Minority Rule

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Today we have a president who lost the popular election, and even then had to be appointed extra-judicially by the Supreme Court, which stopped a valid and orderly recount of the Florida vote. In other words, we have minority rule. However, it would be incorrect to think that this unique political mishap is the only eruption of minority rule in our lifetimes. Governance of the United States by a political elite is built into the Constitution, the machine by which we govern ourselves.

In a piece entitled In Defense of the Electoral College, John Samples of the Cato Institute wrote:

James Madison's famous Federalist No. 10 makes clear that the Founders fashioned a republic, not a pure democracy. To be sure, they knew that the consent of the governed was the ultimate basis of government, but the Founders denied that such consent could be reduced to simple majority or plurality rule. In fact, nothing could be more alien to the spirit of American constitutionalism than equating democracy will the direct, unrefined will of the people.

Federalist no. 10, of course, is the one in which Madison spoke of the dangers of "faction" in a democracy:

[A] pure Democracy, by which I mean, a Society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Just under fifty years later, along came Alexis de Tocqueville, similarly warning about the dangers of the tyranny of the majority:

That which I reproach the democratic government for the most, such as it is organized in the United States, is not (like many Europeans claim) its weakness, but, to the contrary, its irresistible force. And that which disgusts me the most in America, is not the extreme liberty which reigns there, but the lack of guarantees one finds there against tyranny.

De Tocqueville, in a footnote, gives two examples of tyrannical behavior of political majorities: a lynch mob killing anti-war journalists during the War of 1812 and escaping any legal consequences; and the strange spectacle in Pennsylvania of black people, who were legally entitled to vote, not doing so. "Here," a local resident told de Tocqueville, "the laws sometimes lack force, when the majority fails to support them." Blacks were afraid (as so often and in so many places in later American history) to exercise their statutory rights for fear of violence. "Since the majority has the greatest prejudice against Negroes, the judges don't feel strong enough to guarantee them the rights the legislature gave them."

De Tocqueville thought that American public opinion was the source of the tyranny of the majority, enforcing itself through what the anthropologists would call a "shame culture" to ensure that no-one deviates from the official line:

In our time, the most absolute sovereigns of Europe would have no idea how to prevent certain ideas, hostile to their authority, from circulating silently in their countries and even in the heart of their own courts. Its not at all the same in America: as long as the majority is uncertain, everyone speaks; but as soon as the majority has irrevocably decided, everyone shuts up, and friends and enemies alike seem then to jump, with one accord, on the public bandwagon. The reason is simple: there is no monarch so absolute that he can hold in his hand all of society's force and vanquish all resistance, to the same extent as a democratic majority with the right to make and execute the laws.

He concluded: "I don't know of any country where there is, in general, less independence of spirit and true freedom of discussion than in America."

Quoting Federalist number 51, de Tocqueville predicted that the greatest danger to American liberty is "the omnipotence of the majority, driving minorities to despair and forcing them to resort to force."

Ironically, de Tocqueville thought that a tempering influence, reducing the dangers of tyranny, was the absence of a central bureaucracy in the United States, which would go the final step towards executing the will of the majority in regard to every detail of private life:

If the governing power of American society found at its disposition both means of government [political and administrative], and joined to the right to command everything, the faculty and the habit of executing its own commands; if, after having established the general principles of government, it entered into the details of implementation, and after having regulated the country's high level interests, was able to descend to the limit of individual interests, liberty soon would be banished from the new world.

Of course, in an era when the federal government generates hundreds of thousands of pages of new regulations every year, on every conceivable subject, that tempering influence is gone.

The disease and the cure

If we regard the "tyranny of the majority" as a disease, did the Federalists correctly diagnose it? And is the cure they prescribe actually effective in combatting the ailment they described?

