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The perils of 'pure' democracy and group think

Recent events here and abroad, as well as circumstances of long standing, are a warning to those with cool heads and calm dispositions of the dangers of unbridled democracy and mob psychology. Whether it is intoxicated popular passions, mindless group identification, or race and gender loyalty, the dangers to public order and individual rights are clear.

The Constitution of the United States forms an extensive republic in which the people elect their representatives to a government of limited authority, the powers of which are checked and balanced among separate branches. It is emphatically not a democracy, pure and simple, in which the people personally assemble to make, enforce or adjudicate the laws.
Consider this sober assessment of “pure” democracy from James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, in the famous tenth essay of The Federalist:

“A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention ... and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

The key words are “passion” and “interest.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with majorities having the same opinion, of course, but passions and interests are more problematic as they have no necessary connection with justice. It is the burden of statesmanship to align those passions and interests with the public good. That, however, requires political institutions in which statesmen can provide leadership.

The lawless behavior of thousands of otherwise law-abiding people in Wisconsin, overrunning the Capitol for the unmistakable purpose of intimidating duly-elected representatives of the people from carrying out their mandate to regain fiscal and managerial control of its bloated and heavily indebted state government, is the clearest recent example of ‘pure’ democracy in action.

For nearly three weeks howling mobs of public employees, including teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention union goons armed with all the paraphernalia of agitation and propaganda, occupied the legislative chamber, screamed at Republican legislators as they walked past, and a few of them made explicit death threats largely unreported in the major media.

This reminded many of Greece last year when thousands protested austerity measures being proposed there, even to the point of killing three bank employees. The only good thing to come from that horrible event was that the protesters recoiled back in horror from what they had wrought. Fortunately, no one has died in Wisconsin or any other state acting to prevent fiscal collapse.

However well-intentioned and even welcome are the protests against despotic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, street rebellions are not fertile grounds for establishing stable and effective governments. The passions that animate and energize the thousands who participate militate against the statesmanship that the founding of constitutional governments requires.

The questionable and–by no means necessary–legacy of the civil rights movement and women’s liberation has been to elevate group rights over individual rights. The language of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly guarantees the rights of all citizens, regardless of race, sex, national origin or ethnicity, but also forbids preference on those same grounds. But the unreflective judgment that all whites (and men) treated all racial minorities (and women) unjustly has perverted the welcome pursuit of justice for individuals to securing advantages for groups.

This is unjust to whites and men, to be sure, but it is also unjust to racial minorities and women who act and think independently of those who insist that group solidarity is more important than individual liberty. The result is that, in minority communities, legal solicitude for minority criminals means that their decent, law-abiding members are frequently subjected to horrors that persons living in the white suburbs seldom worry about.

Black men like Clarence Thomas and white women like Sarah Palin must endure public abuse for their political and constitutional convictions because they don’t fit the racial or gender mold prescribed for them.

Fortunately, the resounding election results from 2009 and 2010 are strong proof that the American people remain attached to their constitutional government and are not inclined to indulge the follies of those who claim the mantle of democracy or fall prey to the perils of group think.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause”  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at

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