Tyranny by the Majority – towards a definition of freedom and democracy

I’ve learnt a new word recently. Well, I learn new Turkish words all the time – that’s no surprise. My latest Turkish word is meyil, which means the degree of slope or fall on a waste pipe necessary for the water to flow out of your bath or shower. As you may guess, we had a plumbing problem in our summer place which seems to have been solved by increasing the meyil. Thank God!
On the other hand, I am generally happy, and occasionally surprised when I learn a new word in my own mother tongue. In this instance, surprise was the dominant feeling. The word was majoritarianand its ideological spin-off, majoritarianism. At this point I have to tell you that the squiggly red line appearing under both words as I typed them told me that my MS Word dictionary didn’t know them either, so at least I was not alone in my ignorance.
Know-it-all Wikipedia, on the other hand, did recognise the words and began its lengthy explanation with a definition: Majoritarianism is a traditional political philosophy or agenda which asserts that a majority (sometimes categorized by religion, language, social class or some other identifying factor) of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society.’
Merriam-Webster online informed me helpfully that the word majoritarian was first used in 1942 to describe a person who believes in or advocates majoritarianism’ – which it further defined as the philosophy or practice according to which decisions of an organized group should be made by a numerical majority of its members.’ I checked my Apple desktop dictionary, and Oxford Dictionaries online, and found them all pretty much in agreement.
Humpty Dumpty explains democracy
to Lewis Carroll’s Alice
As is often the case, I learn a new word, and suddenly I come across it everywhere. In this case, majoritarianturns up in almost every newspaper article I read about the Turkish government’s response to protests that began in the now infamous Gezi Park in Istanbul at the end of May. In fact, certain writers apply it to the government’s attitude and policies in general. The word, needless to say, is used pejoratively, and serves to question the ruling AK Party’s right to act on just about everything.
So why, I asked myself, had I not previously encountered a word that has been used in the English language for more than seventy years, and seems to label a fairly important philosophical or political concept. After some thought I decided that it was because that’s what I’d always thought of as the meaning of democracy. An issue is laid on the table, all sides have the opportunity to put forward their point of view, votes are counted, and action is taken on the basis of the result – ie the majority vote carries the day.
The concept of democracy has evolved over time, beginning in ancient Greece and being refined in the countries of Western Europe and more recently the United States of America. It was considered preferable to systems previously operating, or continuing in less enlightened states, where a hereditary monarch or a powerful despot wielded absolute power over his (usually his) subjects with the assistance and support of a small elite or aristocracy.
Refinements have been periodically necessary for a number of reasons. First, evolving concepts of who should be eligible to vote have led to the abolition of wealth requirements; the inclusion of women and African Americans; and a reduction in the age of majority from 30 to 21 and even 18 in some countries. Second, in some matters, such as changes to a country’s constitution, it may be considered that a simple fifty percent majority is insufficient – and a greater measure of support may be required to justify reform. Third, there is widespread debate over which electoral systems best reflect the desires of the voting public, and the extent to which that public should be allowed to vote on specific issues.
To illustrate the last point, the first-past-the-post electoral system in place in the United Kingdom returns one parliamentary representative from each of the electoral regions into which the country is divided. It also ensures that any votes not cast for the highest polling candidate effectively end up in the trash. Proportional systems, operating in Turkey and other enlightened European countries, attempt to avoid this waste of votes by allocating seats in the legislative assembly to political parties in proportion to their share of the overall total vote.
Further, it is clearly not practicable to seek the opinion of the public on every single issue debated and decided on by a country’s parliament. One of my all-time-favourite films is The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) where a slick conman (Peter Cook) tricks his way into the boss’s office of a public opinion poll business and thence to the Prime Ministership of Britain, finally getting himself elected as President-for-Life. His technique once in office is to ask the British voter for his or her opinion on every decision that has to be made for the running of the country no matter how minor. What at first seems like a dream exercise in participatory democracy at length turns into an intolerable burden for electors who gratefully vote ‘Yes’ to the final question – ‘Would you like me to get on with running the country and never bother you with another poll ever again?’
Somewhere in between the two extremes, then, must lie an ideal situation where I delegate most decisions for the maintenance of order and good government to a political party winning the majority of votes in national elections held every three, four or whatever years – but still wish to have my opinion heeded on issues dear to my heart, such as the building of nuclear power stations, or a woman’s right to abortion on demand.
I confess to feeling some sympathy for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party government who, when criticised for some action or other, say, ‘Yes, but we won the last general election (not to mention the previous two). A majority of the citizens of Turkey chose us to be the government and that’s what we’re trying to do.’ Out comes the majoritarian club and they are belaboured for thinking that winning elections gives them the right to do whatever they want. Well, that’s a fair point too, but the question arises, what issues should they seek public opinion on, and when should they just get on with the business of running the country?
To be fair to the anti-majoritarians, Mr Erdoğan does seem to have a tendency to see himself as the Minister or Spokesman on Just-About-Everything, from Foreign Affairs through Urban Redevelopment to Family Planning. He also seems to have lost interest in the worthy goal of reducing the threshold for parliamentary representation from ten to five percent. On the other hand, to be fair to the Prime Minister, the Turkish news media do seem to seek his opinion on just about everything, ignoring the fact that there exists a whole cabinet full of ministers with a host of portfolios. I have noticed this phenomenon in educational institutions in Turkey. Whereas in my own country, a school principal will appoint and delegate middle managers with their own budgets to make decisions for the operation of specific departments, the general rule in Turkish schools is that every decision, no matter how trivial, must be decided by the principal, and all underlings are obliged to seek and wait for that decision. I can’t speak for other sectors of the economy, but the process does not seem to make for optimum results in the field of education.