Here is a thought experiment: read any description of the "tyranny of the majority" , Federalist papers or de Tocqueville or anyone else, substitute "minority" for "majority" and see if you have created nonsense. If every passage still makes sense, then perhaps the passages are really discussing tyranny generically, and not specifically that of the majority. For example, here is Federalist 10 recast:

[A] government of the minority, by which I mean, a Society, consisting of a small elite, who administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by this ruling minority; a communication and concert results from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the party out of power, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such minority-governed nations have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Here is de Tocqueville rewritten:

The current sovereigns of Europe would have no idea how to prevent certain ideas, hostile to their authority, from circulating silently in their countries and even in the heart of their own courts. Its not at all the same in America: as long as the ruling elite is uncertain, everyone speaks; but as soon as this powerful minority has irrevocably decided, everyone shuts up, and friends and enemies alike seem then to jump, with one accord, on the public bandwagon. The reason is simple: there is presently no European monarch so absolute that he can hold in his hand all of society's force and vanquish all resistance, to the same extent as an autocratic elite with the right to make and execute the laws.

Not only do these passages make as much sense as they did before: at the beginning of the 21st century, based on our experiences in the twentieth, they may make more sense describing the functioning of elites than they do that of mass democracies. The reason is that it is much easier for a small group with force at its disposal to behave violently than for a larger, more diverse and dispersed group to do so. Looked at this way, most of the behavior for which masses are blamed may really be the acts of small, powerful groups. For example, in Pennsylvania, while racial prejudice was widespread, it is likely that the set of citizens willing to behave violently towards black people was far smaller than the entire set of citizens.

While the Federalists and de Tocqueville alike were right to fear tyranny, they were wrong to identify the tyranny of a democratic majority as being something different, unique or in any way more dangerous than that of a powerful elite. So, to return to the illness metaphor, the diagnosis, being only partially correct, was therefore not correct at all. It is as if a doctor diagnosed a disease as attacking only the lungs, and treated only that organ, ignoring the fact that it had spread to the rest of the body as well.

Another familiar phenomenon is when the physician correctly understands there is something wrong with the body but erroneously prescribes a cure which is completely ineffective in curing it: the leeches or trepanning of earlier eras. Even if the Federalists were correct in identifying a unique condition known as "majority tyranny", the choices were very limited for curing it:

American democracy sometimes reminds me of the tic-tac-toe playing chicken I saw in a 42nd street arcade when I was a child. You pressed a button to make your choice and you saw the chicken peck a button to make hers, whereupon an X or an O magically appeared on the screen. You couldn't actually see if the chicken was selecting an X or an O. Since it was a reasonable assumption that chickens could not really play tic tac toe, it was easy to reverse engineer the scam. Your press of a button dislodged a kernel of corn or grain, causing the chicken to peck at a button randomly; but the actual choice which appeared on your screen was being made by a computer invisible to you. If the framers intended the first choice above, then all we have ever had is the illusion of a democracy: we are chickens who think we are playing a game in which we have no influence at all.

If the framers were actually men of good faith, and intended their system merely to provide some mechanical correctives, and not to divest the majority of choice, they ignored the problem that human engineering is extremely inexact at best, and that in the prisoner's dilemma that is politics, the best outcomes are often obtained by the most treacherous. A system placing strong checks and balances on the masses would tend to be very easily manipulated by a powerful elite in charge of the machinery, so as to decrease the influence of the majority or end it entirely. If this has happened, a natural side effect would be an ongoing oppression of numerous other less powerful groups, as the ruling elite protected its own interests. How well did the Federalist engineering work, to create and protect democracy?

Did the gears work?

If the Federalists were able engineers, the Constitution should have produced a stable system, avoiding the "faction" of which they warned. Short of visiting an alternative universe, it is not possible to know for sure what the American experience would have been as an Athenian direct democracy. However, the republic engineered by the framers has not illustrated less "turbulence and contention" than Athens (the Federalists' bete noire). In fact, the United States has had more "faction" than Athens did, including Shay's Rebellion, the Civil War, the wholesale predation upon a nominally "free" black minority for almost a century afterwards, the destruction of the Native American population, the Palmer Raids, the McCarthy era, the terrible abuse of government power by J. Edgar Hoover, "Cointelpro", the beating and killing of anti-war protesters, the near-coup of the Nixon era, Newt Gingrich's mini-revolution, and the highly partisan impeachment of president Clinton.

