John Stuart Mill called it the
“tyranny of the majority.” Alexis de Tocqueville called
it the “omnipotence of the majority.” Both were
referring to the great black mark of democracy — the tendency
for the masses, if granted the right of self-governance, to inflict
gross injustice on those in the minority.

Daniel Adams

This is the limitation on the effectiveness of majority rule and
by extension, the limitation on the promise and potential of
democratic government. It is for precisely this reason that those
who gave birth to American democracy created a republic, and did
not grant common citizens a direct say in policy. In the words of
Alexander Hamilton, “We are now forming a republican form of
government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy,
but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy,
we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of
dictatorship.”

Over time, however, we have seen direct democracy creep back
into the picture, brought on by the arbitrary and occasionally
tyrannical mechanisms of the republican system. The corruption and
scandal that many equate with big-party politics has left Americans
longing for the true promise of democracy.

Too often, progressive movements throughout the 20th century
have clung to direct democracy as the embodiment of this ideal
— a means by which average citizens could go around the party
apparatus and secure policy changes by means of majority rule, the
backbone of the democratic principle.

While this utopia is indeed intellectually attractive, the
preferences of the entire electorate can prove an awfully
treacherous compass by which to steer a nation. In most common
manifestations of direct democracy, this isn’t a huge
concern. For example, the passing of school bonds or the changing
of a local ordinance are issues that are great fodder for public
referenda — easy to understand, and relatively
inconsequential if botched.

However, in the case of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative
(the proposal that if passed would end racial preferences at all
Michigan public universities), we aren’t dealing with mere
municipal housekeeping — we’re talking about an
immensely complicated and consequential issue, one that affects
thousands if not millions of minorities and whose roots go as far
back as the start of the slave trade on the continent.

While I can accept that there are those few citizens who are
qualified to handle an issue of this magnitude, all nine of them
happen to be U.S. Supreme Court justices. As for the rest of us, I
suspect that those flag-waving, profiling, cross-burning,
“want to stick my combat boot in the collective ass of
Muslims worldwide” Americans have multiplied to an extent as
to make a referendum on the issue nothing more than a modern-day
lynch mob. I’m talking about the Americans who purport to
love democracy, but have never read the Bill of Rights. Those who
love their military, but the closest they’ve come to service
is a camouflage jumpsuit and a duck blind. The Americans who sing
of purple mountains’ majesty, but would profile, harass and
otherwise discriminate against a man based solely on the color of
his skin.

And I don’t want these Americans ruling on an issue of
racial equality.

Ironically, last June, I was hoping that the Supreme Court would
strike down racial preferences — on principle, I find that
drawing distinctions based solely on race to be morally suspect.
However, that doesn’t mean that the citizens of Michigan
should take it upon themselves to circumvent the ruling of the
court. Ask yourself: If Brown v. Board of Education had been put to
a vote, would blacks and whites still be living in a
“separate but equal” America?

Besides, even if it were possible to assume that the vast
majority of Michiganders fully understand the complex moral
arguments underlying the debate, it is doubtful that a rational
white majority would put the interests of a disenfranchised
minority ahead of its own self interest. Indeed, the preliminary
polls conducted in the state have indicated that a majority of
Michigan voters support the initiative — in an EPIC/MRA poll
conducted in December, 63 percent of those polled indicated that
they would vote to ban the use of racial preferences at
universities and other public institutions. Do those 63 percent
know what is best for this university, minorities in general or the
state as a whole? If Ward Connerly’s petition gathers enough
signatures to get on the ballot, they had better.

As Mill wrote in On Liberty, “Society can and does execute
its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right,
or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle,
it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of
political oppression.” Indeed, if in this case we are to let
the public opinion trump the highest court in the land, we subject
the state’s minorities to this very breed of tyranny.

 

Adams can be reached at
“mailto:dnadams@umich.edu”>dnadams@umich.edu.

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