Pendulum Balance

Tyranny of The Mob

Why are we a Republic, not a Democracy? The Tyranny of the Majority. The Tyranny of the Minority. Mobs Online. Tyranny expressed in laws or misuse of laws.

Below is the end of an interview aired February 1, 2017 by Terry Gross speaking to Constitutional Scholar Jeffrey Rosen. It presents a very core Constitutional principle that seems to have faded from public consciousness:

The United States is not a democracy, it is a republic. In a democracy, the majority rules. In a republic, the individual is protected from the majority.

We live in an age where decades of laws and cultural norms have been amassed to empower various combinations of the majority, an often caustically vocal minority, or mobs online via social media, to deprive individuals of their rights and liberty. While clearly a core role of government is to protect The Common Good, when individual liberty is crushed in the name of The Common Good, tyranny and Common Bondage are advanced instead. Tyranny can be expressed in overreaching laws or the misuse of good laws. Populism can become the lawless mob if the checks and balances created by The Founders are not functioning well. Those checks and balances are only safe when the people who have been entrusted with them know the proper and limited role of government and are willing to hold that line even when that is intensely unpopular to the angry mob. This fortitude is required of the stewards of checks and balances whether they are Supreme Court Justices or local Town Council members.

This interview was in the larger context of whether Rosen thought the Supreme Court would truly steward those checks and balances with the new president. We are in the middle of vigorous national debate about whether the new president will do great things to advance Constitutional liberty, or trample it instead as so many Republicans and Democrats alike have done in the past. I hope for great things out of him, but remain cautiously observant as I do with all leaders. But, should this or any other president, or any other elected official for that matter, trample individual Constitutional liberties in the name of The Common Good, I would hope those in a position to push back will have the strength of principle and character to do so.

Partial Interview Transcript (Full Interview Here):

GROSS: What are you most concerned about constitutionally right now? You're a constitutional scholar.

ROSEN: In one sense, all the constitutional conflict is maybe bad for the country but good for constitutional debate, which is what we exist at the National Constitution Center to host, trying to create a measure of public reason and resurrect the public reason that Madison thought was necessary for public - for democracy to survive. So if you ask what I'm most concerned about, I think it would be the death of that public reason.

If we really do live in a post-fact society and if we're so much in our filter bubbles and echo chambers that citizens can't converge around a common understanding of facts, then we can't sustain the public reason and civil discourse, which includes constitutional discourse that Madison thought was necessary for the republic to survive. The framers were cynical about the future of democracy. They studied failed democracies like Greece and Rome. They read Demosthenes.

They designed a constitution on the assumption that democracy might well deteriorate into demagoguery. And they created these complicated systems in order to filter the will of the people from being directly expressed. So all of these new media technologies, the idea of presidents tweeting directly to the people would have appalled Madison, who thought that direct communication between representatives and the people was the main potential source of tyranny to be avoided. [EDITORIAL NOTE: I would disagree with that last sentence. While, the filtering mechanisms to keep fickle populism from swaying our foundations in the wind are important to the preservation of The Republic, the President is the only elected official represents and leads the entire nation. As such, whether by national broadcast or tweet, he should be able to communicate directly to the nation as opposed to being filtered through the courts or Congress.]

All of these filtering mechanisms are being undermined by technology, by reforms over the years, by the growing populist forces that are sweeping the world. And maintaining these Madisonian values in the face of these populist forces is something that I think liberals and conservatives increasingly should converge around.

GROSS: When you use the word populist, what do you mean?

ROSEN: Direct expression of the people's will. So Brexit is a populist referendum. You decide a huge constitutional question with one vote. The framers would never have allowed that.

GROSS: Why not?

ROSEN: They believed that you had to filter public opinion so people had time to deliberate. Only after passing through lots of different bodies and tests and checks could representative bodies or constitutional conventions be entitled to speak in the name of we the people. The people's constitutional views are supposed to be their most thoughtful, deliberative, deeply considered views completely separate from the temporary passions of the moment that can be measured by referenda or even by ordinary laws. So the whole constitutional system is designed to avoid spot votes and quick decisions and to ensure deliberation and public reason.

GROSS: And tyranny of the majority?

ROSEN: And tyranny of the majority, absolutely. And tyranny of the minority, too. The framers are concerned both about majority and minority faction. And a faction is any group of people, whether a majority or a minority, that binds together to threaten liberty and to threaten the interests of the people. And it can be mobs online, and it can be expressed in laws. And the framers designed the system to ensure that those forms of tyranny could not survive.

February 4, 2017

Jason Barney | jason@jasonbarney.com | 480-818-2000 | Back to Home Page