By Robert A. Vella
One of the most resonate criticisms of democracy is the so-called “tyranny of the majority” meme and its numerous variants. Simply put, it asserts that the general population is either too ignorant, too stupid, too impulsive, or too immoral to be entrusted with the governance of a nation. As a vigorous proponent of democracy, I readily admit that good democratic governance is dependent upon an educated, enlightened, and engaged populace. However, this overblown fear of the “unwashed masses” is an authoritarian idea, concocted and propagated by aristocratic sentiments.
Although the American and French revolutions dealt heavy political blows to the world’s aristocracy in the late 18th century, the many nations which were subsequently built on its profound principles still incorporated this wariness of empowered populism into their governmental structures. The U.S. Constitution, for example, mandated representative democracy, the separation of power, and an independent judiciary. The people would be involved, but their political strength would be constrained ostensibly through a system of checks and balances.
While this tempering of democracy does seem prudent, it is based on a flawed assumption – that the judgement and behavior of individuals who occupy official positions of power (e.g. congressional representatives, the president, and supreme court justices) would be superior to that of the collective will of the people. America’s deeply troubled history reflects what is far more prevalent throughout the ages than a virtually nonexistent populist tyranny, a very real and enduring tyranny of a ruling minority.
In fact, true democracy (i.e. direct democracy) – where all citizens vote on every issue – has never been attempted on any large scale. The closest example was ancient Athens, but the vast majority of its population (i.e non-land owners, women, children, and slaves) was ineligible. Even countries traditionally having higher voter turnout rates (see: Voter turnout and Compulsory voting) rarely have exhibited anything resembling a tyrannical majority. The cruel, inhumane, and unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans during World War II did not occur because a majority of Americans demanded it, but because of terrible decisions made by a small number of officials inside the FDR administration (curiously, the internment did not apply to the territory of Hawaii which had the highest percentage of residents of Japanese ancestry).
It can also be asserted that the persecution of, and atrocities committed against, vulnerable minority groups (e.g. slavery in the Americas) were neither perpetrated by, nor empowered by an enraged tyrannical majority but by a political minority impelled by no more than a highly vocal plurality of citizens. Look at the increasingly radicalized Republican Party in America today. It is supported by barely a third of the current U.S. population.
All this and more was explored recently by the great, great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, law professor Kermit Roosevelt. He explains the inherent fears of tyrannical populism, the judicial obstructionism which has often resulted from it, as well as giving the most eloquent lesson on democracy I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend watching the following one-hour C-SPAN video hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California:
Theodore Roosevelt and the Constitution – Kermit Roosevelt talked about President Theodore Roosevelt’s evolving vision of the Constitution and the national debate over how to define American democracy. He spoke about moments when these debates shaped national policy, such as during the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.