Democracy and the Moral Majority: Why Third Graders Know Better

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We love democracy. As a nation we emphatically declare the importance of granting power to the people and even promote the international spread of democracy as one of our nation’s greatest missions. But I’m not convinced it’s really all that great of thing. In fact, when it comes to moral and political matters of right and wrong – you know, the stuff that really makes a difference in our lives – I’m quite suspicious of “majority rule.” Sure, we can take votes, raise hands, and cast ballots to find out what the majority of people think, prefer, or want, but that’s not what the heart of democracy is all about. Democracy is about acting on behalf of and in accordance with those thoughts, preferences, and wants.

But since when has the majority ever been a reliable source of determining what is valuable, right, and good?

I realize that questioning the value of democracy and the will of the majority is a touchy thing to say. It’s especially sensitive right now given that the people of Turkey have been bravely protesting the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Erdoğan for over a fortnight in the interest of their own self-determination. I’ve been closely following the Turkish resistance from it’s start and continue to stand in solidarity with my Turkish friends, here and abroad, and with those who are courageously fighting for their rights against extreme police brutality. In this scenario, it’s difficult to not favor democracy. The majority seems to be a “good majority” – clearly in the right and, as sheer numbers demonstrate, clearly representing the vast majority of the population. (Interestingly enough, the Turkish government has been deflecting the seriousness of the protests by claiming that a “small, radical minority” of looters are responsible for the recent events. While this might make the Turkish system look bad, it can also be seen that in the U.S. the majority of people want progressive changes with respect to gun control and marriage equality. We saw how well Congress responded to the idea of gun control reforms – they didn’t bother with it – and we’ll see how well the majority opinion pans out for gay and lesbian couples soon. Here I sit with bated breath.)

We can obviously point to cases where listening to the majority would be a good thing, yet at some level, we also know that going along with the will of the masses and aligning our actions with majority interests can be highly problematic. In fact, in extreme cases, it can be down right dangerous. This is why we caution against participating in “group think” and “mob mentalities.” Think of Nazi Germany. Think of witch hunts. Think of the majority that, at one point in our history, favored African slavery, or the White majority that created and fought for Jim Crow laws, or the people who believed that homosexuality is a disease, or the men who didn’t think that women are rational enough to vote, or hold political office, or deserve equal pay. Actually, think of any time in history when a revolution was necessary for the realization of greater justice (and think of current political situations for that matter). In those instances, to preserve our own dignity and cling to any shred of self-respect, we should hope that we would not have been part of the majority. Rather, we would hope to be “on the right side of history.” So why don’t we question our faith in democratic rule and the notion of a moral majority? (Uh…I’m using ‘moral majority’ to talk about the power of the majority to influence legislation on moral issues, which is not to be conflated with the right-wing Christian group. Although…well, sure.)

As a few others throughout history have been keen to point out before, the fundamental characteristic of democracy that hinges on majority rule also leaves it susceptible to tyranny, namely, the “tyranny of the majority.” Apparently, at about the same time that he and his buds were writing up the Constitution of the United States, John Adams noted that majority rule could, in fact, put vulnerable groups at a great disadvantage. So, the likelihood that the majority can actually be in the wrong was not missed by the very people who established American democracy! They didn’t overlook this possibility only to have it unexpectedly rear its unfortunate and ugly head somewhere down the road when we “lost sight” of the wonders of democracy. Opportunities for injustice, inequality, and oppression are built right into the heart of democracy, brushing shoulders with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes exercising these inalienable rights come so close to injustice itself that it’s hard to tell them apart. And the forefathers of our democracy apparently knew this.

So, I’ll ask it again, since when has the majority ever been a reliable source of determining what is valuable, right, and good?

Now that my attempts to critically call out the heart and soul of democracy might get me put on a CIA watch-list, let me point a finger at all the third grade teachers who set me up for this post. I remember a very popular, sunny banner in my classroom that I imagine also hung above many a chalkboard in other elementary schools that read, “What is right is not always popular. What is popular is not always right.” This is a simple lesson that we teach our kids to protect them against collapsing under peer pressure to do “bad things.” In other words, in order to raise strong leaders, just citizens, and responsible adults (to say the very least), we strive to help our kids develop a moral backbone, to cultivate a sense of moral fortitude that empowers them to to stand up and say, “The masses may not agree and that puts me in the minority, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not right!”

More often than not, progressive social changes are initiated by a very small, committed minority of the population. Sometimes their views become popular opinion, but not always.  However, even if a shift in cultural values occurs and eventually manages to alter the will of the majority, this doesn’t mean that we should rest content with all of our “progress,” as if getting the majority of people on board with a certain cause was ever the ultimate goal or even a safe one. Instead, it must be acknowledged that dissent and social critique are always necessary.

