Of this I am certain, that in a democracy the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppression upon the minority…and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. ~Edmund Burke
In the broadest, most reductive sense, I regard the United States as an experiment in democracy. The only true citizens of this country are Native Americans; everyone else immigrated from some other country in a way that makes the United States, and Canada, unique in the world.
I say that even with respect to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America where European influence is significant but comparatively more assimilated than with the two northern giants (assimilated in a heavily colonised sense like much of Africa – let’s not pretend things were peaceful on that front either).
The point is that the United States reflected in my eyes a place where no one was distinctly American. Everyone was something else or some combination of something elses residing in a great melting pot with shared values.
I suppose the first tragedy of this is the idea that said values were American in nature. The American zeitgeist generally holds that what sets the United States apart from other places is freedom of opportunity especially with respect to the social hierarchy: if one works hard enough one can achieve anything. This attitude appeared in stark contrast to more feudal kingdoms and empires of the world in which one belonged to a particular class by birthright and nothing could change that.
Of course, those feudal ideas died out in many places generations ago and much of the world shares the attitude that hard work should equal success. Does it? Perhaps we will come to that later.
For now the point is that America has no “American values”. We have human values that people around the world share. It should come as no surprise. We as Americans come from those people around the world. The idea of America is that people fled life abroad for the freedom of opportunity here to pursue those ideas.
In this sense, America is the greener grass on the other side. The reality for many who arrive here ought to be that the grass is always greener on the other side. For all our belief in freedom of opportunity we do have to face the realities of natural prejudice, oppression, and intolerance that exist here preventing people from achieving what they could – not due to a lack of effort but because of external factors over which they have no control.
Self-Governance and Autonomy
What prompted this piece was the ongoing discussion of vitriol and divisiveness in America today. We have red states and blue states, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. The division seems so pronounced, especially along geographic lines, that it can feel like two countries – to the point that some have suggested a “Jesusland” (the conservative middle of the US, often with Alaska and Manitoba included) and “The United States of Canada” (the liberal coastal areas linked across the Canadian north).
I find myself laughing at the idea as something satirical that makes a social point before we return to the real challenge of trying to reconcile our issues.
Then I began to consider other worldly matters.
While I have no such authority to make such a recognition, in my mind I recognise the existence of a Kurdistan and lament that the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria would not provision the area for Kurds to self-govern. I understand, without condoning, the economic reasons why they would make no such provision, but it saddens me to think of Kurds struggling under the oppression of other groups. Even greater autonomy within the existing boundaries seems like an improvement.
And where would a Keenan be to think about self-governance and autonomy without considering Ireland? As best I can tell, my Irish ancestors fled the island when the English began usurping Irish lands for Protestants – they were from Ulster, specifically County Fermanagh. Ancestrally, I am Irish from one of the six counties today forming Northern Ireland.
I understand the historical argument that Ireland should unite as a single island with a single Irish people again. I also understand the historical progression that would cause citizens of the northern six not to want to fall under the governance of an Irish Republic.
They are Irish and yet they are distinct. Should Northern Ireland separate from the United Kingdom (especially in a post-Brexit landscape)? If they do, should they remain independent or unite with the Republic of Ireland? If they unite with the Republic of Ireland, should they degree a significant degree of autonomy to self-govern?
I look at places like Israel and Palestine. I believe Palestine should exist as a sovereign nation, though I have no expertise regarding where those borders would exist. While I understand Palestinian claims and a need for autonomy, I also understand the challenges facing Israel in the region.
I look at places like China, Tibet, and Taiwan.
I look at places like Pakistan, India, and Kashmir.
I look at places like Sudan and South Sudan.
What strikes me about all of these places is that I find myself making arguments on the basis of self-governance time and again. People should be able to determine their own fates to the largest degree possible. In this sense I should note that I am for a small federal government. State governments should have more authority over the individual than the federal, county governments more than the state, municipal governments more than the county, and households more than the municipality. Individuals should regulate their lives to the largest degree possible with only the most significant matters escalating to the next level.
Yet here in the United States I find myself constantly arguing and struggling to resolve these differences. Perhaps the answer is the same self-governance decree that I apply elsewhere, that we satirically suggest in dividing the United States and Canada along new sociopolitical lines.
Oppression by the Majority
My frustration goes back across history. For example, we have encountered a surge in debates regarding Confederate statues here in the United States. Generally speaking, the blue states/liberals/Democrats argue that these should come down as they are monuments to racism while red states/conservatives/Republicans argue that they are matters of historical record, points of pride in one’s heritage, and reminders of the value for states’ rights.