The American experience actually makes Athens look rather stable by comparison. For 200 years, the Athenians had something we have never had here: the direct participation of all citizens (actually all adult males) in the details of government, with remarkable continuity and stability. Overthrown twice very briefly, restored both times, Athenian democracy fell finally not because of internal contradictions but because it could not withstand Roman force. This was an honorable end, not born of "turbulence or contention".

Who governs?

The Federalist papers seem to me to beg the question entirely of who governs if the majority does not. American democracy's foundational philosophy is an incomplete structure eked out by ghosts and shadows: a shadow known as "majority of the electoral college", said to represent a will somehow distinct from the majority of the people; a ghost consisting of a disembodied intelligence, living in the vacuum produced by the majority's willing abdication of authority. In reality, there are no ghosts, shadows, invisible hands, just language that never quite says what is meant.

Both Samples' essay and the Federalist Papers fall into this category. Even though the prose in both cases seems simple and clear, there is a huge subtext, assumed but never clearly stated: we the multitude are too stupid to manage our own affairs, and therefore it is appropriate that we be governed by an elite. For someone spoon-fed the illusion that American democracy really means government "of, by and for" the people, reading Federalist 10--and understanding what it really means-- is quite shocking.

Assigning any reality to the ghosts and shadows is only possible if one has a very high tolerance for this kind of nonsense language. The extreme laziness and evasiveness of the founders, which began with the language of self evident truths in the Declaration of Independence, led to complete beggary of the question of moral responsibility in American government. A majority cannot shackle itself, any more than God can make a rock He cannot move. A majority can simply consent--agree, for now, to a rulebook, revocable at any time--that it will not do certain things. But this weak, revocable commitment, really just a nonbinding plebiscite, is exactly what the Federalists and de Tocqueville characterized as the tyranny of the majority.

In the Federalist view, a majority could be shackled, placed under a system where machinery existed to decrease its force or divert it away entirely. If the majority is not doing this voluntarily to itself--in which case it is revocable and unacceptable--then someone else of superior force is imposing the shackles (and not a ghost or a shadow.) In plainest language, there are some men with guns somewhere in the equation, whom we are disguising in our high-faluting discourse by using Rousseavian phrases like "UNE VOLUNTE UNE" or Madisonian phrases about the masses gratefully looking to a more temperate body for guidance. Like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, the dirty little secret of American politics is that there has always been a small elite ruling body behind the machinery. Which is not so much a democracy at all.

At Columbia, I majored in political science, really a useless major (politics is very far from a science; when the name of a discipline makes no sense, its usually not a good indication that the subject matter itself will be coherent). However, the one thing I learned was the cycle that discrete human populations go through, from rule by one person, to rule by a group (an "elite"), to mass rule.

In various classes, we spent a lot of time examining the middle step, rule by a group, and the question of which groups are qualified to rule (a question which usually answers itself through a group seizing or losing power). We understood that particular groups attain power through differentiating themselves from the masses; they are better educated, better armed, or have more money, or some combination of these three. Military power is a constant in all three types of elites; though sometimes it stands alone (the military is just as stupid and poor as everyone else, but has better guns), no elite ever clung to power simply by being better educated or having more money, unless that advantage was also translated into military force.

A fourth elite is the "blood" elite, whose supremacy is founded on a long-standing myth of its genetic superiority. These elites usually construct around themselves a fortress of guns, money and education. In the twentieth century, force has become more important, and blood less.

Of course, in most countries, elites rule because they can, and any discussion of their qualifications, their "right" to rule, or the "necessity" of their rule, is an afterthought or an apology.

