The Bigger Picture
Published on September 15th 2011 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
While I was watching the first nationally televised Republican Presidential debate involving all of the major Republican contenders (except for Sarah Palin?), I couldn’t help but wonder how this quadrennial American election ritual would play out if it was also conducted in all other nations around the world. But while I could envision similar exercises of democracy occurring in Europe, I had much more difficulty imagining civil democratic debates like this happening in the so called ‘Arab Spring’ nations of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
The nations mentioned as part of the ‘Arab Spring’ come to mind because most of the activists involved in protests that toppled the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and most recently (with the help of NATO) the Gaddafi regime in Libya, seem to believe that democracy will solve their nations’ problems. So since I have also been discussing America’s partisan democratic political paralysis in my most recent columns, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time discussing both the promise and the pitfalls of democratic political governance.
Make no mistake, I have been and always will be a staunch advocate of liberal political democracy, a political governance system where all citizens not only have the right to vote in free and fair elections, but also have equal rights in all other areas of daily life. I also count myself as fortunate to have been born and raised in a nation that was the world’s pioneer in developing the concept of liberal democracy and promoting the use of it in other countries.
But having said that, I must also say that I believe liberal democracy really only works in nations that have also established the strong judicial and electoral institutions that are required for liberal democracy to be an effective political governance system for all of those nations’ citizens. These institutions ensure that decisions made by the majority in liberal democracy political systems do not place the interests of the majority of citizens above the interests of dissenting individuals, thus effectively oppressing citizens who happen to be in the minority.
The renowned French historian and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville discussed this very scenario in his book, On Democracy in America. In a chapter entitled, “The Tyranny of the Majority”, Tocqueville observed that the separation of powers defined in the American Constitution was designed to limit the power of the majority within America’s government while the individual citizen rights cited in the American Bill of Rights placed legal limits on the decisions made by citizen majorities in order to prevent them from oppressing minorities.
While the democratically elected American Congress operates under the same democratic principle of ‘majority rule’ that parliamentary democracies do, thanks to the separation of powers the separately elected American President still has the power to prevent legislation approved by a majority of members of Congress from becoming law. As a result, the political party with a majority in Congress cannot pass new laws or change existing ones without the consent of the President. The majority political party can more easily pass laws when the President is a member of the same party, but in practice the President is quite often a member of the minority party.
However, there have also been times in America’s history when both Congress and the President have approved of laws or refused to change laws that infringed on the rights of individuals or groups that were a part of the electoral minority. In these instances, laws that had the support of the majority of citizens were challenged by those in the minority and subsequently rejected by judges who were members of America’s independently appointed judicial system.
But America isn’t unique in having a politically independent judiciary that protects the rights of minorities since this is a defining characteristic of many parliamentary democracies. My concern is that with no judicial institutions to protect the rights of minorities, the flowers of freedom that bloomed during the ‘Arab Spring’ will be trampled by the ‘tyranny of the majority’.