Mill on Deference and Democratic Character

Alec Arellano published “Mill on Deference and Democratic Character” in Political Research Quarterly.

Abstract: Citizens of liberal democracies today increasingly exhibit a distrust of perceived elites, especially experts and those of advanced educational attainment more generally. John Stuart Mill’s work offers potential responses to this phenomenon. Mill regards deference to superior wisdom as an essential part of a well-developed character while esteeming independent thought. Although his emphasis on the importance of character formation is well known, his concern for inculcating a salutary form of deference has been underexplored. I show how Mill’s approaches to this task include redesigning the political process to amplify the voice of the highly educated, promoting more widespread opportunities for learning, and consistently emphasizing the partiality of human understanding. I also compare Mill’s treatment of the place of deference in democratic politics with that of Alexis de Tocqueville’s, and consider how Tocqueville might critique Mill’s strategies for cultivating deference. In so doing, I demonstrate how these authors provide us with resources for navigating the tensions between popular sovereignty and expertise, and between independent thought and intellectual authority.