Looked at this way, James Madison, and even Thomas "Mad Revolutionary" Jefferson, appear as members of a landed (moneyed) class of highly educated people, with some claims of sophisticated descent (blood), who decided to exert the force necessary to break away from Britain. What gives the United States its trappings of democracy, the illusion that is its cornerstone, is that, unlike medieval lordlings, they didn't have feudal retainers who were obligated to fight for them; nor, like the warring forces of Cromwell's time, could they simply hire themselves an army: probably they were not wealthy enough to do so. Instead, they convinced a nation of shoemakers, shopkeepers, ostlers and fishermen to volunteer. America's foundational lie is therefore that you are volunteering to lay down your life for a democracy, which is in reality a republic ruled by us, the landed American gentry, the first elite. Because we know best.

With immigration, and the invention of other kinds of power in America, that landed class has become increasingly irrelevant. George W. Bush is a representative; except for his father, no prior president after Franklin D. Roosevelt was. Now that the American aristocracy barely exists, except at the International Ball and in the pages of the Social Register, the job of "American ruling elite" has been up for grabs: captured by America's nominal left during twenty years of Roosevelt and Truman; captured by the right in the twelve Reagan and Bush years.

Rather than becoming the people's democracy we were all taught in grade school that the United States is, the country has simply adopted new types of elites to determine its affairs.

Unstable elites

The peculiar genius of the United States has always been its huge middle class. F. Scott Fitzgerald described it as an unstable mass of people, constantly rising and falling (as he did himself), by contrast to the very rich and very poor, who tend to stay where they are. Even the socialists of other countries often seemed perplexed by the American middle class; I remember reading a book by a French Marxist who, after writing about the proletariat in third world nations, acknowledged that it was hard to apply his ideas in the U.S., "where every worker drives a two ton automobile" (and the vast majority of the very poor nevertheless own a television set).

The competing elites of today are, of course, two mainly middle class groups which have crystallized around the Democratic and Republican parties. Like the ruling class of Uruguay, so brilliantly portrayed by Costa-Gavras in State of Siege, these are politicians, military men, bankers and businessfolk. While fifty years ago, you could clearly say what they stood for--one group was for the New Deal, which meant massive government intervention in the economy, and the other group was against it--both parties today stand for NAFTA, globalization, weak unions, soft money and censorship. One is a little more environmentalist and pro-abortion, and the other likes guns and religion better, and that's about it. My brother, the ex-Green, was furious at Nader's implication that there is no difference between them, but even if Nader overstated the case, what he said was correct in broad strokes. More than ever before, the political parties have come to resemble sports teams: what do the Yankees stand for, that the Mets do not? "There are no issues, only interests."

The Bush team, with its black, Hispanic, Asian and female cabinet members and high ranking officials represents the final victory of mutual interests over class. The right wing is no longer an old white boy's club. Over time, the former lines of class warfare in America are becoming very blurred; instead of whites oppressing blacks, we now have the spectacle of wealthy and secure black people, like Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, providing political cover for an administration that will be a disaster for the black poor--that won the election in part based on the disenfranchisement of the black poor of Florida. In the future, this will be the norm; issues of white against black will be subsumed under the struggle of the middle class against the poor and disenfranchised, and of the ruling minority against the mass of Americans.

I anticipate an objection: these people, right and left, are the government in waiting, the educated class, standing ready to obey the will of the majority in the representative machine that is American democracy. In that case, they are not a ruling minority, but simply agents for the rest of us. The reason that this is not so is because of the engineering failure I described above. Instead of the machine merely moderating the force of the majority's will, it dissipates it entirely. The money of the wealthiest members of each elite, and of those "neutral" businessmen who find it worth their while to support both, has broken the link between majority will and implemented policy, as I wrote a few months ago in Democracy and Illusion.

