Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Democracy's Darker Side and How It Has Been Exploited By Putin and the Far Right

by Nomad

"The Tyranny of the Minorities"

The other night, I was talking to a conservative friend about democracy. He has traveled the world and would be considered to be well-educated and successful. The subject turned to politics, something I loathe to discuss with locals given my delicate situation.
I usually prefer to listen in silence.

It was his view that minorities in Western countries have too much representative power. Minorities, he implied, have become a threat to our traditional values. Another person in the discussion- who was complaining about children in kindergarten learning about gay sex- said "That's why I prefer to live in Turkey or Russia. We don't have problems like that." 
My right-wing friend replied: "It's like that famous quote: Democracy is the tyranny of the minorities. Who said that?"

Well, I had never heard that particular quote before. I admit it was a catchy phrase: the tyranny of the minorities. Yet, like many things in our modern world, it sounded good until you give it a moment of thought. How could a democracy ever be a tyranny of minorities? 
So when I got home, I searched online for the full quote and to learn who could have said this. To my surprise, I found that my friend had made a significant mistake.

The actual quote- generally attributed to the 19th-century historian, politician, and writer, Lord Acton- was:
The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.
I could find no quote about the tyranny of minorities, outside modern populist articles.

A Dangerous Tendency

In fact, the warning that democracies can turn into mob rule is not at all a new idea.

The Greek philosophers, Plato and Socrates, were highly critical of the weaknesses of direct democracy. They saw the "rule of the majority" as the first step toward one-man rule. Plato predicted that democracy would lead to nations being governed "by bullies and brutes."

Over the centuries, this thought has been similarly expressed many other political philosophers. All of these diverse intellectuals warned against the potential of democratic majority trampling on the rights of the minority. The will of the people, they warned, must be tempered with proper safeguards.

Long before the rise of fascism, 18th century British politician Edmund Burke said:
In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority.
On the opposite side of the Atlantic, James Madison, underscored Burke's remarks:
In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature.
He also wrote:
It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.
In the 19th century, the French politician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote:
Democracy is nothing but the Tyranny of Majorities, the most abominable tyranny of all, for it is not based on the authority of a religion, not upon the nobility of a race, not on the merits of talents and of riches. It merely rests upon numbers and hides behind the name of the people.
And, in the 20th century, when Jews and other minorities faced complete extermination at the hands of a democratically-elected authority, Jewish playwright, Ludwig Lewison observed that democracy has developed a dangerous tendency to enslave "through the tyranny of majorities and the deadly power of their opinion."

The delicate balance between majority rule and the protection of majority rights is not always easy to maintain. However, it has become a fundamental principle of constitutional democracies around the world. In every constitutional democracy, there is ongoing tension between the contradictory factors of majority rule and minority rights. And when that balance is lost, all kinds of atrocities - with the public's tacit approval- can happen in the blink of an eye.

Going back to my friend's mistaken quote, it was mystifying how what had once been a warning about majority rule- and the need to protect minority rights- had now come to mean the opposite. It had been casually and convincingly subverted.
How could it have happened?

In the Name of Forging a New Order

Back in 2017, I wrote an extensive post investigating the concept of majority rule. It was entitled: Is Putin's Majoritarian Democracy the Alt-Right's Fast Track to Fascism in America? It traced, step by step, the thought process of the autocratic movement.

According to the fascist ideology, liberal democracy is obsolete. Respect for minorities, it claims, weakens the state. National unity is required to deal with the imminent threat, whether that means economic hardship, terrorism or outside pressures.

Such national unity demands a strong leader who spuriously claims to be the voice of the majority. It must be a person isn't afraid of re-shaping the rules, suppressing civil liberties or rejecting the constitutional restraints- all in the name of forging a new order.
That first step on the road to fascism (or at least autocracy) normally begins with the suppression of the minorities in the name of nationalism.

In recent times, the chief promoter of this concept has been Putin's Russia.

One of those who has advanced this alternate species of democracy idea was Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University in Moscow. Putin-loyalist Markov has been a long-time adviser to the president and, as such, presumably shapes (or disseminated ) his views.

Markov argues that when it comes to the definition of democracy, it is merely a matter of East-West semantics. Nothing more. You say potato, I say "pahtato."
"In the West there are elaborate protections for minorities, whereas in Russia the protection of the majority is the priority. It's still democracy. Every country may choose between liberal democracy and majoritarian democracy."
In what some might see as an admission of the Russian government's inability to adapt to liberal democratic norms, Markov explains:
In Russia we tried to follow the liberal model in the 1990s, but it was disastrous. Russia found itself at the mercy of aggressive minorities, who robbed the country and undermined the position of the majority. Now the trend is that minorities must subordinate themselves to the interests of the majority."
There is but one problem with this argument. The Russian constitution states:
The State shall guarantee the equality of rights and freedoms of man and citizen, regardless of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, property and official status, place of residence, religion, convictions, membership of public associations, and also of other circumstances.
As Markov knows very well, constitutions, including the Russian constitution, are not really based on "trends" but on fundamental principles. The fact that these principles can so summarily be cast aside is a testimony to the dangerous power of the majoritarian idea.

Along the way, the 1993 Constitution succumbed to Putin's power-grabbing efforts. The concept of the so-called "majoritarian" democracy proved to be an extremely useful tool. It allowed Putin to recruit the defenders of the traditional identity, the protectors of the threatened sensibilities of the majority. For these people, the phrase "aggressive minorities" doesn't sound at all absurd. 

In the latest chapter of this process, right-wing populism, thanks to the help of well-orchestrated propaganda, has spread beyond the borders of Russia, inspiring millions of new followers of majority rule. Reaching the shores of the New World, the question is whether America- a nation that not so long ago portrayed itself as the defenders of the oppressed- will also fall victim.  

And, as the discussion showed, it is not a case of ignoring the warnings of the past. This Orwellian subversion of the age-old advice from the past demonstrates that the followers of majority rule are simply ignorant of the history of Western liberalism and more worrying, they are ignorant of the reasons for the warnings.