Western Democracy. The universally lauded, ultimate way to set up a Good™ society. I recently had an argument about what a democracy really means, and I’ve since realized that ‘democracy’ as a term has become as loaded as the term ‘nazi’.
As I said, I was in an argument. The argument was about whether majority rule is democratic or not.
When you look at the current presidency of the US, and populist movements all around the western world, you see the problem. In the US, a president has been elected who oppresses minorities. In the Netherlands, a majority of the people favors keeping the racial tone of the so-called Sinterklaas tradition.
This begs the question: is it democratic or not if the majority in a country decides on things that are oppressive or discriminatory for a minority?
This is called tyranny of the majority. Wikipedia calls it an inherent weakness of democracy.
Democracy by the books
Wikipedia says the following regarding democracy:
A system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body
It follows up saying that no clear definition exists on how to define the concept. There is a hand wave to freedom, equality, and rule of law, but that doesn’t help.
Equality and freedom are a measure of democracy, but so is rule by majority. When the two clash, there is a grey area.
On the one hand we have things like racism. In the US, and the Netherlands too, black people are generally not treated equally to white people. This is not worthy of a democracy, even if a majority votes to keep it that way.
Now think of pedophilia. The majority of the people clearly feel that this is not legal (me among them). However, there is a minority that want to legalize this. They are ‘hampered’ in their freedom by the majority. The point is that minorities should generally be treated equally and be free, but there is a limit to this freedom.
And let me just unequivocally say: there is no way you can compare skin color to being a pedophile; these examples are two extremes. Somewhere in the middle between these two extremes is an area where the answer isn’t clear cut. And that’s what I want to look at.
Does it matter?
After this discussion about whether or not certain things are democratic or not, I realized: it doesn’t matter. We’ve placed Democracy on such a pedestal in the western world that we’ve equated ‘this is democratic’ to ‘this is right’. Like we equate ‘nazi’ with ‘evil’. The question we should all be asking is not ‘is this democratic?’ but ‘do I agree that this is right?’
This leads directly to arguments I’ve made before about direct democracy. Running a country is just too complex to leave to simple majority rule yes/no votes. Representative usually democracy works better. In a representative democracy, there are people who can make judgement calls when the rights of the minorities have to be weighed against the wishes of the majority.
Because at some point in our lives, we might all be minorities, stuck at the wrong end of the majority vote. It could be when you’re black, or gay, or when your house is blocking a construction project, or when you grow old, or catch a rare disease. And those now screaming for majority rule might think differently when the tables are turned – take Ayn Rand, who gave up her libertarian principles late in life, when she required medical aid and social security.
That said, democratically choosing a representative like Donald Trump is arguable not the best approach either. It all comes back to that single question: ‘do I agree that this is right?’
Democracy is a loaded term. We argue endlessly about whether this or that action is democratic or not.
In the end, though, it has to be about whether you agree with what is happening or not. It comes down to first accepting that you don’t have the right to judge other people for what they feel, try to put yourself in the other’s place, and then to weigh those feelings against your own interests.
Yes, this is much harder, and much vaguer than simply saying ‘majority rule = democracy = right’, but it does make a for better world in the long run.