We at thisweekinstupid mostly try to lay off of the truly and tragically stupid in favor of ideas that have at least some learned advocates. Today’s topic is almost one we’d leave alone. I see it repeated (and repeated and repeated) by people who can scarcely distinguish tyranny from democracy, but they think this phrase alone makes them some Constitutional scholar. However, it seems to me that a phrase so ubiquitous and so consistently misused deserves addressing.
The idea, which is a real one, is that a government that gives the majority whatever they want, whenever they want, can find the majority imposing really bad ideas either in some fit of irrational passion or simply because they can’t be trusted to make good decisions en masse. To guard against this, the American founders took a page from David Hume and Edmund Burke to establish “tiers of virtue” within government. Local groups of people each elect a representative. A group of these representatives then elect a single representative (or set of representatives) to govern or represent the whole group. On this principle, the US Senators from states were originally elected not by the people directly, but by a vote of the elected state Senators in that state. The 17th amendment changed the amended the Constitution to require direct election of Senators.
I have no quarrel with Edmund Burke on this point. But recently, I hear this phrase repeated to imply that our system, with its filibusters, its electoral college, lobbyists, gerrymandering, and so on, protects us from the unmitigated wrath of a self-seeking majority, or more explicitly from the tyranny of brown-skinned welfare queens persecuting a poor minority of investment bankers.
It’s no end of peculiar to hear this from conservatives who are all about tyranny of the majority. As Jon Stewart reminded us, there’s only one of the 10 Amendments in the Bill of Rights that conservatives respect and it’s the one most favored by lynch mobs. They rail against the ACLU and advocate tort reform to limit awards, shorten statutes of limitation and otherwise weaken the ability of the people to seek a redress of grievances from private companies (only the government can oppress people, right?). They complain of “judicial tyranny” when judges act to strike down laws which are supported by majorities but which encroach on protected individual rights. They cast aside due process and support stop-and-frisk on the utilitarian grounds that protecting the property of the many outweighs the right of the few to be free from unwarranted search by police.
In their other life, your conservative friends direct their hatred mostly at institutions best suited, and in fact designed, to protecting against tyranny of the majority. The Supreme Court, that constant source of Libertarian frustration, is designed as the last line of defense against tyranny of the majority and is specifically tasked with making sure individual rights are not infringed even at the behest of a majority. The House of Representatives, the last fragile thread of Republican power in today’s federal government, is, in fact, the institution most vulnerable to mob rule. It members are most frequently elected and by a direct vote of the people based strictly on population. It’s this branch that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson feared the most. The other institutions–the Senate, Presidential veto, the courts–are assigned the role of keeping the House in check. The good news, I suppose, is that recently, gerrymandering (the redrawing of districts to improve your Party’s chances) has lately blunted the House’s ability to transmit the will of the people. Republican-controlled state governments have redrawn district boundaries to such an extent that, after the 2012 elections, Republicans enjoyed a strong majority in the House despite getting fewer votes than Democrats in House races. Here, at least, we can take comfort that the will of the people is being sufficiently thwarted.
But, for me, the most surreal part of this story is that a Party consisting mostly of white, middle-class, native-born people has come to so fear “the majority.” If there were real danger of a majority imposing their will at the expense of important rights of minorities, wouldn’t you expect to hear it loudest from some identifiable minority? Wouldn’t groups who had experienced Jim Crow and the Trail of Tears be remarkably sensitive to this? And, wouldn’t you expect the racial and religious majorities to be best equipped to defend themselves? But the Right has constructed in their minds a tyrannical majority coalition of unionized teachers, Latinos, Blacks, atheists, college professors, gays, Hollywood and Holocaust survivors out to take what rightfully belongs to them. Perhaps it’s appropriate to call them a minority of stupid.