While democracy can be difficult to define and challenging to implement, the primary purpose can be stated as the prevention of minority powers from dominating majorities. The rule by one (monarchies and dictatorships), or the rule by few (aristocracies and oligarchies), gives disproportionate power to one person or a small group, allowing the minority group to impose their preferences on the majority, often at the majority’s expense.
Democracy, under the ideal of “one person, one vote,” is established to prevent this tyrannical rule. However, the introduction of democracy introduces its own challenges, the main one being the inverse problem of the “tyranny of the majority” imposing its preferences on minority groups. Democracy, unabated, can result in disastrous consequences for minorities and moral atrocities, the earliest example being the execution of Socrates by Athenian democracy for his crime of “corrupting the youth,” i.e., teaching people how to think for themselves.
That’s why constitutional protections and bills of rights are critical; they prevent democracies from being able to, through majority preference, dissolve themselves, install dictatorial leaders, or rescind the political rights of minority groups. Not all decisions, therefore, can be made via majority preference, even in a democracy, if the democracy is to last. Democracy, left to itself, sows the seeds of its own destruction, as Plato recognized long ago.
Democracy is, therefore, perpetually in tension between majorities and minorities each vying to impose its preferences. Voting, at least in theory, can prevent the tyranny of minority power while constitutional protections prevent the reverse. But the situation gets complicated: the majority often want more equality and freedom from want, while the wealthy minority quite naturally want more liberty and freedom to conduct economic transactions without interference or taxation. How do you balance these competing forces? Which freedoms should be prioritized, positive or negative? Where on the continuum between equal distribution versus maximum individual freedom should society lie?
These perpetual tensions define democracy, and are brilliantly captured in all of their complexity by Astra Taylor in her latest book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Taylor examines the tensions that arise in democracies, and shows that political philosophy must always balance the competing interests of different people and groups.
The danger is not, however, that democracy must make trade-offs; the danger is that the voting public fails to recognize that any trade-offs are being made at all. The status quo can blind the majority to the possibility that things could be different, and to the fact that current arrangements, which benefit the minority at the expense of the majority, are NOT natural and inevitable. The current advantages the wealthy enjoy, along with the disproportionate power money has in politics, are not natural or inevitable or even preferable for most people. We accept it only because it’s been this way for so long that it seems inevitable, natural, or, because of incessant propaganda, preferable.
We live in a political environment where most people acquiesce to the power of corporations, which under current laws are granted the same rights and constitutional protections as people. We allow corporations and executives an almost tyrannical control over most of our waking lives, and never stop to question whether or not corporate interests and market forces align with our higher social goals and aspirations.
Taylor’s latest book, beautifully written, does not provide much in the way of answers, but offers something even more valuable—disillusionment to the status quo. The first step in solving our political problems must be an awareness that the problems exist in the first place. By exploring the complexities of and tensions within democratic rule, we come to understand that every political decision involves trade-offs, and with that recognition, that the current arrangements are skewed too far to the benefit of the 1 percent, a tyranny of the minority if there ever was one. Democracy cannot prevent the tyranny of the minority if the minority convinces the majority that their interests are in fact aligned, with the result that people vote against their own interests in service of a fabricated ideology. This remains the biggest challenge to democracy we currently face, and reveals a deep irony; that the very thing democracy is meant to prevent is something that can also infect and destroy it.