should try to stop this wildly swinging pendulum in the middle. From that middle position, but only from that position, we can reasonably hope that what James Madison called "the cool and deliberate sense of the community" will prevail.

Jeffrey H. Anderson is a professor of political science at the Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.