Tyranny of the minority

When South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, US Vice President and Secretary of State, wasn’t busy running his South Carolina plantation, he gave a lot of thought to political theory.  His biggest worry was the threat to the South from tyranny of the majority, which would allow them to ability to impose their will on a minority that did not share their values and priorities.

The Tenth Amendment and states’ rights was the strongest defense against that ‘tyranny.”  While invoking the Tenth amendment was most often used to defend slavery, Calhoun first used it against the 1828 tariff bill.  The North, with emerging manufactures, wanted protection for their infant industries against competing English products.  The South, a major agricultural exporter, preferred the less expensive products of European producers and European markets for their indigo, cotton, tobacco and rice.  Calhoun invoked the Nullification Doctrine against what he labeled the Tariff of Abominations. Nullification was the supposed right of any state to refuse to enforce a federal law with which it disagreed–in this case, in the port of Charleston. (Leading political thinkers in the Texas legislature have revived that doctrine with their novel vigilante approach to suppressing abortions.) Eventually a compromise was reached in 1833 and civil war was averted for another 28 years. It was perpetuating slavery, an institution that allowed the tyranny of the minority of mostly white southern slave owners against the enslaved people and their supporters in the rest of the nation, that eventually led to the civil war—which has yet to end.

The shadow side of protecting us from the tyranny of the majority is to enable society and government to fall victim to the tyranny of the minority, a situation toward which our nation is moving at dizzying speed. Knowing that some of the states were fearful of a strong central government, the authors of the Constitution took great pains to protect the minority, inviting compromise, dialogue, and middle ground solutions. The U.S. Constitution is full of compromises between the will of the majority and the protection of minorities.  Permitting slavery.  Two senators per state regardless of size, giving the makeup of the senate a strong bias toward less populated states. Creating the Electoral College for selecting a president, which also has a bias toward less populated state.  The Tenth Amendment, reserving undefined broad powers to the states, or the people.  One person, one vote, was not part of the guidelines for the authors of the original Constitution.Other tools that empower the tyranny of the minority have been created since the Constitution. Lifetime appointments for Supreme Court judges. The filibuster in the Senate. Substantial but not total delegation of the running of elections to the states.

These protections for minorities have enabled the prospect of overthrowing democracy, which is more fragile than many of us realize. It depends on good will, good intentions, and mutual respect, all of which are in short supply. An alternative vision of how government should be run is increasingly articulated by a substantial minority of Americans who have tried democracy and found it an wanting. It is  not suited to promoting their worldview, a stratified society in which men outrank women, whites outrank people of color, indoctrination trumps genuine education for critical thinking,  and religious freedom is used as a weapon against change in some cases and a way to impose a particular religious viewpoint on the majority at other times. This angry, vocal, and often violent minority refuse to accede to the  will of the majority, using the tools provided by the constitution and the weapons of social media to stir up anger and confusion.

Both the sustainability and resilience of the earth and the resilience and sustainability of democracy are at risk around the planet. Now is the time for all good people to be engaged, involved, and active in reversing the threats that we face.

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