Tyranny of the majority a paradox in democracies

John Mohawk

Two recent news stories illustrate a paradox in democratic societies that is all too rarely discussed

The first was a news item which originated in Nature Magazine and which announced that DNA evidence supported long-standing assertions that Thomas Jefferson, or a close relative, had fathered a child or children by Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings. The second was that in British Columbia there is a movement to hold a referendum designed to deflect Indian land claims.

Tyranny is easily understood in its extreme episodes. The majority Hutu went on a rampage in 1994 in Rwanda and slaughtered 800,000 of the minority Tutsi. The majority Turks murdered 1.5 million minority Armenians in 1915, and in 1941 Germany tried to exterminate the Jews. It may be comforting to try to urge that a few criminals at the top of the pyramid were to blame, but in fact those societies had nothing in place to protect their minorities from the tyranny of the majority, of which there are countless examples. The majority was free to do its work.

International criminal courts are trying cases involving people who led or encouraged genocidal acts in Rwanda and Serbia, including former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovec. The need for such courts illustrates perfectly the problem of the tyranny of the majority. The politicians who led genocidal episodes were enormously popular at the time, including Adolph Hitler.

Democracy, whatever its merits, has not been an effective deterrent to abuses, even genocide, directed against minorities. Far more common instances of abuses directed against distinct peoples within a society are found in most countries and are usually not in the consciousness of the citizenry as an exercise of tyranny.

This paradox is called the tyranny of the majority and democracies are not immune. John Stuart Mill mentioned it, proving that it predates modern democracies. James Madison, the fourth U.S. President, spoke clearly in the Federalist Papers about the need to restrain the majority and made clear that the movement toward democracy had not solved the problem. Alexis de Tocqueville also talked about it. He thought that in America the majority was often unfocused by issues and subject to whim.

Lani Guinier, President Clinton’s failed nominee as assistant attorney general for civil rights and the first tenured black woman professor of law at Harvard, urged that the measure of unfairness of the tyranny of the majority should be determined by results. If a minority group, say black people, were determined to be denied access to the things they need (jobs, education, health care, food, safety, etc.,) through the exercise of public policy, this would be evidence of such tyranny. In the 21st century, around the world from Serbia to Rwanda to Florida, the reality of the tyranny of the majority is cast against the practice of pluralism and the rights of the minorities. The U.S. government is often cited as an example of a constitutional system with many checks and balances which tend to protect the rights of diverse peoples, but no government in the world does this perfectly or, in cases where powerful competitions and conflicts are at work, adequately.

Direct democracy is most difficult and dangerous when the tyranny of the majority ? the willingness of the majority to ignore or run roughshod over the needs and aspirations of the minority ? is unbridled and nothing can restrain it. Although a significant minority ? even 49 percent ? may have legitimate grievances over a given course of action, the ruling group, the majority, often claims the right to act on its impulses without accommodation or compromise with minorities. This can be extremely disruptive and can cause untold competition, even civil war.

The thing about this phenomenon is that when a group becomes prosperous, it tends to want to keep things that way. In that pursuit it can become very resistant to any kind of change. People who are resistant to change in this context are called “conservative.” The society may be replete with examples of inequality and certain groups may have been left out of the economic, educational or social mainstream, but any attempts to correct these ills are resisted by conservatives because these people are happy with things just the way they are. Sometimes this results in positions that sound as though wealth is static and not created, and that if a part of society improves its lot, it does so at the expense of others.

This is the paradox of conservatism. Conservatives do not see the problems of minority groups (the poor, racial or ethnic groups, women, etc.) as problems to be solved because, as beneficiaries of the social order, they like things the way they are. They tend to see people who are trying to correct social injustices as problems, and they can be very passionate about this and are often driven to extreme emotions by unfounded fears that any gains made by minorities are at their expense.

Earlier this year the respected journal Nature published a study of DNA evidence linking descendants of slave Sally Hemings and President Jefferson and concluded that Jefferson was not ruled out as the father of at least one of her children. Critics denounced the report as an example of “political correctness,” ignoring considerable other evidence that supported the possibility. The level of anger that accompanied this response, and most responses to “political correctness,” gives testimony to the presence of tyranny.

There seems little doubt that someone in the Jefferson line fathered children by Hemings. It is hardly news that white masters slept with black slaves. What seems to infuriate the critics is that such allegations would besmirch the reputation of a “founding father” and cast into disrepute everything Jefferson accomplished. There is, of course, no proof that such a result is on the horizon, just as there can be no proof Jefferson was perfect. Some of the founding fathers were flawed. It’s not news. Their accomplishments have survived. The deconstruction of the myth of perfection of the founders and of a golden age when the privileges of white people were in perfect order was under way long before the Nature article and was, in any case, simply a reality check. The conservative reaction to an otherwise innocuous news story is but one facet of the culture wars in the United States.

One of the clearest examples of the tyranny of the majority can be found in Canada’s British Columbia. It was not uncommon for settlers simply to seize Indian land without compensation or due process. In recent years Indian land claim lawsuits have been having some success in the courts and an Indian nation negotiated a treaty that recognized the rights to land and resources of that nation. The reaction was to demand a referendum by B.C. citizens to abort the court process and determine, essentially, whether to restore some of these rights. It is, in essence, a demand by the people who benefit from the transfer of assets (some would say theft) from Indian to non-Indian hands, to vote on whether some of it should be returned.

The referendum, denounced even by some moderate politicians as racist, is under court challenge. International criminal courts and international law are probably the last resort for some oppressed peoples who have been abused, subjected to having their lands and other assets seized, denied civil rights and due process of law, and otherwise mistreated. Canada, considered among the enlightened nations of the world, has shown significant reluctance to recognize the rights of its indigenous peoples.

The situation unfolding in British Columbia is a test of that society’s ability to manage its historic and structural pattern of injustice to its most significant minority. If it is able to do so in a way that brings compromises and accommodation to a long-suffering minority population, it will set an example for the world to follow.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University at Buffalo, N.Y.