John Oliver’s segment on the Confederacy sums up my position more concisely than I wish to discuss here.
The Confederate states seceded and went to war because of slavery, not states’ rights. They established as much in explicit statements at the time. What’s more, for all their talk about the importance of states’ rights (“we as individual states should be allowed to determine whether slavery is allowed”) they actively lobbied against states’ rights that conflicted with their views (such as laws to protect runaway slaves).
It’s not a matter of disliking Confederate states. Northern states contained an ungodly number of racists as well, and one of the precipitating factors for the outlaw of slavery was industrialisation. The industrial North no longer had as much an economic need for slavery while the rural South did quite a bit. The Union states are not woke heroes in this story.
What I see when I regard the debates surrounding Confederate statues is not the irreconcilable gap between the two groups, but the human nature that is cognitive bias and prejudice.
The North accuses a pro-slavery South of racism while being virtually every bit as racist.
The red states claim to defend their side on the grounds of states’ rights while lobbying for federal laws to override laws in blue states that contradict their beliefs.
Might an individual Confederate soldier have taken up the fight on the grounds of preserving his state’s right to determine a particular issue for itself? Of course. But where was that same soldier when the state lobbied for federal authority over some other aspect of the issue?
This is the point. It’s rarely the principled stand that one purports it to be. I do not regard it as hypocrisy because I believe it fully in the human condition that such an individual believes their position identified with that principle. The failure occurs when they refuse to accept how the principle applies in ways that do not jive with their belief.
The pro-Confederate statue arguments? Sorry, they are all bullshit. I will not go so far as to say one is entirely wrong about the matter – I will concede the smallest of margins for error – but I will say that every argument for their preservation is rife with hypocrisy and contradiction.
These are not arguments for something on principle. These are justifications so that one does not have to square with the reality of what that something means.
The Confederate states wanted enough autonomy to determine whether slavery should be legal (that is, a state could determine that slavery was not consistent with their beliefs and outlaw it, too) but they lobbied against northern states legislation protecting runaway slaves within that jurisdiction.
This trend continues to this day. The “states’ rights” argument typically holds that if the United States as a whole objects to something that citizens in one particular state believes, then that state should have the right to set legislation accordingly. Putting aside any moral and ethical component to an issue, my problem is that these same citizens would seize upon the opportunity to legislate the issue at a federal level and require all citizens to abide by that belief if possible.
In simpler terms: my argument is not against liberals, conservatives, Democrats, or Republicans – my argument is that what the United States I have observed in my adult life has shown me is that human nature is to enshrine the belief of the majority group over everyone else. It has nothing to do with the logic, morality, ethics, or humanity of the issue – even where I tend to agree with the legislation.
Democracy is the oppression of the few by the many because no one, least of all as diverse a country as the United States, has determined how to govern according to what is best. The best humanity managed in thousands of years is to govern by what is agreeable to the majority.
I mean, look at American history. The story of the United States often begins with the arrival of European settlers in North America, which is only fair given the way those settlers went on to treat Native Americans. They are not part of American history, they are the preamble to a story that only officially begins when Europeans arrive.
The earliest years of American history are a series of colonial struggles among Natives, British settlers, French settlers, and Spanish settlers (with a dash of Portuguese and Dutch influence). In what would become the United States, the British won the day. From the start this was not a melting pot of socioeconomic freedom – it’s where disenfranchised Brits saw the chance to succeed in ways they could not in England. Freedom of opportunity did not extend beyond that core group.
American history is a progression of a push for civil rights that results in violence and then not a concession of civil rights but a broadening of the definition of “white”.
In today’s United States, most Europeans are white. That was not always the case. The Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and other smaller islands were regarded as inferior to the Anglo-Saxons. The same was true for Mediterranean peoples like the Greeks and Italians. Only through time would the definition of “white” expand slowly to encompass more of these other European communities to placate calls for civil rights without granting them to non-white communities.
Yes, things have improved in the United States over time. I am not suggesting that the black experience in the United States in 2020 is what is was in 1820. I am keen to point out that the Civil Rights movement yielding the greatest gains to the African American community occurred in the 1950s and 1960s – a mere decades ago.
That is barely a generation removed. People born during the Civil Rights movement are active in the workforce today, this is not ancient history. We still have a lot of work to do and the work done does not erase the 400 years of oppression that preceded it.
These ideas originated in my mind during my formal education, but became more relevant during this recent period of white nationalists in the United States telling people to “go back where they came from”. Many of these white nationalists will claim they are not racist but that it’s in the best interest of a nation to self-govern along sociopolitical lines. That is, we cannot effectively govern a population consisting of blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and so many diverse groups. Being a predominantly white nation, we should focus on that and all these other groups should go where a government best represents them.
