American school children are taught many dry facts about the making of the U.S. Constitution. Some of them appear rather historical, i.e. no longer relevant. Only with time can we see that those apparently outdated issues somehow have never disappeared. One example is the fear of the tyranny of the majority, meaning the need to limit what the majority party in a democracy can impose on the minority.
The American historical context was the dispute over approval of the new constitution, which gave significantly more power to the federal government than under the previous system, which required allowed one state to veto any action. Since all the taxes that had driven the American colony to become independent had in fact been voted for by the English parliament, the American leadership understood that legitimate processes do not always make for legitimate decisions. Alexander Hamilton wrote the famous Federalist Papers to persuade the delegates to approve the new system. In the end, the convention had to add the first ten amendments, which are all limiting provision, to gain the required approval. Thus, the American revolutionaries had a great fear of the actions of the majority.
As I see it, they were correct. Let’s put aside the fact that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini, the 20th century’s leaders of the hit parade of murderers, were formally elected. You can argue that the economic conditions and their gangster tactics tainted their election. More relevantly, too many of the today’s major world leaders have manipulated their political systems and majority voters to destroy true democracy, i.e. any limitation on action or protection of minority views. As an example, the Russian people have elected Putin many times (for both president and Prime Minister). He has destroyed the opposition parties, free press and any serious challenge to his power, even killing the opposing candidate. His tactics must be convincing Stalin that democracy is not so bad after all. Almost in a similar manner, Erdogan has taken over Turkey, supported by the conservative population, imposing his view on more secular Turks. Ataturk must be turning over in his grave seeing how things are turning over above his grave, not that his tactics were so much different. Israel, my country, still has a functioning democracy, but the press and opposition have been severely weakened by government policies. Overall, it is very hard to find a healthy democracy today.
The basic causes, then and now, are twofold. It is natural for a person choosing to become a national leader to have an agenda, which by definition will have its opponents to one degree or another. This inherent conflict creates obstacles, which any leader would like to reduce or eliminate in order to facilitate implementation of the policy. This power struggle, between majority and minority, is omnipresent and inevitable. On a more sinister note, power is the most addictive of drugs. Few leaders willingly give up their position. It is extremely tempting for heads of state to guarantee your continuation of power by abusing the power of the majority and weakening institutions of criticism. The best and most well intentioned have fallen in this trap.
Still, to see or, even worse, to live in a sick democracy is a sad sight. Once again, the American solution, albeit almost two hundred years later, seems the best one. No American president can serve for more than two terms, period. The best protection is one that de Tocqueville described in his book Democracy in America in 1840: educated citizens must not allow their leaders to deprive citizens of their rights, even if they disagree with the expression of these rights. Let’s hope for more tolerant people and a better world.