Obama's Convenient (And Dangerous) Majoritarianism


President Obama's Borg-ish inaugural message has already been dissected by Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie. As Matt points out, "This is a man who literally cannot envision a world in which a Golden Gate Bridge gets built without central planning from Washington, or where the 21st century doesn't rely on a transport technology invented in the 19th." I'll add that the president's constant use of the word "we" conveniently assumes a mass identity and collective will for the American people that is not only impossible, but would be dangerous if ever taken seriously.

Fortunately, President Obama almost certainly knows that his repetition of "we" and "together" is triumphalist crap. When he says, "[n]ow, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people," he really means, "hey guys, I won the toss. Please let me have the ball!" But he's also appealing to an audience largely raised on simplistic ideas of democracy to view the outcome of a close presidential election as a "mandate," whatever the hell that is.

About a decade ago, I was invited to speak to a writing class at Northern Arizona University (motto: "It's a real college, honest!") to explain just what it is that I do. To keep things interesting, I wrote up a scenario in handout form about a hypothetical republic inhabited by adherents of a majority religion and a minority religion. In my scenario, the country's dominant faith is undergoing a religious revival marked by intolerance. In short order, the majority repeals the country's equivalent of the First Amendment by popular referendum, and then mandates the closure of the minority's temples and the education of its children in the majority faith. The minority faces suppression and, potentially, the extinction of their beliefs, all done perfectly legally and by majority vote.

"What," I asked the class, "should the minority do?"

"Aren't they protected by the First Amendment?" one student asked.

"Repealed," I said. "Read your handout."

Pretty quickly, the class divided roughly in half, between those who thought the minority should tell the majority to get stuffed, and those who invoked the phrase "majority rule" and thought that anything decided democratically was just swell.

Frankly, this was all a lot more interesting than really talking about what I do. I was also pretty encouraged that so many of the students rejected the idea that a majority vote can anoint every policy and act with righteousness. "We" and "together" become monstrous when they're invoked to deprive people of their freedom or submerge their identity into some artificial collective whole. I distinctly remember my own Social Studies teachers feeding us variations on "the majority is always right" — a proposition that, even to my young mind, seemed dubious when I considered the possibility of my classmates voting on anything. I would have preferred to see similar skepticism shared by all of the kids in that college classroom, but maybe their classmates didn't jam scissors through their hands while trying to open a horse chestnut (true story). And maybe the kids in the majoritarian faction really believe, deep down, that "we" have the right to do terrible things, or the obligation to abide by them, so long as we do them "together."

As I said, I don't think the president believes the Borg-ish nonsense in his speech. I think he's stroking his backers and taunting his opponents with the idea that he represents some collective American identity. But if any of those former NAU students remember the slightly prickly political columnist who showed up in their class one day, I hope they recall that handout when they hear politicians use the words "we" and "together."