American history in a nutshell.
Sure, North America was not ours originally, we took the land from Native Americans who “did not know how best to use it anyway” (yes, a common argument from this group is that we improved things here in a way Native Americans never could), but we’re here now and the majority.
The “we” is white people according to whatever the local definition of white happens to be in that particular part of the country. It tends to be broader in blue states, but we’ve no shortage of racists promoting the same message. While I, an Irish-American raised Catholic, count as white in most of the country, there are some Protestant corners where my non-Protestant values have no place.
The kicker is that in a nationalist world where we arrange ourselves according to ethno-state the problems will still exist. Different delineations would emerge where individuals who believe one thing oppose some other collection of individuals.
In an all-white, Anglo-Saxon United States for example, those residing in the coastal urban areas would still have different concerns than those in the central rural areas. They would disagree about how to prioritise issues and irreconcilable schisms would appear.
But all of this belies a simple truth: the notion of self-governance at the heart of this has nothing to do with the best interest of the people.
This is recognition of the way people arrange themselves according to belief and want to see their belief govern life.
White nationalism saw a surge in the United States because civil rights saw a surge in the United States. White nationalists often sincerely do not see themselves as racist and would have less of a problem if non-whites and white allies of those groups would keep quiet and agree to governance according to their beliefs.
Remember, these are the same European groups who believed they acting in the best interest of locals when they invaded the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. What we face now is a mix of the belief that they lack the qualities necessary to lead (which is essentially outright phrenological racism), would take retributive action against them given the chance even as a minority, or pose no threat now but will become a threat as they reflect a larger percentage of the population.
All I hear through all of this is: humans have zero interest in determining what is best for people, only what works best for themselves.
At the end of the day we may lack the objective understanding about a particular issue (perhaps such an understanding does not even exist), but we ought to arrive collectively at a sense of what is best for us as humans. Such a democratic conclusion has precisely zero to do with the diversity of the population in question; in fact, the more diverse the population the more likely the group is to arrive at a shared, objective sense of the reality of the situation by accommodating the myriad perspectives.
What the nationalist sense of self-governance promotes is excluding such perspectives and depending upon confirmation bias, prejudice, and cognitive dissonance as the foundation for policy.
For example, without going to deep into such a complex issue, the matter of abortion. Religious groups oppose it on religious grounds. Some secular groups oppose it on ethical/moral grounds. Some individuals oppose it for personal reasons.
At the end of the day we should not be arranging ourselves to say, “Okay, all those who are pro choice should reside in these states. Those who oppose it on secular grounds but reject the theological arguments against should should reside here. Religious groups entirely opposed should reside here.”
If we break down society that way and cross-reference every issue facing society we would find ourselves organised as a collection of individuals. No two people are going to agree on every single issue.
The first order of business then is “should the government regulate this at all, or should individuals decide for themselves?” If we determine that we have some moral, ethical, or social reason for why the government should engage, the next question would be at what level.
If something is objectively reprehensible, a crime against human nature, then we ought to have consequences for that action at the highest level. We should not have some jurisdiction where the behaviour is acceptable. To have someone say, “Look, we here in this state want to do X, but the rest of the world objects to that. It should be our right as a state to decide that” is absurd. That is not a principled argument; that is a justification so that group can continue doing whatever they want without considering it.
A current example of this is the US travel ban. The government maintains that it’s not a Muslim-ban despite the prevalence of Muslim-majority countries on the list (Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia), and I could grant them that. Certainly the world contains several other Muslim-majority countries not on the list. However, the administration also cites terrorist activity as the reason for their inclusion.
Notably absent from the list: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon. Citizens of these countries are responsible for the vast majority of American deaths related to terrorist activity and yet the principle that would land Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Somalia on the ban list does not apply to them. The reason is that the United States has an interest that conflicts with the principle, so they simply chose not to apply it.
It’s the same reason the United States engaged in civil conflicts in Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War and in Syria today, but took virtually no action regarding the civil conflict in Sudan.
My point is not “the US should not have been in Korea or Vietnam” or “the US should have been involved with Sudan” – those are topics beyond the scope of this piece – but that we cannot pretend the reasons for each case. If US intervention in Korea and Vietnam was truly one of civic responsibility regarding democratic freedoms, then it ought to have been in Sudan.
If the case was something else, such as a proxy war for a larger ideological disagreement, then responsibility and accountability requires that we own that.
I can think of nothing less principled than hiding behind a facade of principle to achieve some personal interest.
