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?
um #ackshually statues are guaranteed their rights to due process by the fifth amendment, im pretty sure im right about this guys — make sure to give the statues a speedy and fair trial before you tear them down https://t.co/UMHtQlvi2d
— G. Elliott Morris (@gelliottmorris) July 6, 2020
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.