One of the interesting things about both the now-in-progress military coup in Egypt and the tide of protests in Turkey is how both are reflected in U.S. politics.
In modern American politics, we decry – with good reason – the seemingly permanent deadlock in modern U.S. politics that is the result of institutional mechanisms preventing majoritarian over-reach.
Historically, one of the biggest concerns of the founders of the U.S. was “tyranny of the majority”, which is the flip side of not having requirements for super-majorities and filibusters to pass fundamental legislation.
From a coldly practical point of view, the efficacy of democracy as a system lies not in some kind of general moral superiority, but simply that assuming free and fair elections, any protest against the system is doomed to represent only a minority of the population (granted, of course, that armed support is evenly represented across the population, which of course is rarely the case in fact.)
Put more bluntly, democracy’s success as a modern institution may lie simply in its inclination to discourage armed dissent as being a doomed enterprise.
When a democratic state either shuffles between rival internal power structures – for example, in the U.S., where Republicans and Democrats battle fiercely for control of Congress and the office of the President – or, alternatively, possesses sufficient checks on majoritarian abuse – either by tradition, legal requirements for super-majorities, or judicial oversight based on constitutional minority protections – the system more or less works.
But what happens when this balance collapses, or never existed in the first place?
I would suggest that this is exactly what is happening in both Egypt and Turkey. In both places there is a solid – albeit slim – majority that stands in favor of a religious-ish state. In Turkey, the current prime minister has been in power for some ten years, and interprets democracy in a majoritarian light which says, “Well, my party won the election, so I don’t care what the other 49% of the population thinks.” It Egypt, Morsi clearly believes likewise, that a majority – however slim – justifies complete disregard of any minority position.
This is, in fact, a fair interpretation of a “truly” democratic state. It is also a complete disaster in the making.
To be sure, the majority should take the lead in the political process, but where a solid-but-slim majority sees nothing wrong with utterly disregarding the nearly half of their population that disagrees with them, they are in effect just putting up a big sign saying, “Please start a civil war, ‘kay?”
When any political faction feels that it has no hope of ever even influencing the political process, such a political faction will inevitably become divested from having a stake in the nation. When there is no reason to participate in the political process, the political process is no longer seen as a viable engine for change, and other options – usually violent – begin to be considered, first on the fringes, but then increasingly in the mainstream.
The United States has a long democratic tradition, and, as well, the levers of powers are more evenly split than in either Turkey or Egypt. The trouble lurking behind all this, however, is that the primary source of the current split in power in the United States is primarily due to absolutely horrific levels of district gerrymandering and other policies that have the effect of diluting votes and leading voters to conclude – correctly – that their vote can’t actually have an impact.
Ironically, although this cooking of the political system promotes more deadlocks in the political process in the United States, it also has the effect of dampening what would otherwise be the impact of the massive demographic shifts occurring today. Longer term, one can expect the effects of the current political deadlock to force more and more issues to be deferred rather than directly addressed, chipping away at the United States’ once-great physical and human infrastructure until it is a shadow of what it once was.
No modern state is purely democratic, and the reasons for that are playing out right now on the world stage. While it is probably futile at this point in history, we would be better served by approaching the political system in a more nuanced manner, as opposed to the current rigid focus on the “democratic” part of our political engines.
Contrary to popular cultural belief, we really haven’t solved the problem of how to structure a political system that fairly invests and balances the needs of both the majority and the minority of any population. It’s time to stop congratulating ourselves on what fine political systems we have developed, and get back to work at improving said systems.