Imagine high school. Imagine the majority of students in a certain class deciding that one of them is a dweeb, and picking on them. That’s not cool, is it?
Imagine now, a country, where the majority of the people decide that LGBT people should be shunned from certain parts of society. Not so cool eith- oh wait, that’s what’s happening in a number of democratic countries, including the US.
Democracy is derived from the ancient Greek term for ‘Rule by people’. Similarly, ‘ochlocracy’ is the ancient Greek term for ‘Rule by mob’. A word coined over 2,000 years ago, so it’s clearly not a recent invention.
The problem with rule by the people is what I described above. What if a majority of ‘the people’ want to do something that hurts the minority of other people? Not a good thing, I think.
The grey area
Of course, it isn’t so simple. If a majority of white people take away the right of the minority of black people to vote, then that’s clearly very wrong. If the majority of people take away the right of a minority to kill people at will, aka. murder, then that’s considered a good thing.
In both cases, the majority of the people decide something that affects a minority. There is a balance somewhere between the right of the everybody to live their life as they please versus the need to curtail certain unwanted behaviors.
I feel the crux of that balance lies in behavior versus identity, especially physical identity. Rules that affect a minority defined by who they are can be problematic. However, rules that affect a minority defined by what they do can be necessary. You can choose to do or not do something, like kill somebody, but you cannot choose to be or not be something, like being black.
Populism and majority rule
Of course, populists love to play the identity card and love claiming the backing of the majority. They often feel that democracy means any ideas that are backed by the majority should be law. I’ve ranted about that before.
Look at Trump in the US: he claims to want to ‘Make America Great Again’, but his America apparently doesn’t include immigrants, LGBT people, or women wanting abortions. He has the backing of the majority of the people (or nearly so), and is oppressing minorities because of their traits; you don’t choose to be gay or be born in another country, it’s something that just happens.
But it isn’t just the US. Viktor Orban in Hungary is equally harsh against anybody not of pure Hungaryan white blood, the Italian Fidesz right beside him.
In the Netherlands, we have a prime example in the form of our blackface scandal, Black Pete. Roughly half of the people, fed by the populist parties, claim that the black minority that feels offended should just suck it up; the majority has spoken.
But by far the most famous example of how this can go terribly wrong is Nazi Germany. Hitler was, unfortunately, democratically chosen before he revoked democracy. And by evoking Godwin’s law I’ll end this discussion.
In short, democracy can become a tyranny of the majority if you’re not careful. Even a majority vote should always be weighed against the rights of minorities, despite populist claims this is not democratic.