Be that as it may, a more important question must be, apart from casting my vote in those four-yearly parliamentary elections, how can I have my say on other issues on which I may feel particularly strongly? One way is to join a political party, attend its meetings and try to influence it from within. I may be a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) but still I may support the right of Turkish women to work as teachers or state servants while wearing a headscarf, and I may try to persuade my fellows in the party to my point of view.
Another way to influence government policy is to join or establish a special purpose lobby group. Groups exist and exert influence in such matters as education for girls, protection of the environment and violence within families. Of course, if all else fails, there should always be the right of citizens to gather for the purpose of public protest. Even, as Atatürk famously said in his address to the Youth of Turkey, there may be times when the national government is so wrong that citizens have to fight for what is right. Nevertheless, in the last case, you need to be pretty sure you areright, and stoically prepared to accept a certain amount of pepper gas and high-pressure water, because no government is going to roll over without putting up some resistance. If you choose to be a martyr for a cause, that choice has implications for your own health and safety.  
It was touching, the other day, to learn that a group of thirty internationally famous actors and actresses including Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Ben Kingsley had paid for a page in the London Times to publish an open letter to PM Erdoğan in support of the Gezi Park protests and against the excess use of force by police. Nice to know that the glitterati have sympathy for the down-trodden masses of nations other than their own – but I was also interested to see, among the thirty names, that of a writer, Claire Berlinski. Ms Berlinski has a record over some years of authoring quite immoderate anti-Turkish and anti-AK Party material for major US newspapers and magazines. Did those Oscar-winning thespians actually visit Turkey to see the situation for themselves, I wonder, or just take that lady’s jaundiced view as gospel truth? 
Which brings me to another important question. Mr Erdoğan has been accused of seeking to polarise the country prior to forthcoming local-body elections. I would argue that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party has been the object of serious opposition from inside and outside the country since the day they became the government – and this opposition has, for the past ten years, been hell-bent on polarizing the country. By the time you read this, a Turkish court will have given its judgment on high-ranking military personnel accused of planning a coup to oust Erdoğan’s government – and I for one am quite ready to believe that there was such a plan, and that certain groups within the country would have been happy to see it come to fruition.
I do not wish to enter the debate of whether mysterious foreign forces are attempting to manipulate Turkey’s internal political situation. It is, however, abundantly clear that there are citizens willing to go far beyond mere expression of dissent, to the extent of working actively to bring down the elected government. A certain retired professor, Zerrin Bayraktar, in an interview with the English daily Today’s Zaman, explained plans to prevent construction of the third Bosporus bridge. The aim, she said, is to ‘weaken the government’ and trigger ‘an economic crisis that could easily stop the government and eventually result in the removal of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party)’.
Adding strength to the argument that the Gezi Park protests were not all about latter day Frisco-esque hippies peacefully hugging trees, certain ultra-nationalist groups have been using social media to invite protesters to the city of Silivri where the above-mentioned trial of military coup planners is reaching its conclusion. Wiser heads have apparently decided that those who opposed the destruction of an inner-city park do not necessarily support anarchic Molotov cocktail-throwers and nationalist extremists, and are withholding support.
Neither do I wish to enter into an analysis here of the current situation in Egypt. There are those on both sides of the issue ready to draw analogies with present-day Turkey. Two things, however, do seem clear. First, senior personnel in the Egyptian armed forces used their position of military power to unseat the elected president, Muhammed Morsi, and are now holding him in custody under threat of ‘trial’ and possible execution. Second, the United States government, through its foreign affairs spokesman John Kerry, has made it clear that it supports the Egyptian military action, and is prepared to interpret it as a ‘restoration of democracy’.
There’s that problematic word again . . . democracy. It does seem to have a certain protean quality allowing it, in the words of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, to mean whatever I choose it to mean. On the subject of Egypt, a correspondent in Today’s Zaman, Idris Bal, gave a list of preconditions for democracy to take root: there should be ‘no sectarianism, ethnic nationalism or tribalism’. There should be ‘a successful education system and an educated populace with no dramatic income disparities. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, plurality and a pluralist society’ are prerequisites, meaning ‘a free press, diverse media outlets, civil society organizations, think tanks, free universities, criticism and a democratic culture’. An admirable list, and I would love to know which country could tick all the boxes; certainly not my own homeland New Zealand, though we do rank at the higher end of lists measuring governmental transparency and freedom from corruption. I wonder too if George Dubya Bush had those criteria fully in mind when he sent in the marines to bring democracy to the oppressed people of Iraq?
And you have to admit, the United States government does have a tendency to get involved in the internal business of sovereign states when it feels its own interests are at stake. Another correspondent in Today’s Zaman, Joost Lagendijk, has been bemoaning recently ‘Turkey’s urge to bash the West’.The essence of his argument seems to be that Europe is not America, and the European Union is now trying to mediate between the new regime in Egypt and deposed President Morsi. He also points out that the US media are not all one hundred percent behind their government on this one, and have been expressing some dissent with John Kerry’s stated position.
Well, of course we know there are three hundred million Americans, and not all of them are big fans of Barack Obama. Unfortunately, however, in the end it is the government that will decide the nation’s direction (majoritarian though that may be), and if European governments align themselves with the USA (as in the Assange and Snowden cases), and if it is their governments that determine their foreign policy, what should Turkey do? How much do Western interests try to understand Turkey and all the shades of political opinion held by its citizens?
Sadly, the world we live in does not always allow us the luxury of acting purely on the basis of morality. Vested interests inevitably come into play. Like Humpty Dumpty, we are all inclined to twist words to suit our own position. In the end, however, democracy is probably the best solution to the necessary evil of government. Independent states should be left alone to find their own path, and citizens, however educated and enlightened, should accept the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. 


