Tyranny Of The Minority

There’s a concept embodied in the Equal Protection Clause, of particular importance at this time in our history, that limits democracy. We do not, we cannot, allow a tyranny of the majority. Even if enough people vote for it, the Constitution still does not allow us to impose a burden on a protected class. It’s undemocratic in the sense that the majority has spoken, but even majorities have limits.

But if the majority can’t do as it pleases when it comes to burdening, to harming a protected class, what if the tyrant is the minority?

In Rochester, New York, a statue of Frederick Douglass was destroyed. In Baltimore, a statue of Christopher Columbus was destroyed. These statues were destroyed by mobs. There was no vote taken, no public debate, no authorization to do so and yet, the statues are now gone.

Some will argue that Columbus deserves no statue, so they aren’t particularly concerned about the statue being destroyed. This conflates two independent questions, whether the statue should be removed and how that removal should be accomplished. The problem is that the mob that destroyed it didn’t care what you or I, or anyone else, thinks, but acted on its own. That they wanted to destroy the statue was good enough, and so they did.

Who destroyed the statue of Douglass in Rochester is something of a mystery. Was it a white supremacist group? Was it a BLM mob that was on a roll and tore it down because all statues look alike? Did they decide that Douglass needed canceling, so they did it? Sounds crazy, but now that the Lin-Manuel Miranda is being canceled*, as is his white supremacist play Hamilton, it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility that the mob knew who Douglass was and tore it down for some twisted grievance of not hating America enough.

Are we subject to the whims of the minority? The argument is whether a majority of Americans would prefer not to have statues of confederate generals in the square, which may be the case although it’s not entirely clear that it is, or may not be true for a local community even if it’s the nationwide choice. But who decides? How does it get decided? And then the ancillary question, what to do about angry mobs who are destroying whatever they decide deserves destroying?

For those who hold little faith in democracy, due to its failure to give them what they want and their concomitant failure to grasp that the nature of being part of a democracy is that majority rules and the minority doesn’t always get what it wants, how can the destruction be stopped?

Nobody wants to send in troops, with their limited ability to address large groups of people with little interest in sitting down and having an open discussion about why they can’t just destroy things because they want to. We do not want to shoot them, whether with tear gas, rubber bullets or, god forbid, lead. But they just won’t stop. And they occasionally throw things at the cops that ignite upon contact with a hard surface.

One of the more painful realizations reached as one grows up is that as much as you believe your views to be reasonable and right, others may disagree. Sometimes, in a democracy, you will be on the winning side, the majority. Other times, you won’t. As certain as you are about the righteousness of your position, others may not be persuaded to come to your side and, when the final vote is counted, you have failed to prevail.

Does that mean democracy has failed you and you are thus entitled to destroy at will? The adage “might makes right” is a recipe for tyranny. We have fought against the tyranny of the majority for centuries, as it’s by definition hard to fathom and hard to oppose. Democracy has never proven a perfect means of governing a union, but that was understood when Thomas Jefferson wrote that our goal was to form a “more” perfect union.

But just as we should fight the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the minority is even less tolerable. I’m no fan of destruction, but if it should come to pass that government is persuaded to remove statues by our republican means of decision-making, and I’m on the losing end of the battle, so be it. That’s how our democracy works, and I yield to the majority even though I’m quite certain I’m right and the majority has the intellectual depth of a puddle.

But if the decision is made by mobs to destroy, whether it’s statues, shops, highways or anything else, then we’ve devolved to tyranny of the minority. Then we no longer have a Republic. And if we no longer have a Republic, then any mob will do as it pleases, and statues like that of Frederick Douglass are as fair game as Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee and your home and car.

*No, not a joke.

11 thoughts on “Tyranny Of The Minority

  1. B. McLeod

    This is really the key problem with letting statues erected with public funds be torn down by criminal mobs. As a matter of principal, every one of the statues so removed should be restored, pending a lawful, governmental determination to remove it.

    As for Frederick Douglass, he opposed proposals to grant freedmen their own lands from property seized from rebel plantation owners. He was concerned that a corrupting dependence would result. By 1882, Douglass regretted having taken this position, but the opportunity to legislate land grants had by that time passed. So, he is evil for derailing “reparations,” and that is probably why his statue had to go (if any of them actually knew who he was).

  2. Jake

    The will of the people is expressed at polling booths when we elect leaders and representatives who are, ostensibly, supposed to go forth and govern everyone. Some people have decided this system is not working. Who is to blame for the failure?

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s all according to what “failure” you’re asking about. The failure of narcissistic, entitled infants who didn’t get their way to grasp that the system is working fine, but the majority doesn’t want to reinvent the world to cater to the simplistic and childish whims? There’s no one to blame for that. You can’t fix stupid.

      1. Jake

        Au contraire mon frère, the solution to stupid is education. Who decides what to spend on education and what to spend on law enforcement and incarceration, when the electorate is not looking?

        1. SHG Post author

          Education can help ignorance, not stupidity. They’re not ignorant at all (and, for the most part, unduly edumacated), but they are, most assuredly, stupid.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Very interesting, but the real question is which committee will get the first crack at: We is Nobody and Nobody Is We-They Just Won’t Stop?

    I might keep my eyes on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs even though everybody knows Judiciary is the only place for PowerPoint sing alongs…

    But will they go with a red or blue ball bouncy ball over the lyrics to Lift Every Voice and Sing and will they do this before or after The Star-Spangled Banner and exploring NFL antitrust exemptions?

    The represented within the republic await their fate I guess….

    1. SHG Post author

      I wonder how that will end up playing out at the first NFL games? It seems notably underinclusive.

    2. L. Phillips

      Finally understood one of John’s posts. Have a nagging feeling I should be worried about that.

      Regardless, yes we the nominally represented do await our fate. Just wish the name “Pol Pot” would quit bubbling up in my brain.

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