Democracy and Minority Rights

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Many great writers, political scientists and leaders have differed over the benefits offered by democracy. Leaders such as Abraham Lincoln have claimed that democracy is the best form of government. He is known for his statement: “democracy is a government of the people, for the people and by the people”. Classical thinkers such as John Stuart Mills and Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that democracy is a threat to minority rights. They likened it to a constitutional monarchy. This paper will investigate the meaning of the suggestion that democracy is as great as or greater of a threat to minority rights than a constitutional monarchy.

In a democracy, people exercise their power/authority either directly or through elected representatives. It is presumed that there is equality of rights and privileges in a democracy. Democracy is known for its majority rule principle. This means that the majority (or plurality) vote decides in cases of a legislative bill, an election, a contract proposal, or a motion. One phenomenal characteristic of a democracy is the people's right to change the majority, using their supreme authority. This is done through elections, which means that the minority can seek to become the majority. They can compete fairly in elections and have rights to assembly, association, speech, and petition. If this cannot be done, the majority would essentially become a dictatorship. Ensuring that the rights of the minority are safeguarded becomes paramount for the majority, since it uses these rights to maintain the status quo. This happens in a multiparty parliamentary democracy, where a coalition government must be formed if no party succeeded in having a majority.

In the process of establishing republics and expressing popular will, majority rule was considered necessary, at least in theory. The only alternative was building a consensus or ensuring the rule by everyone’s agreement. The debate on the best forms of government produced many conflicts. Minority rule was overruled, it was practically antithetical to democracy (Barzilai, 2003).

Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democracy perpetuates tyranny of the majority. He noted that the majority not only made the laws, but it could also break them. Tocqueville had noted that African-Americans feared the consequences of voting, in spite of their legal right to vote. With regard to majority rule, he said (Guinier, 1994),

If it can be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them (p. 148).

Various scholars in reference to the discrimination caused by mob have used the phrase “tyranny of the majority”. John Adams, Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill further popularized it. Conclusively, “tyranny of the majority” was referred to as a superior force of an interested but overbearing majority. Through democracies, the majority’s interests are considered more important. Since minority rights are often ignored, democracy can be likened to the rule of despots or tyrants. In many cases, the majority through a democratic process, for example, consciously penalizes a disliked religious, racial or ethnic group through elections (Guinier, 1994).

John Stuart mill argued that power should be lawfully exercised and avoid harm to others. This would prevent the majority from tyrannizing the minority, would avoid a regimentation of values and thoughts and would make minority voices audible. The comparison of majority rule to a constitutional monarchy was based on the observation that it led to concentration of social and political power among the ruling elite. For example, Tocqueville noted that wealth; political influence and nobility in Europe would be passed from one generation to the next, creating fixed social classes.

Majority rule causes administrative and legislative instability in many countries. The majority influences legislative power. It is sovereign; the public easily becomes emotional in fighting for particular causes. However, it quickly gives up before achieving goals that require tenacity and patience. As a consequence laws have an exceedingly short duration. If one person can misuse power and authority to the disadvantage of his or her adversaries, a majority can abuse authority in the same way. Mill and Tocqueville’ view is that majority rule cannot be the only expression of supreme power in a democracy unless the majority would want to tyrannize the minority (Guinier, 1994). This means that democracy must not only guarantee the expression of the popular will, but must also guarantee that the majority will not misuse use its power, thereby violating the inalienable and basic rights of the minority.

In the past, majority rule has led to marginalization of the political minority and infringement of individual rights. It succeeded in the perpetuation of discrimination practices on the basis of skin color, nationality, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. Even when judicial checks were supposed to expand civil and political rights over time, the British and American courts became part of the majority tyranny. Decisions were mainly biased based on the above characteristics. In some cases, such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scot, judges ruled that the law did not guarantee equal protection of African-Americans because they were socially inferior. The 1789 United States Constitution was against the Declaration of Independence principles. It stated that slaves constituted three-fifths of a person. After the civil war, some Southern states continued to use Jim Crow laws. These laws maintained institutionalized segregation. In the North, there was pervasive discrimination. Black voters would have to go through “literacy tests”, pay poll taxes. Earlier they were also restricted from owning property which would exclude them from the voting process.

James Madison; a former founder of America,  known widely for his views on constitutionalism and democracy, warned against extreme powers of the legislature and the executive (Jr., 1994). With regard to slavery, he said, “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” (Jr., 1994).

The principles of separation of powers and the regularity of elections would ensure that people’s views and interests are known. According to the modern perception of democracy, minority rights have to be protected, regardless of the extent of alienation of the minority. This is also important because the majority rights gain meaning. Protection of minority rights is enhanced by safeguard of basic individual liberties. It is a foundation of liberal democracy.

