Buy the Right Kind of Democracy

Edith Stone January/February 2006
There are more kinds of democracy than kinds of compact cars." The weary citizen, belabored by political oratory and bewildered by news analysts, retreats in confusion to the comparative sim_plicity of automobile ads, time payments, and keeping up with the Joneses.

Democracy, like cars, comes with all kinds of sur_face trappings. It comes in Cuba with seven-hour tele_vision speeches and drumhead trials, in France with a colonial war and dignified retreats to St. Colombey-les-_Deux-Eglises, in Ghana with destruction of tribal rule and the exiling of the opposition, in Russia with a one_-party system and a Supreme Soviet that has never heard of saying "Nyet" to party polities.

What do they have in common?

The basic purpose of a car is to furnish transporta_tion. Other purposes, such as impressing the neighbors or enhancing Junior's prestige, are incidental. The basic purposes of democracy are to furnish a government responsible to the people and guaranteeing the basic rights of man. Other purposes, such as furnishing a catchword to conceal the real methods of the govern_ment or a subject for campaign speeches, are equally incidental. The problem in the term democracy is to dig under the surface appearances to the basic structure and find whether or not it is fulfilling its basic obligations.

Regardless of surface differences, there are only two kinds of democracy—constitutional and majori_tarian. Majoritarian democracy is government by major_ity will.

Constitutional democracy has written guarantees not only of a government by the people but also of the basic rights of minority groups and the individual.

"Democracy" usually means majoritarian democracy. Campaign speeches on "the will of the people in our great democracy" are geared to majority votes and ma_jority will. Poets writing the great American epic or sonnets to democracy are seldom concerned with any_thing beyond the majority will and a majority of the book-buying public. Authors of historical novels have heroes and heroines dying for democracy, but the martyrs are ordinarily more concerned with their cos_tumes than with constitutional technicalities..

Majoritarian democracy is government of the peo_ple, by the people, for the people. If it is good enough for the Gettysburg Address, can it have limitations? If so, what are they?
For one thing, discussions of majoritarian democracy are apt to float off into discussions of democracy as a "way of life." The specific applications of this may in_volve "democracy in the family," with 5-year-old Johnny voting on the kind of car insurance the family should have, or "democracy in the classroom," with fifth-grade Johnny determining the year's curriculum.

Its more general applications are considered in dis_cussions or orations demanding "equality of opportu_nity," with the feeling that this also means equality of achievement; "freedom for the individual," with no feeling that this should include any responsibility for the rights or feelings of others; or just a "democracy" in which everyone lives in a lovely rosy haze, no one has to pay taxes, and the government pays tribute to the brotherhood of man by paying everyone's bills.

But suppose the discussion is restricted to ma_joritarian democracy as a form of government. This is a government in which all decisions are made, all laws are passed, by majority vote. What happens? The first problem may be psychological rather than legal. In a group, political or social, in which all decisions are made by majority vote, the individual may become lost in the crowd. If the majority is always right, the indi_vidual feels that the dissident minority must be wrong. "Togetherness" becomes a political and social must; in_dividualism is politically and sociologically wrong, in addition to being psychologically undesirable. In this kind of thinking the great American tradition of the rugged individualist is obviously not democratic.

American histories have suffered from this emphasis on the majority rather than the individual. Individual_ism has been considered an American trait since the days of the first settlers. Whatever their other faults or virtues, those who survived the rigors of the frontier were individualists. The Jamestown settlement was not noted for happy unanimity of opinion, and Winthrop's journals of the early years in Boston show individual differences over such varying items as antinomianism and the ownership of a stray pig.

Modern historians have tried to rewrite American history by economic or political groups, but most Amer_icans still feel that the significant thing about American history is its colorful individuals. Walt Disney and the television industry have proved that this interest can be commercially profitable, but even the exploitation of Davy Crockett, Francis Marion, and a succession of real and mythical Western marshals has not lessened the American belief that individuals count in history.

The economic pressures leading to the great west_ward migration are not so interesting as Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Jedediah Smith. The Indians' treaty rights to the Black Hills country have made little or no impression on the reputation of Custer, whose death with 200 men has made as much impression on the public mind as many military engagements with losses of thousands. Custer's military strategy may be questioned, but his place in popular history is safe.

There is a reason for this interest in the individual. The American tradition of individualism was strength_ened by the need of self-reliance in pioneer days, and Americans still have faith in the heroic potentialities of the individual. The American system is based on indi_vidual opportunity, individual initiative, and individual freedom. Emerson's statement in "Self-Reliance"—that "an institution is but the lengthened shadow of one man"—is a statement of the American creed.

It is this individualism that is threatened by an un_thinking acceptance of the doctrine of the majority will. The price of majority membership may be majority morality. Emphasis on "togetherness," "interpersonal relationships," and the "tragedy of isolation from the group" may lead to the theory that the dissident indi_vidual is always wrong and the majority, no matter what the motivation, is always right.

The importance of the individual has recently been taken from the closet of near-oblivion, dusted off, and restored to an honored place among educators and architects. Division of students into classes by ability as well as age has ceased to be regarded as "undemo_cratic" and recognized as furnishing true equality of opportunity. Educational textbooks are recognizing in_dividual as well as group learning, and individual as well as committee achievements. Architects have dis_covered that families can have too much "togetherness" and might desire occasional individual privacy.

Not only individualism but also the minority may suffer from majority rule. If the majority is always right, Americans have been regarding with respect a number of groups who, as minorities, must have been wrong. The Pilgrims and Puritans, as minority groups, should be dealt with as aberrant rather than heroic. The provisions of William Penn and Roger Williams for minority groups were an encouragement of error rather than a provision for divergent opinions that might also be truth. Thomas Jefferson's firm belief, most clearly stated in the "Virginia Statute for Reli_gious Freedom," that truth could come from minorities as well as majorities, should be considerably revised.

Is the majority always right? Political scientists are not convinced that it is. "An election may be the work of social insanity—for there is such a thing—rather than that of social wisdom. Here is the weak point of sociological optimism: electors can be turned into a mob, and a mob can elect a F
Article Author: Edith Stone