A tyranny of the majority is still a tyranny and democracy is a tool of undoing tyranny

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

It’s quite clear that the country would not have done much better besides blacks under a king, and well may have done worse. Ultimately it was the tools of democracy that forced the revocation of the “white country for white people consensus.” And yet knowing how hard that process was, knowing how often the “majority” can embrace the immoral (not be “tricked” into the immoral but embrace it of its own volition and interests) gives me pause. It checks the instinct to believe in the immediate wisdom of majorities, or the sense that the right solution can always be found in a crowd.

A democratic society can willfully embrace fundamentally immoral choices which damage a minority.  Jim Crow was democratically enacted.  That is preserved the bigotry of a majority only by oppressing a minority doesn’t make it any less democratic.  Religious conservatives have abused democratic processes (i.e. most campaigns against same sex marriage have invoked fears of gay people abusing children) to deny same sex couples marriage rights.  They argue that it is unpopular and therefore it’s okay for a majority to deny a minority its rights. 

 At the same time, democratic processes are the key to reversing tyranny of the majority.  Democracy isn’t just voting – it is government by discussion.  The more we discuss, the better able we are to govern.  When Republicans in Congress do everything in their power to prevent discussion of, as for example, cutting the military budget, they are harming democracy.  If the liberal flaw is that we’re willing to discuss too many things, the conservative flaw is they are willing to discuss too little.  The value conservatives place on social order is disrupted by discussion of a great many topics. They’d rather not discuss them simply because doing so feels like a threat to the social order.

Democracy – especially in its contemporary form which provides protections for minority rights – is complex and messy but it has worked in finding ways to reverse the tyranny of the majority.  It has been dilatory and imperfect, but it has worked.

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on April 19, 2012 - 10:47 am

    The support for keeping our forces deployed halfway around the world in Afghanistan has dropped to 32 percent in the polls, with 60 percent saying the U.S. and NATO should remove their troops as soon as possible. Not going to happen.

    Also, for years a majority of Americans have rejected the government’s warrantless surveillance program. This has made no impression on Congress or the White House.

    Polls also indicate the majority of Americans reject austerity, and are calling for more government spending on education and the nation’s infrastructure, and want to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for that spending.

    It amazes me how consistently Washington politicians and the media can simply ignore these polls. There is some kind of a disconnect between average Americans and the people who claim to represent us. The media seem too reluctant to speak truth to power.

  2. #2 by brewski on April 19, 2012 - 1:17 pm

    Example #1 of the tyranny of the majority:

    It was the students at Grinnell who voted to not have ROTC

    Well heck, the majority wanted to deny that right to a minority of students, so fuck the minority.

    Hypocrisy only the left can defend.

    • #3 by Glenden Brown on April 19, 2012 - 2:35 pm

      Notice, for example, that brewski is so pathetically desperate to smear anything he deems as liberal (i.e. any school that didn’t admit his sorry ass) that he ignores the very real historical injustices. Yeah, he could, as for example, just admit that Jim Crow was a massive violation of human rights, that it fostered an atmsophere of violence and cruelty, that it condemned millions of Americans to second class citizenship, to inferior education, job opportunities and systemic injustice by the courts, government and businesses.

      Instead, he tries to fog the discussion by attacking without any basis in the facts or knowledge of the situation. He will do his best to defend himself, and to increasingly fog the discussion.

      He’s of course misguided and not interested in actually addressing the substance of the post because if he did, he’d have to admit the American right has a terrible history on issues of race and social justice. I’m sure no one else at OneUtah will take the bait.

  3. #4 by cav on April 19, 2012 - 1:34 pm

    Majority / Minority; Left / Right; Haves / the Have Nots…Just so long as we have tyranny. That’s the important part.

    Empathy and cooperation are for losers.

  4. #5 by brewski on April 19, 2012 - 3:54 pm

    So your entire point is not about tyranny of the majority then.