That is what we face. Not an ideological disagreement that we cannot bridge; we have the eternal human struggle of believing something to be true and doing everything in our power to force reality to reflect that, even if it means subjugating and oppressing other people in the process.
How many great humans throughout history with messages of peace, tolerance, and pacifism met with violent ends? Alternately, how many groups and states pursued their beliefs to violent ends because they felt justified in them?
We cannot, any of us, pretend to be part of a world interested in peace when we are so quick to oppress anyone who disagrees. Some people are beyond reason, I understand that. No amount of objective reasoning by anyone will bring them to a different understanding. Besides, I have come to recognise the futility of promoting (and ineffectiveness) civility.
We do have to determine how to hold them accountable socially though – that is, we have to learn to treat them as dissenting members of society and manage them with humanity while pursuing what is in the best interest of all people. That involves asking ourselves how someone came to hold such an opinion, what the truth of it is, and how we failed them by letting them stray so far from our common humanity before we listened.
In this age of divisiveness what should be apparent to everyone is that we do not need to learn how to agree with one another – we need to learn how to disagree as fellow humans.
I believe in capitalism and democracy. Both systems are imperfect but I do believe they are better than any other system at our disposal. However, it’s in the nature of many capitalists and democrats to defend any criticism of their system. Some will read this piece and assume, perhaps based on the title alone, that it’s a condemnation of democracy (much the way a prior piece I wrote struck some as a condemnation of capitalism).
This piece is condemning the tendency to use the idea of democracy to weaponise oppression. One could argue semantics all day (“That’s not really democracy then”), but it’s a situation where the will of the people represents the will of certain people, and the institutions of that society enshrine those beliefs to the point that it oppresses others.
We live in a world, both in my native United States and other nations, where people in civilised societies struggle not because of some deficiency in their character or some lack of effort, but because they look a certain way or believe a certain thing. The oppression of people under the guise of democracy is the least democratic, the least civilised thing I can imagine and the belief behind this piece.
2 thoughts on “Democracy (as Oppression by Simple Majority)”
I understand that a recommended practice with a piece like this is to propose a solution, but in this case my proposed solution presents its own problems and did not seem worth extending the length of a piece many would already deem too long to read. The solution is science – the application of the scientific method by professionals in that respective area to determine what is best. Contrary to the opinion of some, the scientific community has consensus about most issues. The consensus might be incorrect, but it’s the best we as humans can do based on what we know at this point. As our knowledge evolves, the position will evolve.
For example, the piece references abortion. The consensus of the scientific community is decidedly pro choice, and that forms the basis of my position. I have had people indicate organisations that are pro life, but the invariable fault is that the organisation in question was founded on the pro life position. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has a pro-choice position. This is a group dedicated to the medicine of obstetrics and gynaecology who determined in the course of their research that pro-choice was the medically advisable position.
When people indicate pro-life arguments, they cite groups like ACPeds or the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. What distinguishes these groups? They’re pro-life or otherwise conservative physicians who did not like the consensus of the medical community and so formed their own organisations.
Stuff like this is the heart of this piece. If what one does starts with a belief and builds from there, rather than starting with fact and evidence and building to a belief, then it has no place governing the lives of anyone. That is oppression under the guise of democracy. A simple majority willing it so does not make it right, and arguments like states’ rights to circumvent it are likewise oppressive to individuals.
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Another piece with deep exploration of broad issues and a masterful understanding of the pitfalls along the journey. Thank you for sharing this, James!
Japan of 20 years ago (and to a degree, at least, of today) seems to be a strong example of a people who welcome both visitors (as tourists) and new residents from abroad into their fold, while still expecting them to conform to the basic values that have held their post-WWII society together so well. Social cohesion seems to be based on the Confucian teachings that people matter to each other, hypocrisy is never fair or right, and leaders of any stripe have a responsibility to all those they lead, just as those people have a responsibility to support the leader.
The difference in this system and most others I’ve seen worldwide is that everyone seems to want the same things first: to belong to a society where respect, hard work, and the sharing of what has succeeded in the recent past, is held as a value so strong that it guides everything else. That a sustainable society that works, teaches, and respects its members is one of the highest ideals we have seen, and so is worth pursuing, even at the cost of occasional inconvenience to some or all of the people therein. And that such a people are strong and studious enough to solve the temporary problems and inevitable changes that face any modern people.
We in the western hemisphere should be so wise as to look outside our borders at times, study what works and what doesn’t, and ask hard questions about why those results happen and how we can do better than we are today. But accepting differences in a civilized fashion is core to such honest examination and any chance at improving our lot as a people and as individuals.
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