American Democracy Turned Upside Down

“Tyranny of the majority” has been a key concept in American political philosophy. One can plausibly claim that it is the foundational concept of the American political system. But does the concept still hold today? Or perhaps, how much relevance does the concept still have for contemporary American politics?

While the tyranny of the majority is always a risk in any democratic polity, I believe that it is less likely to occur in America today, and this is in no small part due to the very good job the founders have done in creating institutional barriers that make the formation of an overwhelming majority highly unlikely, if not impossible.

But I contend that Americans today face a problem of an almost inverted nature: it is not the case that we fear a majority that will deprive those of us in the minority of our rights; it is rather that what the majority of Americans regard as common, public goods cannot be realized because of the disproportionate influence and power wielded by minorities.

If you read enough opinion polls, a picture emerges: there are indeed certain goods which most Americans agree as common goods, i.e., equitable public education, affordable health care for every citizen, a cleaner environment, an energy policy that is less dependent upon crude oils imported from foreign countries.

Yet anyone who is remotely familiar with our current political landscape knows that these things, despite being perceived as public goods, have thus far not been realized. And in each of these instances, at least some of the explanation involves well-organized minorities whose interest conflict with public opinion.

Therefore, what we have today in America is a problem whose nature is diametrically opposite than the problems that the founders foresaw with democracy: instead of a majority oppressing the minority, it is the minority that prevents the majority from pursuing and realizing common goods. In fact, I might even say that the Founders did too good of a job from preventing the formation of a possibly oppressive majority such that well-organized and resourceful majorities can effectively prevent majority action.

Of course there is something to be said about this institutional arrangement, because it does effectively prevent a majority from becoming too oppressive. American history bears this out too, for the most part. We did not witness the formation of a hyper-collective polity in our history, unlike Nazism and Communism in Europe.

However, some of the blame must also lie with the American people. While I think it might have been justified to fear any signs of a majority of statism, I think those fears are no longer justified in this post-Cold War age in which we no longer face Communism. However, the rhetoric of anti-statism and collective action persists and has become even more inflammatory after the Cold War, resulting in today’s bitter partisanship between so-called liberals and conservatives, free-marketeers and socialists, Republicans and Democrats.

Again, I’m not proposing that Americans should trust their governments in total, because a healthy dose of scepticism is absolutely necessary. However, I do think that Americans have gone overboard with their anti-statist tendencies, because not all majoritarian actions and interests are inherently oppressive, especially if the majoritarian interests are about things that almost everyone can agree upon as normatively right, such as equitable public education and affordable health care.

And yet still, some of the blame must also be put upon our political leaders, who have continued to use inflammatory rhetoric to stoke popular myths and prejudices for political gains.

In essence, if any change is to occur at all, it must come from a change in attitude in the American people, both among voters and politicians. While they should correctly value scepticism, it is high time that they, and we, realize that not all collective action leads to oppression and deprivation of rights. In this case, as it is in all human affair, the essence is judgment. It is high time that the American people use theirs to determine what it is that they really want and not be blinded by their own prejudices.