Minority Rights are Anti-Democratic

Robert Dahl knows his democratic theory, so we should take notice when he argues that the protection of minority interests conflicts with democratic ideals. Writing in 1957 [gated], he says:

One problem, which is essentially ideological in character, is the difficulty of reconciling such an interpretation [of the US Supreme Court as protecting minorities] with the existence of a democratic polity, for it is not at all difficult to show by appeals to authorities as various and imposing as Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Lincoln that the term democracy means, among other things, that the power to rule resides in popular majorities and their representatives. Moreover, from entirely reasonable and traditional definitions of popular sovereignty and political equality, the principle of majority rule can be shown to follow by logical necessity. Thus to affirm that the Court supports minority preferences against majorities is to deny that popular sovereignty and political equality, at least in the traditional sense, exist in the United States; and to affirm that the Court ought to act in this way is to deny that popular sovereignty and political equality ought to prevail in this country. In a country that glories in its democratic tradition, this is not a happy state of affairs for the Court’s defenders; and it is no wonder that a great deal of effort has gone into the enterprise of proving that, even if the Court consistently defends minorities against majorities, nonetheless it is a thoroughly “democratic” institution. But no amount of tampering with democratic theory can conceal the fact that a system in which the policy preferences of minorities prevail over majorities is at odds with the traditional criteria for distinguishing a democracy from other political systems.

Why are so many unwilling to admit the conflict between liberalism and democracy? I’m bloody sick of “democracy” being used as a synonym for “good.”

3 Responses

  1. […] Taylor on Minority Rights are Anti-Democratic. Robert Dahl knows his democratic theory, so we should take notice when he argues that the […]

  2. Sir,

    Please be aware that Dahl writes this in 1957, from a purely academic viewpoint. I’m happy to say that democratic theory has progressed somewhat since those days.

    It might be of use to you to look to Europe (or indeed several other continents) and have a look at how minorities fall short of society’s mainstream in a very grave manner. I would say that’s a bigger problem for democracy than the legalistic view of minority vs. majority rulings and democracy as a purely electoral exercise.

    Kind regards


  3. Sir,

    The fact that “democratic theory has progressed somewhat since those days” should be a cause for concern, not glee. For, ultimately, it has not been democratic theory to progress but anti-democratic theory. Indeed, the theoretical foundations of democracy and justice cannot “progress,” for they are permanent and universal, and therefore as true today as in the days of Dahl, Lincoln, Jefferson, Rosseau, Locke, and Aristotle. Furthermore, democratic conceptions of law and government are inherently opposed to legalism – which is more closely associated with positivism, itself an antidemocratic school of thought. The US Constitution, for instance, is firmly imbedded in natural law, and requires that government conform to the natural law. The consequence of this system is that positive law, and therefore legalism, is kept at a minimum, and the will of the people, expressed more in terms of justice than law, prevails. If anything, it is through legalism that anti-democratic movements have gained their foothold.

    In Europe, the Continental Romano-Civilian law, which is typically authoritarian and inquisitorial, itself poses no small challenge to liberty. Add to this the increasingly intrusive jurisprudence of the ECHR and the picture becomes bleak indeed.

    Of course there is hope. Awareness is key here, for indeed the rhetoric of “minority rights” is of a most duplicitous kind.



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