Americans have a thing for democracy. Some Americans, in fact, claim to love it so much that they want to make it our primary export. Even those who aren’t particularly fond of the idea of a war in Iraq are behind the notion that we’re bringing democracy to the beleaguered Iraqi citizens. Those Americans who feel that way are those, however, who don’t really understand democracy much at all.
There’s a saying that goes, “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.” The more educated American will point out that we don’t live in a true democracy, but rather in a democratic republic, or representative democracy. They apparently don’t know the corollary of that old saying which states, “Representative democracy is when the flock elects a wolf to decide what’s for dinner.”
Our political representatives are supposed to take into consideration the desires of their constituents. Since they want to be re-elected, they often do. The problem, of course, is that poll-driven politicians all too often lose sight of the best thing to do in their exclusive focus on what might be the most popular thing to do. Compounding the situation is the fact that far too many voters couldn’t care less about far too many other voters. They communicate their own selfish desires via letters, phone calls, or election ballots to their politicians; in their selfish desire to be re-elected, politicians then frequently cast their votes accordingly.
Our founding fathers, who weren’t idiots, left us with a representative democracy and a list of safeguards to prevent either an absolute pure majority rule, or an absolute representative majority rule. That list of safeguards is often referred to as “The Bill of Rights.” The first ten amendments were written and ratified specifically to ensure that the government, no matter what the majority thought it wanted, couldn’t take away certain rights considered “unalienable.” At one time, those rights were all but sacrosanct. Thanks to the desires of the majority (or at least a perceived majority), that’s the case no more.
The right to free speech was enumerated largely to protect unpopular speech. After all, popular speech needs little if any protection! The founders really intended this amendment to protect political speech which was too often curtailed in their time, but the First Amendment has come into the present day as the protector of virtually all forms of free expression. Unfortunately, too many people now view those protections to be unimportant, or even problematic, when it comes to interfering with their own sense of appropriateness or offense.
A huge majority, for example, oppose Internet pornography . It’s already illegal ? and for good reason ? to pander such material to children. Beyond that, why should your disgust have any bearing on the expression of others? You don’t, after all, have to expose yourself to any of it. But because the majority disapproves, laws continue to be made, and lives and livelihoods ruined.
Meanwhile, most Americans ? according to a recent poll ? support the idea of a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration . Despite repeated rulings that have found burning a flag and the like to be constitutionally protected political speech, the majority sentiment has seen Congress bring the possibility of an amendment back for consideration time and again. This year, with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the effort may just succeed. Of course, the fact that this particularly inflammatory (pardon the pun) kind of political speech could very well be outlawed just lends precedent to the probability that more such laws (if not amendments) will follow.
The First Amendment guarantees us the freedom of association and of petitioning the government for redress. In spit of those protections, and as extreme as many of us would have thought it scant years ago, there have already been multiple indicators from authorities that merely speaking out against the War on Terror or the war in Iraq could be considered tantamount to a criminal act!
Along with the pornography, flag burning, and “unpatriotic” speech that so many find offensive comes the prohibition of other kinds of speech (indicating racism or bigotry and the like) that many don’t care to hear. As a result, there are hate speech laws considered and enacted around the world. What makes these laws as dangerous as they are is that the many definitions of “hate speech” cover a broad range of unpopular opinions, some of which can be used quite handily against those who might otherwise support laws prohibiting such expression, or who at least didn’t have a problem with them until they, themselves became victims.
Freedom of religious worship is a big deal to most people given that it’s both very personal and heartfelt in the extreme. Yet too many people seem to think that religious freedom applies to them and those who agree with them rather than to others who choose to have faith in the “wrong” religion, or even worse, in none at all. At the forefront of this particular and ongoing movement are those who oppose the teaching of evolution without the simultaneous teaching of creationism. As unscientific and demonstrably wrong as this notion is, these advocates have the majority of the population on their side. Public schools, of course, are government entities which aren’t supposed to endorse any religion. Yet those who would demand Judeo-Christian creationism mythology in science classes are the first to protest any teaching of other creation stories as being erroneous or even sinful which denigrates other religions as specifically protected in the First Amendment. That it also represents a grave threat to science education is almost secondary.
There are those both within and without government, meanwhile, who would oppose virtually any religious expression on public property whatsoever. They’ll permit various groups to meet on campus, but deny the same rights to religious groups using the First Amendment as rationale for their discrimination. Religious groups have occasionally resorted to lawsuits merely to obtain the same rights to expression that other students enjoy on their own time albeit on school property. Fortunately, they usually win their suits thanks to the very First Amendment some authorities try to use against them, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, these same groups will often raise holy hell if schools or libraries permit groups with which they don’t agree to equally enjoy the facilities (homosexual groups, for example, often have problems getting or keeping meeting space in public venues as do pagan religious groups). Some people apparently don’t realize that penalizing other religious expression endangers their own.