The machine will flop back and forth a few more times, between Republicans and Democrats, but, the Second Law and human dishonesty and weakness being what they are, the prospect is that things will get worse.

Is there an expert class?

One particularly gratifying myth is that, in a republic, we are likely to be governed by people who are wiser, more level headed than we are, and also more expert in the particular subject matter.

Note again that in this department, Athens did a better job than we give it any credit for. Athenian culture encouraged significant respect for, and deference to, expertise. In the Athenian legislature, citizens, out of shame, refrained from speaking about topics of which they knew nothing. Others acquired reputations as being experts on particular subjects, and became quite influential in decisions within their area of expertise. The level of discourse on the Athenian hill was therefore much higher than in Congress today, where aggressively ignorant people spout forth at filibuster length on topics about which they know absolutely nothing.

I could go on for pages just giving you examples: Senator Helms' derogatory and racist reference to the "Hutus and the Tutus"; ex-Senator Ashcroft's amazing history lesson at Bob Jones University that the founders announced allegiance only to "Christ the King"; Senator McCain and a large group of other politicians and government officials who aggressively are taking the position that censorware works, when the slightest objective examination of these products shows that they are snake oil. For that matter, all the rhetoric about the dangers of the Internet from people who admit they can't even program their VCR.

In fact, the daily display of gross ignorance by those who govern us, and particularly the legislature, stems from a long-standing American trend of attacking the intelligent. Senator McCarthy was the paradigm of a man of moderate intelligence successfully disseminating fear of those smarter than he, as if intelligence equalled disloyalty. His attack on the State Department's China specialists ensured that soon enough, there was no-one left in government who understood China. The negative press on Vice President Gore, as an obsessive egghead with too many facts at his command, and the fact that the happy-go-lucky Governor Bush could get anywhere near the presidency, reinforce the American viewpoint that intelligence is not an important factor in success.

Of course, this argument, which you would think would operate against elites, bends back on itself to perpetuate them. Every dumb president is backed, and manipulated, by men of high intelligence, and much of the rhetoric attacking or downplaying the need for expertise is written by these men. During the campaign, several highly educated, smart Republicans argued to me that intelligence is unimportant in politics, though they value their own highly. The explanation is that intelligent elites want dumb presidents they can manipulate, and additionally use the intelligence of their adversaries as a weapon against them, like using a rider's own rope to pull him from his horse.

Stupidity coupled with arrogance (and armed with power) is the most dangerous influence in the world today, and American fundamentalism is our local example of it--the forces that have put censorware over on the nation, would still like to ban Huckleberry Finn from your library, have us all (Jews and Moslems included) paying allegiance to Christ the King in public schools, and eliminate evolution from the curriculum. Of course, in some fundamentalists, stupidity is a choice, rather than a genetic accident; they choose not to exercise the equipment they have (like many libertarians on the net who speak only in canned phrases and never examine the underpinnings of the arguments they parrot). Though America seems as always to be largely a secular nation, where religion (as it did in the founder's time) takes a back seat to commerce and self-gratification, there is always a large minority, deploying a substantial amount of money, which believes that morality can be legislated and that it knows the standards by which everyone else should live, willingly or not. But even in this case, there are quite intelligent people standing behind the visible proponents of these views. Just as McCarthy was the right's instrument in breaking down the last remnants of the New Deal, someone's political and economic interests are served when fundamentalism gets a hearing in the White House.


Sometimes you can win a battle just by picking the vocabulary. By making the "tyranny of the majority" the central concept of the national discussion of democracy, the Federalists declared victory and have successfully precluded most dissenting voices for two centuries. "As long as the ruling elite is uncertain, everyone speaks; but as soon as this powerful minority has irrevocably decided, everyone shuts up." However, given the instability of the system of gears that is the Constitution, and its profound decline, this would be a good time to reintroduce the question: could we possibly do worse with a direct democracy than we have done with a republic? I say no. If someone opened a direct democracy next door, I would join in a New York minute.