    Your point is about tyranny of the majority when the majority is clearly in the moral wrong. But if the majority in another case are do-gooder French Literature majors at Grinnell, then that tyranny of the majority is OK. So you get to choose which tyranny of the majority is good and which tyranny of the majority is bad.

    This is just like the free speech issue. You morally object to restrictions on free speech restricts speech you want to hear, such as protests against a war or something. But if the free speech being restricted is not your little hobby horse, or if the free speech being restricted is not what you want to hear, all of a sudden you “sympathize” with restricting free speech.

    So you have no principles at all with regard to tyranny of the majority or with free speech. Your only guiding principles are that restricting rights of your minority or your speech is bad, but anyone else’s is up for debate.

    attacking without any basis in the facts or knowledge of the situation.

    This is the point. It doesn’t matter what the “situation” was. That is what principles are all about. There isn’t situational exceptions that you get to make when you get to decide when your majority can trample on someone else’s freedom or speech. I don’t care about the “situation”. The point is that it was wrong and will always be wrong.

    And no, I never applied to Grinnell and wouldn’t go to an all Aryan school anyway.

    • #6 by Glenden Brown on April 19, 2012 - 4:44 pm

      Instructive, isn’t it, reading brewski’s comments not for their actual content (which is almost entirely absent), but rather recognizing him using the right’s trademark tactic – fog fog fog. Rather than just deal honestly with the issue, he tries to throw mud, tries to smear, tries to confuse the issue, even offers entirely false comments in the hope that rather than hold him accountable for his failure to address the topic, other commenters will try to defend themselves against his false smears.

      He’s not as good as some on the right, but he’s got the shtick down. He even uses the tried and true false equivalency dodge. It’s a conservative meme – conservatives wave their hands about and call for the smelling salts and pretend that what they know they can’t defend is the moral equivalent of some transgression they’ve imagined the left has committed. It helps that he’s never at any time shown any interest in the topic at hand but now, good conservative he is, brewski is suddenly all butthurt about the tyranny of the majority. We will no doubt be treated to some atrocity tale of a time that a liberal was once rude to brewski and that it somehow supposed to prove his point.

      It’s all fog and it signifies nothing. It covers his unwillingness to even address the true moral outrage under discussion and allows him to pretend that he occupies the moral high ground. Fog. A smokescreen for his actual cowardice in honestly addressing the issue.

  5. #7 by Richard Warnick on April 19, 2012 - 5:48 pm

    Our country has a Constitution that supposedly protects the minority from a majority attempting to deprive them of their rights.

    It doesn’t always work, at least in the short run. California’s Prop 8 is just one example of a majority that voted to take away the rights of a minority, and did so.

    Also, the Bill of Rights is not protecting anybody against warrantless surveillance right now, which I regard as a breakdown of representative democracy.

    I doubt if brewski can point to even a single example of One Utah advocating legal restrictions on free speech. When I addressed flag burning, for example, it was to point out the impracticality of trying to restrict speech. I am appalled by the idiotic annual public flag burning in Provo, Utah — but I wouldn’t try to pass a law against it.

  6. #8 by brewski on April 19, 2012 - 5:48 pm

    No fog at all. Just consistency. You can post all you want about the tyranny of the majority as long as you aren’t a flaming hypocrite about it. You just hate being called out on it. Instructive, isn’t it?

  7. #9 by brewski on April 19, 2012 - 5:53 pm

    I doubt if brewski can point to one example of someone on One Utah advocating legal restrictions on free speech.

    Your example of Prop 8 is identical to Grinnell banning the ROTC. The majority in both cases imposed their will and restricted the freedom of choice on a minority. So why is it that Glenden is in favor of one and not the other? Because he is a hypocrite.

    And yes, Glenden did say that he “sympathizes” with those who would ban free speech, even if he wouldn’t actually do it. That is like “sympathizing” with the N-a-z-i-s without actually being card carrying.