The most excessive mistreatment of minorities has been witnessed in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the past, many democracies have turned to be totalitarian regimes that ignored or sought eradication of minority of groups in society. For example, The Holocaust in Nazi Germany led to the death of six million Jews and many members of the Gypsy community (Weller, 2006). The number of Jews murdered constituted one-third of the world Jewish population. Homosexuals were also targeted. The Soviet Union, under President Stalin, deported and killed many Caucasian and ethnic groups of Asian origin; some of them now face extinction. The Biafrans of Nigeria were targeted through a national campaign. The Hutu of Rwanda killed hundreds of thousands of the Tutsi community. Saddam Hussein, a former president of Iraq started the mass killing of Shiites and Kurds living in his country. The Sudanese government sponsored mass killing and deportation of people in the Darfur region. In an attempt to create an “ethnically pure” Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic killed 10,000 Albanian Muslims and 200,000 Bosnian Muslims (Barzilai, 2003). The current caste system in India has discriminated against some communities, with a view to condemning them to eternal poverty and exclusion from community.

The International community has been obligated with ensuring the protection of minorities. It has already enacted some measures to protect Minority Rights. For example, it adopted the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Convention in 1948, just after World War II. In 1966, the United Nations adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Covenant defines individual rights and minimum protection strategies for minorities. According to Article 27, no person belonging to a religious, linguistic or ethnic minority shall be denied the right to use their own language, profess and practice their own religion and enjoy their own culture in a community. The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention has also been established.

While these treaties and conventions establish understandable international moral standards, they have not been observed well. This has been witnessed in the Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq, Kenya, and the former Yugoslavia. These treaties have had no binding legal effects and pose no deterrence for to-be offenders. These treaties should be enforced more effectively. The credibility of the International Criminal Court has also been subject to popular opinion. Many people manipulate legal and sovereign authority to dismiss the Court’s sermons.

According to Tocqueville, religion is one of the most important elements in any democracy. It corrects democratic societies even at their weakest points and helps operate political and private matters effectively. Therefore, it helps preserve societies. It helps individuals have fulfilled lives. Moral ties, if tightened, can lead to stability and equality, even when political ties are relaxed. Religion is a powerful force that prevents citizens from abusing their freedom in a bid to gain power at the cost of the liberty of their countrymen. It prevents people from not only abusing authority, but also daring to do so. Tocqueville says that religion is a political institution; although it does not give a taste of liberty, it facilitates its use thereof. Many Islamic states are guided by Islamic values of brotherhood and generosity. When these values are incorporated into the political landscape, they can greatly reduce the tyranny of the majority. Religious principles should be encouraged and publicized. They can guide the majority in making decisions and safeguarding the interests of the minority (Guinier, 1994).

For Alexis de Tocqueville, democracy is based on three principles: equality of conditions, sovereignty of the people and public opinion. With regard to equality of conditions, he said that rights should be given to each citizen or to no one. Equality of conditions serves as the seeds of democracy. He noted that the sovereignty of the people is tied to equality of conditions. Without it, democracy cannot exist. Every human being possesses an equal share of power; this can be translated to mean that the best government would be far from a monarchy or an aristocracy. Tocqueville also noted that sovereignty could be practiced at the local level. With regard to public opinion, Tocqueville said that it is what drives democracy and puts ideas into action, thereby directing the people’s actions. He argued that the power of the majority is irresistible, though it can lead to tyranny; it is an absurdity. He noted that a careful system of checks and balances helps avoid tyranny of the majority (Guinier, 1994).

In the most advanced societies, the significance of strong and stable marriages is not underestimated. While commenting on Europe, Tocqueville noted that almost all the disorders of society “begin at the domestic hearth and are not far from the nuptial bed.” Disorderly, unstable and unsettled domestic tendencies are carried over into the political world. The average citizen finds peace if he or she evades the turmoil of politics and turns to his or her family. Regular life tames an individual so that he regulates his or her opinions and tastes. Domestic life provides a leader with orderliness and patience needed to run the affairs of the state. It is against this background that most democratic societies elect their leaders. This means that societies should strengthen and emphasize family values. 

Decentralization of political power is one way of avoiding the tyranny of the majority. In many countries, local governments become the basis of local expression of people’s will. Through these governments, people can express themselves. They are mostly allowed to monitor the progress of socio-political and economic developments. If they are dissatisfied with a certain leadership, they can collectively vote them out. Many countries have created commissions of ombudsman where aggrieved individuals can report excesses of the state. Individuals are assured of justice through legal grievance address systems. The office of the ombudsman should be highly independent for it to be effective.

John Stuart Mill noted that liberty in antiquity was a contest of interests of some classes of subjects, on one hand, and the government on the other. For social liberty to prevail, constitutional checks needed to be put in place. However, this was not enough; societies should execute their own mandate and desist from meddling in details and affairs of life. This would avoid political oppression and enslavement of the soul itself.

Democracy is seen as a state of society characterized by supposed equality of rights and privileges. However it thrives on the principles of majority rule. If a state of Tyranny is to be avoided our interpretation of democracy must be re-examined. Minority rights must be protected at all costs and not be placed at the whim of the majority.

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