Whatever the protections of the First Amendment up until now, virtually all have already been undermined or are under serious threat largely because the majority believes one way or another and is demanding that its sensibilities be honored at the expense of the different sensibilities of the minority.
The Second Amendment is, without question, an individual right. Though the courts all too frequently issue rulings in disparate ways, and even constitutional scholars fight over it, the reality is that if it were not, the words “the people” wouldn’t have been used. Such pre-eminent experts on the Constitution as the men who helped craft it later made clear that the Second was intended to apply to all citizens. Even so, a majority of Americans favor more gun control rather than less.
In Washington DC, where draconian gun laws have seen the city become one of the most crime-ridden in the country, Congress is finally seeing the light and working to repeal some of the laws there. But even in the face of such clear evidence, there are those in the capital who are vehemently protesting any repeal of any gun control laws there; some polls have shown that the majority of DC residents agree with the protesters. The same is also apparently true in Chicago and in New York City.
Politicians who cater to the majorities in these cities are often rabid supporters of gun control. Under their watch, these metropolitan areas have become dangerous places for the law-abiding, and easy pickings for criminals who know there’s little chance their selected victims will be able to mount an effective defense. Because their policies aren’t working, many ? likely those same majorities ? believe that still stricter laws or even outright bans on firearms are necessary (there’s no shortage of those who, like leaders in Columbus, Ohio, believe that local assault weapons bans are a good idea despite absolutely zero evidence an earlier national ban had any effect whatsoever).
There’s no question that the majority has managed to steal the Second Amendment rights of the minority; what’s also obviously true is that that theft has actively caused very real harm to many.
Intended to protect all of us from unwarranted searches and seizures, the Fourth Amendment is effectively dead and gone thanks in part to the War on Drugs, and in balance to the War on Terror. The USA PATRIOT Act, enacted after the 9/11 terror attacks, was intended as a weapon for law enforcement in the War on Terror. What it really proved to be was a scissors to be used on the Bill of Rights. Though civil liberties under the First and Sixth Amendments also suffered, perhaps the most egregious portions of the PATRIOT Act applied to the Fourth Amendment. Even some who favored the PATRIOT Act in intent and some portion of execution have expressed grave concerns about the Fourth Amendment implications.
The Department of Justice has often publicly said that the PATRIOT Act didn’t provide any powers law enforcement didn’t already enjoy, but rather codified them instead. If that’s the case, why did such a law even need to be enacted? That’s simple enough: Because the majority demanded that the government do something about terrorism. The fact that the something the government chose to do infringed on civil liberties had no bearing. In fact, despite the fact that most Americans know their civil liberties are being infringed, the majority don’t care! Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, some 65% of Americans indicated they’d be willing to give up liberty for safety; today, almost four years later, when push comes to shove, the majority still feels pretty much the same.
It almost goes without saying that there are examples of the majority overriding the minority where Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth Amendment rights are concerned as well (though interest in the Fifth Amendment’s property rights provision has enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent Kelo v. The City of New London decision). The right to privacy, too, has suffered greatly thanks to the prevailing attitude of a majority who say they have nothing to hide and so fear no searches. Having nothing to hide has no more bearing on the right to privacy than the need to defend oneself has on the unalienable right of having the ability to do so, but that is, unfortunately, the viewpoint of a minority.
If the majority of Americans really do support the notion of freedom ? and I have no reason to believe that they don’t despite their actions borne of fear, selfishness, or outright ignorance ? they must be willing to protect the rights of all. Democracy cannot be absolute, or freedom will soon be absolutely gone.
There is, by the way, a continuation of the wolf and sheep analogies with which this column began which goes:
? A Constitutional Republic: Voting on dinner is expressly forbidden, and the sheep are armed.
? Federal Government: The means by which the sheep will be fooled into voting for a Democracy.
? Freedom: Two very hungry wolves looking for dinner and finding a very well-informed and well-armed sheep
The American sheep have already been well fooled into voting themselves at least the idea of a Democracy. That means that the wolves are already loose. But because of that same Democracy, the sheep do have a few weapons already at hand. They’re still able to engage in voting some of the wolves out of office if they can gather the will to do so, and they can consider refusing to be led without question to the further slaughter of civil liberties. They can stand up and accept a little personal responsibility, and they can recognize that liberty occasionally carries with it some risk.
Anything less than that on their part will eventually result in the final analogy being carried out in the real world. That’s the one where freedom will be regained, but at a very real cost to the wolves, and almost certainly plenty of sheep as well. Surely the majority can’t condone that…