February 7, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
Democracy asks ‘the people’ to think of themselves as ‘a people’
Americans rarely do, though.
Some of us cling to the idea of democracy being rule of the majority. We do this, I think, because we face the likelihood in the near term of rule of the minority. In doing so, however, we lose sight of something bigger, wrote Paul Woodruff. Rule by and for the people.
“What is democracy?” wrote the professor of history and philosophy at the University of Texas-Austin. “Pundits have been writing recently that democracy is majority rule, but that is wrong, dangerously wrong.”
Democracy is rule by the people and for the people. The majority is not the people. We cannot say this too often: rule by the majority is not rule by the people.
For the people to rule, they need to meet a number of conditions. Of these, the rule of law stands out, because it is the rule of law that stands between democracy and the tyranny of the majority. Minorities must be included in the people, and so the law must give them ways to defend their interests.
Beyond law, the culture of a democracy must be inclusive.
There’s your problem.
Some Americans, some white Americans, will never share “their country.” They will therefore move heaven and earth to prevent themselves from being bound by the same laws as Americans they refuse to share with. Equality under law isn’t ideal. It’s tyranny. Democracy by and for the people is not an antidote. Minority rule is.
But “the Demos” needs more than rule law, Woodruff wrote January 22 for the Oxford University Press blog. “Also important is a concept of the people as a people. For the people to rule, and to do so in their interests as a people, they must think of themselves as a people.”
There’s your problem, again.
Woodruff, author of First Democracy, wrote:
Our racial divide has left us with different histories and, for many of us, a fractured sense of what it is to be American. Our greatest challenge is this: to develop a widely shared sense of what it is to be we the people.
As I was reading your post, I thought there must a subtext. Is there?
If our country is going to function, we Americans need to know a lot more than we do about the essential nature of democracy. And we need to take steps to preserve what we have while moving further toward democracy. I’m afraid of what will happen if we try to write a new constitution, so I am not recommending that. But there is a lot we can do with what we have — better education, better systems for electing representatives, better ways of serving our goal of equality.
I wrote the post on January 6 this year. I was struck by the resemblance between what happened on January 6 last year and what happened in ancient Greece. The best-known civil war from classical times began with an armed incursion into the council chamber where conservatives who favored oligarchy killed the leaders who favored democracy. It’s a horrible story.
“For the people to rule, they need to meet a number of conditions. Of these, the rule of law stands out, because it is the rule of law that stands between democracy and the tyranny of the majority. Minorities must be included in the people, and so the law must give them ways to defend their interests. Beyond law, the culture of a democracy must be inclusive.”
I was thinking about what caused that, about how the oligarchs wanted rule by the few rather than rule by the many. They had reason to think they could not defend their interests except by violence, because they felt that the majority was trampling on their rights, their property rights, to be specific. So they felt they had no good choice except to take power violently from the majority.
On January 6, I had been reading about progressives trumpeting the value of majority rule. People need to be warned that majority rule can turn into a dictatorship of the majority and lead to violence.
The framers feared that most. They didn’t care even for the word “democracy,” because it connoted violence or mob rule.
I think we need to understand that democracy is rule by a government of the people, not a government of the majority. A successful democracy has to maintain the rule of law, and this rule of law has to be set up so citizens think of themselves as a people. That was very much on my mind. Also that our politics as well as our racial history make it hard for us to think of ourselves as a people.
Has that ever been the case in the United States?
The idea that we Americans are a people is one that comes and goes. That wonderful expression “we, the people” refers to the people, but it doesn’t specify exactly what the founders meant by that. They probably weren’t thinking about women or poor people or enslaved people. Even so, “we the people” is a very powerful expression.
I’m 78. I went to school at a time when all of the male teachers were veterans of World War II. In those years, it felt to me there was a strong sense of what it meant to be an American. It was something special. Of course, and sadly, it didn’t apply equally to racial minorities. But there was a sense of unity. I’ve seen it evaporate over the years.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed how easily this has been lost. You’re quite right. The American Civil War is an instance of just what I’m talking about: most white people in the south was terrified of majority rule. Anti-slavery sentiment grew in the north and west. We often forget the south attacked the north. They were afraid of majority rule.
Has the unity you’re talking about – the one that was popular but not universal – behind the meaning of “American” become corrupted?
It has never been clear.
Think about people’s reactions to immigration in history. In the mid-1800s, it was thought Irish Catholics could not be Americans. You had to be a Protestant. Successive waves of immigration often provoked similar responses. I think that’s fairly clear among people on the far right. To be a true American, for them, you need to be basically a white Protestant, a descendant of the original English settlers.
It’s a very divisive idea, though it’s probably always been present to some extent. It seems to be moving more people to action now.
We have a concept of rights but, because of the way the Bill of Rights was written, we think of rights as a set of restrictions on government action. The German constitution, the new one made after World War II, as I understand it, is based on a more positive concept. The very first expression in the German constitution refers to human dignity.
It requires that human dignity never be violated – an idea from the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Human dignity must never be violated. That goes beyond telling the government what it can’t do. It tells us what we should be accomplishing. Valuing all human beings.
“I think that if you start with that positive concept, you can think of rights in a more positive way. You can understand better why hate speech should be restricted. Not because the government has some right to restrict hate speech. Not because of anything to do with First Amendment rights. But because of the value of human dignity.”
I think that if you start with that positive concept, you can think of rights in a more positive way. You can understand better why hate speech should be restricted. Not because the government has some right to restrict hate speech. Not because of anything to do with First Amendment rights. But because of the value of human dignity.
So there’s room for individual responsibility. The right of free speech doesn’t ask for that. I think a reason “southern fascists” have succeeded so well is because they narrow the frame of discussion such that you’re free in a very one-dimensional way. You’re not free in any affirmative way in which you have to be responsible to yourself, to your community, to your country.
I quite agree. You’re younger than I am but you probably remember. I never heard any complaints about the existence of “big government” until the federal government got involved in enforcing integration.
It started with George Wallace, the first one to articulate complaints about the overreach of government. That was about race. You probably know better than I that FDR couldn’t get his reforms through unless they were adjusted in such a way that they were less likely to benefit Black people – unless Social Security was denied to Black people.
On Martin Luther King Jr Day, I listened to a wonderful performance of his famous speech on August 28, 1963, which my brother and my cousin actually heard. They were there. Dr. King said it’s been 100 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and we’re still not free. He checked off the ways in which Black people were not yet free.
He insisted not on a gradual approach but on a quick method of addressing the failure to deliver the freedom promised 100 years earlier. Well, now it’s been almost 60 years. We’ve made a little progress, but the points he made have not been addressed properly.
There is a passage from – I forget which speech. He said for every small step for black Americans, there’s a larger white backlash.
You saw that after the election of Obama. I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the virulence of the response. I served in Vietnam and made a friendship with a southerner, who had views opposite to mine. We stayed in touch. On an email list, I saw what he and his friends were saying about Obama. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked.
I would not have said such things about any president until our most recent one, but he deserved the worst. Imagine inciting a mob to attack the Capitol. I couldn’t imagine such a thing until it happened.
Back to your your post where you talk about why the culture of a democracy must be inclusive, how the idea of inclusion is a check against the tyranny of the majority. That culture seems fragile.
We don’t have anything like an adequate approach to educating people about government, about civic engagement, about democracy.
My oldest granddaughter is 16. She says they learn very little in school about how our government works, and they’re not learning anything about other governments. We need to know more about other democracies. No postwar constitution has followed the American model. Yet our students know nothing about this.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.