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Tyranny of the majority

There was a time when the Left was very concerned about the “tyranny of the majority,” as everyone of all political persuasions should be.  Once in a while, you see a few sparks popping and sizzling on that old ideological circuitry, mostly when the discussion turns to same-sex marriage.

But for the most part, tyranny of the majority is liberal policy now.  A single politician winning a majority of the vote in a couple of elections is supposed to stifle all dissent.  Rarely does an individual voter agree with every single position taken by a politician he supports – which is not surprising, given the size of our government – but it’s not uncommon to hear Democrat partisans claim that President Obama’s re-election victory validates everything he wants to do, obliging our representatives in Congress to ink up their rubber stamps for the next three years.

Appeals to majority rule are highly selective, of course – the Left is not at all interested in polls that show a majority of Americans disagree with ObamaCare, or the liberal gun control agenda.  Abortion extremists who defy the majority beliefs of the American people are hailed as heroes.  Disastrous Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri was undone by a position on abortion that has roughly the same level of popular support as President Barack Obama’s.  Selectively embracing the blessing of majority support is a very old political game.  One of the big motivations for using charges of “extremism” to destroy someone is to prevent them from shifting majority opinion – something that can, by definition, only be accomplished by people who are “outside the mainstream” today.  The window of political possibility can only be moved with sustained effort.

But let’s suppose most Americans want the rights of the minority to enjoy adequate protection.  We are a culture that has long celebrated iconoclasts, eccentrics, trailblazers, and those who march to the beat of a different drummer.  “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” is a common mantra for expressing First Amendment sentiments.  In the heat of political contests, we sometimes forget that most of us really don’t support the concept of tyranny imposed through 51, or even 90, percent majorities.

The protection of minority rights and dissent doesn’t make lawful government impossible.  This is a common misconception of those who believe our only real choice is between tyranny and anarchy.  We have no reason to allow renegades or malcontents to violate the rights of other citizens.  There are people who dissent from the laws against murder – you can find quite a few of them incarcerated in your local prison – but we’re not imposing any sort of tyranny by making murder illegal.

That sounds simple enough… but why should we then accept the notion of abrogating someone’s sovereign rights because a majority of their fellow citizens demand it?  The authors of the Constitution certainly did not accept that notion.  That’s why they promoted a body of laws that could not be overruled by the victors of any election.  The government cannot suppress even the most unpopular group’s First Amendment rights.  There is a process for amending the Constitution, and it has been used many times… but it’s not supposed to be disregarded by even the most popular elected official, with the most impressive vote totals in a national election.

It has become distressingly common to hear democracy presented as sufficient protection for minority rights, but that’s patently absurd.  True democracy – the whole body of the people voting on proposed government actions – is the most dangerous weapon for imposing the tyranny of the majority ever created.  Sorry, 49 percent, your 51 percent superiors just voted to rescind your rights.

When most people use the term “democracy,” they refer to the election of local and national representatives.  That’s not a very good bulwark against the tyranny of the majority, either.  Representatives win by cobbling together a working majority of voters – and not everyone votes.  Without other protections, the result disintegrates into a ruling class that does what it wants, with the support of preferred constituencies, while daring everyone else to band together and stop them.  Dissenting minorities are left vulnerable to a predatory State that has little trouble lining up a few loyal interests to crush them.

We move further and further away from a government that represents the general will of the people – you’ll notice the number of decisions portrayed as forever beyond the reach of the people and their representatives grows steadily.  And the concept of a “general will” is inherently tyrannical anyway.  It’s just high-toned moralistic language wrapped around the same old demand to shut up and get with the program.  Who are you to defy those who claim to know what Americans truly want and need?

How about the Constitution, then?  It was expressly written to thwart the tyranny of the majority, wasn’t it?  Alas, you might have noticed it’s not sufficient.  The problem is that any body of law is only as effective as the subject’s willingness to obey it.  People obey laws they strongly disagree with because they want to be good citizens, or because they fear punishment.

Constitutional law is directed at the government – the document and its Amendments are a list of things the government may not do, not even if a huge majority of Americans desire it.  The ruling class is very good at convincing itself that “good citizenship” involves ignoring Constitutional principles when they get in the way of a benevolent agenda, and they no longer fear any sort of punishment at all, except the loss of power through collapsing popular support – which is just another way of describing the tyranny of the majority, isn’t it?

A constitution is only as good as the system it governs.  As the system grows, the constitution degrades into a set of principles, then a collection of abstract ideas, then a meaningless “living document” that can be changed through the exercise of temporary political power – the tyranny of the majority again!  At this point in American history, a critical number of citizens have come to reject the idea that arbitrary laws should frustrate the benevolence of the ruling class.  If the government wants to do something for our own good, and a majority… or at least an apparent majority… supports it…

Okay, wait, let me start over.  If the government wants to do something for our own good, and a strong majority does not vigorously oppose it, why should an ancient scrap of parchment written by old white slave-owners be allowed to get in the way?

So how do you protect the minority against tyranny?  There’s really only one way: the power of government must be kept sharply limited, and there must be a way for citizens to escape from most of it.  You can’t oppress someone who has the right to refuse your commands.  You can’t control someone who can stroll across county or state lines to escape your authority.  The only way to prevent power from building to a dangerously explosive pressure is to install a relief valve in the political system: the right of meaningful dissent, which means the right of refusal.  The majority wants to do something I disagree with?  Fine, knock yourselves out.  Let me know how it goes.  You might even persuade me to get on board, one of these days.

In other words, the only way to thwart the tyranny of the majority is to make tyranny impossible.  And as long as it’s possible, it will occur, by claiming one sort of legitimacy or another.

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