  8. #10 by cav on April 19, 2012 - 5:57 pm

    I value brewski’s commentary – not so much for the strident wingnuttery (which he does a pretty good job containing most of the time), but because for his own reasons he too finds the status quo insufferable and is always ready to join the fray in better defining just what the problems are. He’s not as subject to diversionary tactics as so many of us are and really does hold up his end in the discussion. I wouldn’t be so harsh on him – though I myself enjoy giving him a good ribbing when possible.

    That writ, I want to link to an interesting graphic (I don’t want to be too off topic, but it’s always been my sense the discussion itself will have bearing on the topic?) and get everybody’s Oh, Wow on it.

    In this case, it’s the certain tyranny of the ‘Have Mores”. Plus it’s a real eye-opener!


  9. #11 by Richard Warnick on April 19, 2012 - 5:58 pm

    I went to Georgetown University in the 1970s. Georgetown, like Grinnell, is a private school. If they had tried to throw ROTC off campus I would have opposed it, but I would not have tried to invent a “right” to attend ROTC at Georgetown. There is no such right.

    I don’t recall when Glenden said he sympathizes with restrictions on free speech. This post argues the exact opposite of that.

  10. #12 by Richard Warnick on April 19, 2012 - 6:18 pm


    The infographic was well done, and it makes the depressing point that our economic crisis is ongoing. I blame the explosion of derivatives on rich people having so much money to invest that the real economy couldn’t provide enough opportunities.

    Unless we can get money back in the hands of the middle class, the next financial bubble is only a matter of time.

  11. #13 by cav on April 19, 2012 - 7:18 pm

    The necessity for abstraction, for me anyway, is absolute. It’s like one of those parallel universes that I suspect we would do well without. There’s some high-level risk-taking going on, and I don’t see how the little guy’s going to win even if it goes well for Goldman Sachs. Then the rich will have still more money to invest which the real economy won’t be able to handle…So the bubble blows!

    It does seem they’d be smarter to toss it our way if only as a gesture of generosity. I can almost imagine a fair share trickling down to the sweat-shop worker or tribal people who’ve had their estuary spoiled in the pursuit of minerals. That sort of thing. What purpose can possibly be served retrenching the same-old same-old ‘sept more of the same?

    I’m really at a loss.

  12. #14 by brewski on April 19, 2012 - 11:16 pm

    The point is not whether there is some God given right for a student to participate in ROTC on campus. The point is that some self righteous students could vote to deny that option for other students is morally disgusting.

    Glenden said he sympathizes with those who would impose speech codes on college campuses. There is no circumstantial reason why he might have a good reason for this. It is morally disgusting.

    That is my point. Glenden argues the exact opposite of that when it is his group which is being trampled on. When it is another group who is being trampled on then he is quite happy to do the trampling. He is a hypocrite and morally disgusting.

  13. #15 by Richard Warnick on April 20, 2012 - 9:00 am


    The solution, of course, is to tax the rich and spend the money on our crumbling bridges, public transportation, outdated power grid, crappy Internet access, and making buildings more energy efficient. Goldman Sachs et al. won’t do any of that. But I’m not hopeful, either.


    You go from a majority to “some self-righteous students.” Which is it? I would argue that it benefits the military and the country to have ROTC on private college campuses.

    At Georgetown there wasn’t an issue being denied the opportunity, because if ROTC was kicked off campus we could have gotten our training at another nearby university.

    • #16 by Glenden Brown on April 20, 2012 - 9:23 am

      Richard – pay attention to what brewski is doing here. He’s doing his best to fog the issue, to confuse the topic. By trying to turn it into an argument about ROTC on campus, he’s deliberately avoiding the real issue. Notice that he deliberately clouds the issue by arguing that any time a majority votes it is inherently tyrannical. But he never offers actual proof of harm. Which of course is the real issue – Jim Crow is a good example of a real world tyranny of the majority. It was harmful and harmful in the real world and of course is not at all comparable to lack of ROTC on a campus any more than lack of an accounting department or school of medicine is an act of tyranny. Notice also that he’s doing his best to use right wing hot button terms. He even brings up the nazis which of course is automatic indication that anything and everything he has to say on this topic is null and void.