7 thoughts on “Tyranny by the Majority – towards a definition of freedom and democracy

  1. I personally believe we can no longer have a system where people vote and governments do what they like after. Of course the USA was supposed to have a Constitutional barrier to mob rule, by establishing certain things that democracy couldn't tamper with, but that's been trashed for all the world to see – and the sight is not pretty.

    I'm starting to think that direct democracy is the only answer – made possible by instant online and mobile telephone voting. I can see no reason why with the technology we have now, all major decisions – like “shall we go to war?” “Should marijuana be legalised?” should be put to the public vote.

    At one time I would have thought this was a dangerous form of “majoritarianism”, where the pubic would make all the wrong decisions. But I've changed my mind. I now believe that ordinary people (if given such a say) would come up with better decisions than those made by those we have elected.

    Truth is, once elected democratically, the political system is then managed by vested interests – lobby groups, large business etc. And these groups are not representative of most people. The military-industrial complex or AIPAC in the USA come to mind.

    At one time I would have said a strictly enforced constitution was the answer, but apparently not. Direct democracy is likely to produce better results than what we have now.

    The only other option is to shrink the size of nations and governments. I'm quite sure that democracy words better in smaller areas – like the Swiss Cantons, which do use a lot of direct democracy.

    One thing I am certain of, the system we have now is dysfunctional and does not deliver.

  2. Thanks David. For sure, you are right about powerful lobby groups perverting the democratic process – and the Swiss system of binding referenda has a lot of appeal.

  3. Fascinating piece which explores very intelligently the complexities inherent in the simple proposition that is democracy. I wonder if you have any Chinese readers who can give their perspective?

    I, for one, am not a fan of referenda or mobile phone polls, as in my view matters of importance need to be decided after proper debate, and multiple polls tend towards knee-jerkism and are prey to media manipulation. Better, though not perfect, to allow the majoritarianly-elected government to decide.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Alan. I would agree that democracy of the kind that most countries practice nowadays has tended to turn into corporate oligarchy. Democracy that respects the rights of minorities and allows for pluralism of cultural practice and opinion requires not just votes, but active and public discussion. It also requires (in addition to those conditions mentioned by Idris Bal) civic participation and engagement, accountability on the part of government functionaries to the citizens they ultimately serve, responsiveness of those in power to those on whose behalf they exercise that power, and transparency of functioning by the state. Unfortunately, these four elements do not function even in advanced democracies as much as they should, as seen by the reactions to national security and terrorism-related issues in a number of self-proclaimed “democracies”. Furthermore, it is disturbing and confusing to see the way democratic and liberal discourse is implicated in some of the most heinous war crimes in recent years.

    You might find the discussion interesting: http://web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/democracy.html

  5. I appreciate the feedback – and I took a quick peek at the site you recommended. Clearly I will need to devote some time to reading it, but thanks for the link. Are you Paul, by the way?

  6. I've now had time to read the material on that site – and it is a thought-provoking piece, for sure. I think I would have preferred a different title to 'Why Democracy is Wrong'. Maybe something like 'Why Democracy isn't Working'. The article certainly details the failings within most 'democratic' systems in today's world, but stops short of offering any truly convincing alternatives. As far as I could see, four options were offered:
    1. Tweaking democracy to get better results – in my opinion, generally the best option.
    2. Secession – well, sometimes it is probably necessary, but will usually require a good deal of spilled blood, eg the Irish Republic
    3. Simple Overthrow – well, if all else fails, it may be the only option, but as with 2. it will usually result in a good deal of bloodshed.
    4. Some kind of non-democratic system. Nice if you can find yourself a benevolent dictator (see my post on Turkey's Atatürk) but even then, sad to say, there will be many unhappy citizens. Syria's Asad, for example, is a non-democratic leader coming from a religious/ethic minority in a country where those things are pretty important.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s