What is democratic is always good, and what is undemocratic is always bad, according to common political rhetoric. Or is it?
Economist Tyler Cowen makes a compelling case for some nuance in a recent Bloomberg column. Democratic governments, he says, have obvious advantages. More so than other forms of government, they tend to foster prosperity, respect human rights and minimize the risks posed by tyrants. But 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 we can go further. 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 Uyghurs 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 14th Amendment against racist interests trying to preserve white supremacy. For a time, they were successful, but eventually they gave up the fight. Democracy then gave racists power that they used to oppress the black minority.
All hope was not lost for racial equality, however, because the 14th 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 14th 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, humans are a species that is very bad at resisting that temptation.
GianCarlo Canaparo is a 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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