  14. #17 by Richard Warnick on April 20, 2012 - 10:22 am


    The issue you raised is way broad. In some ways, this country is lacking enough majority rule as our government routinely ignores the will of the majority.

    With regard to other issues such as California’s Prop 8 a majority blithely votes to deprive fellow citizens of their constitutional rights.

    The 14th Amendment is supposed to insure that government treats all citizens equally. The phrase “minority rights” is misleading, because we all are supposed to have the same rights.

    Unfortunately, the meaning of “rights” has gotten distorted. So we have brewski, for example, talking about the supposed right to attend ROTC.

    • #18 by Glenden Brown on April 20, 2012 - 11:27 am

      Richard – The inherent design of the federal governmet – mimicked at state level – includes a number of undemocratic veto points. Even when the system works smoothly it doesn’t work quickly. Add to that a truly unprecendent level of active dislike of government on the part of conservatives and an equally distressing unwillingness on the part of liberals to defend government and you have the makings of monumental government dysfunction. A great many conservatives refuse to even acknowledge that a Democratic president is legitimately the president. We saw it with Clinton and we see it with Obama. We have a decent sized minority in this country that actually believes it must do everything in its power to thwart the will of the majority (i.e. a majority favors Medicare for All; conservatives oppose it and have a track record of telling lies to kill such proposals). Add to that a well funded, misinformed conservative movement and you have the receipe for gridlock. Republicans in the Senate have done something never done before – created a “supermajority” rule – nothing can pass the senate without 60 votes. A huge number of measures get a majority vote in the senate (and have majority support among Americans) but cannot pass because of abuse of the filibuster. That’s unprecendented.

      If you look at Prop 8, there’s a 500+ page analysis of the campaign and it concluded that Prop 8 was in danger of failing until its supporters began running dishonest ads claiming allowing gay marriage would mean children would have to learn how to have gay sex in kindergarten. What you see there is abuse of democratic processes in a quest for undemocratic outcomes. The reason the Prop 8 trial played out as it did is simple – in a court of law you can’t peddle half truths, outright lies and distortions the way you can in an ad campaign.

      Talking about ROTC as a right is a typical right wing distortion. That’s part of the fog I mentioned. It arises in part from genuine right wing misunderstnding of the liberal concept of rights. But it’s also part of the game I noted in my post about race – as far as conservatives are concerned, there is no genuine anti-racism or anti-sexism or anti-heterosexism, it’s all just a game to score points and win electoral office.

  15. #19 by Richard Warnick on April 20, 2012 - 12:19 pm


    The Democrats could have done away with the filibuster, or set some reasonable limits on it by a simple majority vote to change the Senate rules. They did not. Therefore, their complaints about filibusters have no credibility.

    I was involved in the campaign to stop Proposition 5, a cynical amendment to the Utah state constitution requiring a two-thirds supermajority for citizen initiatives related to wildlife. It passed with 56 percent of the vote because the proponents ran deceptive TV ads claiming it was all about saving wild animals. Really it was about the extermination of predators.

    We lost the subsequent court battles (including an attempt to get a U.S. Supreme Court hearing) because even though the proposition made some people’s votes count twice as much as others, it was written by good lawyers.

    There is no supermajority requirement to amend the state constitution, so why have one for wildlife initiatives? It’s part of the effort to entrench hunting interests against changing demographics – the number of hunters is declining, less than 5.6 percent of Utahns compared to more than 21 percent who enjoy watching animals without killing them.

    The concept of rights has gotten cloudy, and liberals can share the blame. Aside from constitutional rights, there is no solid definition anymore.

  16. #20 by cav on April 20, 2012 - 5:31 pm

    This helped a great deal to clarify some of these issues.


  17. #21 by brewski on April 25, 2012 - 11:52 am

    Good example of the tyranny of the majority:

    My father joined our party [GOP] because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did.

    First black female Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice

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