Going into the midterm elections we heard the constant refrain that “democracy is at stake.” Democracy, of course, was not at stake. Democrats’ unified control of government was.
This has echoed a theme of theirs, repeated for example in criticisms of the Electoral College and the Supreme Court, that more democracy is always better and that undemocratic institutions are bad.
If, before they put the torch to several of our institutions, they pause for a moment to reflect on history, they might decide to temper their rhetoric with a little nuance.
As economist Tyler Cowen recently explained, history shows that although democratic governments have obvious advantages over autocracies — they foster prosperity, respect human rights, and minimize the risks posed by tyrants — they have their weaknesses too. Cowen explains that “a lot of individual democratic decisions are not very good” and “there are periods when some countries might do better as non-democracies, even though democracy is better on average.”
This nuance is lost in simplistic political rhetoric that equates “democracy” with “things I like” and “anti-democracy” with “things I don’t like.”
Cowen warns that this sort of rhetoric leads to sloppy thinking. Democracy becomes just a way to get what you want and not a collective decision-making system whose efficacy should be constantly examined and refined. This, in turn, leads people to think that it is always good to increase majoritarian control over a society.
Cowen stops there, but there are more lessons to learn. Pure majoritarianism can be as dangerous as any despot. Not “dangerous” in the casual way that pundits use that word to attack things they don’t like, but actually dangerous, in the sense of causing severe human suffering.
History abounds with examples of majorities wielding power unchecked by undemocratic constraints to hurt minorities. The Turks did it to Armenians during World War I, the Germans to the Jews during World War II, and the Chinese to the Uighurs today. And of course, Catholics and Protestants did it to each other for centuries.
American history contains a devastating example in Jim Crow. Jim Crow was the result of majoritarianism set free from the undemocratic constraints of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court.
During Reconstruction, diverse groups comprising freedmen, populists, conservatives, liberals, and Republicans wielded the Fourteenth Amendment against racist interests trying to preserve white supremacy. For a time, they were successful, but eventually they gave up the fight. Unchecked democracy then gave racists power that they used to oppress the black minority.
All hope was not lost for racial equality, however, because the Fourteenth Amendment forbade the use of that power for discriminatory ends and the Supreme Court was not subject to the fickle winds of democracy.
But for decades, until its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court refused to play its important role as an undemocratic check on democratic power. Worse, it all but erased the Fourteenth Amendment from the Constitution, leaving no constraints at all on the racist majority’s power.
We know what happened next. Generations of black Americans suffered discrimination, subjugation, and violence. Jim Crow happened because democratic power was freed from important undemocratic constraints.
There is much more at stake from the rhetorical trend of equating “democratic” with “good” and “undemocratic” with “bad” than mere sloppy thinking. Fundamental rights cannot be trusted to the benevolence of a majority any more than they can be trusted to the benevolence of a king.
We like to think that human society gets better over time — that “it cannot happen here” or “it cannot happen again.” But it can. History is filled with examples of good and neighborly people succumbing to hatred and savagery in the blink of an eye.
We may not be able to predict or nullify the forces — demagogues, economic crises, tribalist ideologies, etc. — that come together to create such retrogressions. But we can create systems of government with an eye towards nullifying the use of power in service of such retrogressions.
We must take care not to bind democracy too tightly and thus eliminate its profound benefits. But we likewise must be mindful that a majority faces the same temptation to misuse power that every tyrant has.
After all, history proves that we humans are very bad at resisting that temptation.
GianCarlo Canaparo is a senior legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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