Trouble-makers, whistleblowers, and activists should thus be celebrated and viewed as a “critical minority” – offering critical perspectives on our current realities that are also crucial for the embodiment of a truly healthy democracy. (Edward Snowden. How’s that for being topical?) Of course, this isn’t to say that dissenters are always right. (There are some pretty troubling and corrupt minority interest groups; the KKK, the Westboro Baptist Church, the 1%, just to name a few.) My point is simply that the provocations from a dissenting minority are always valuable.

Before we relieve ourselves of having to continually exercise our brains and think for ourselves by falling back on what the “majority of people think,” we should remember what we learned as third-graders and listen to what we tell our kids so that we can better navigate difficult moral questions and more responsibly exercise our democratic rights.

This new Think for a Change video, “Majority Rule for Minorities,” takes a different approach to understanding the notion of the “majority.”

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4 thoughts on “Democracy and the Moral Majority: Why Third Graders Know Better

  1. You’re right, but you don’t quite go far enough.

    The United States isn’t a democracy, nor was it ever intended to be.

    It is, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “a Constitutional Republic.”

    That’s one of the reasons the word “democracy” doesn’t appear one time in either the
    Constitution or the Declaration of Independence:

    Though lexically they’re are other legitimate definitions, the primary meaning of democracy is, as you eloquently point out, majority rule. Life, person, and property, however, are inalienable and never subject to the whims of the majority.

    Your life, your person, and your property, in other words, are yours absolutely should not in any way, or at any time, ever subject to vote.

    In addition to calling it, as you say, “the tyranny of then majority,” James Madison also wrote in the Federalist Papers:

    “[Under democracy] there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.”

    And John Adams said: “democracies merely grant revocable rights to citizens depending on the whims of the masses, while a republic exists to secure and protect pre-existing rights.”

    • Thanks for the thoughtful clarification. You make an good point that if our Republic exists to secure and protect inalienable rights, then it seems that we’ve never actually lived in a republic! (Or, I guess what becomes more apparent is that the founding fathers of America were only interested in the life and property of those who were already considered persons, thereby legitimating the injustices against those considered as “less than” and safeguarding against any critiques of conflict. “We ARE looking after rights (of those we deem already having them)!”

      By the way, see you in about 6 weeks!

  2. Hey! I’m European (Welsh, more specifically) and I’m always intrigued by debating with Americans. I feel that there’s often an underlying difference of conceptual definition (not to mention associated values) which skew the conversation. This post illustrates what I mean really well: democracy, though in practice over here in the UK with our first past the post electoral system it means majority rules, is never taught as meaning such (I say never, I probably just mean that I’ve never come across it). Majority and democracy are theoretically incidental to each other because democracy is received as shorthand for “government of the people by the people for the people”. In other words, democracy = self determination, and majority doesn’t come in to that. This seems relevant to what you say in your video about how the LGBT+/ queer community has to sit and wait and hope for the straight majority to swing our way. It’s the same on both sides of the pond of course, but over here there’be been a sort of line in the sand between benignly apathetic straight decision-makers (MPs) who say “it won’t affect us therefore we will vote for it as it’s what the people it would affect want” and those who vote against and/ or urge others to do so, on the grounds that it would have a (negative) effect beyond the LGBT+/ queer community.

    Representative democracy is supposed to make decisions representative of the will of the affected, not the will of the majority. Over here, I feel like “majority rules” is received as being anti-democratic, if anything (with all the unconscious hypocrisy that that implies, what with the first past the post system, as I mentioned).

    So the more interesting question is not “how do we work out who the majority are/ what they want?” but “how do we work out who the affected parties are and what *they* want?”. From there it gets REALLY interesting, if you accept that dominant groups, be they majorities or not, benefit from the oppression of other groups (like men from the oppression of women or whatever) because THEN it becomes obvious that in the case of, say, passing a law on abortion (the affected parties of which would clearly be [cis, fertile] women), male supremacists/ misogynists would see themselves as interested parties and claim a say on those grounds. I would say that indirectly they *would* be affected – the liberation of women does not only affect women, famously. I would say that the net effect is good for everybody, women, men and anyone else, but there are undeniable downsides for men as well (like, women are more able to compete with men professionally/ politically/ artistically when we’re not barefoot and pregnant at home).

    How do you build checks and balances into your system of “representative self-determination” so that decisions aren’t taken for the undue good of one group at another’s group’s expense? You basically have to fall back on some kind of value system, right?

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