When the Majority Shouldn’t Rule

Many of the ancient world’s best and brightest—Plato and Aristotle in particular—held democracy to be among the worst possible forms of government because the great majority of men and women are ruled not by their reason but by their passions.

We of the haunted, latter-day Western world have, since infancy, nursed an unequivocal faith in democracy, that wondrous system of majority rule, minority rights, and special privileges for no one. Yet it’s no secret that many of the ancient world’s best and brightest—Plato and Aristotle in particular—held democracy to be among the worst possible forms of government. Their reasoning was simple. The great majority of men and women are ruled not by their reason but by their passions. The more the passions are indulged, the greater their ascendancy over the other faculties. When the majority, guided by their appetites and base desires, are given command over the polis, things tend to fall apart. 

The Founding Fathers established the United States with much of Aristotle’s philosophy in mind. Having taken liberal doses of cynicism from the likes of Machiavelli and Hobbes, they, too, hesitated to give political carte blanche to the masses. Rather, a representative government, its powers and its potential for evil distributed, might be better placed to serve the people’s best interests. And the best interest of all humanity, as Aristotle held and experience shows, is happiness. That government governs best which tends to the greatest degree of full human flourishing. And it is one of the enduring mysteries of human nature that, left to our own devices, most of us tend not to be happy.

Many who bewail the Dobbs ruling do so on the grounds that the Supreme Court has abused its authority in order to foist the religious conservatism of its majority on the American people. The majority, that is, is barred from exercising its will by this brazen partisan court. Those who reason thus often admit that the Roe court was likewise guilty of political activism but that the Dobbs court is worse because five decades under Roe have produced a broad cultural shift so that abortion now enjoys widespread support among the American public. This can scarcely be doubted. What’s more dubious, though, is whether the American public has become better equipped to govern itself in that half century.

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Imagine, by way of comparison, a family. While his children are young, the father permits only nutritious foods in his home. He keeps a vegetable garden in the backyard, and the children help him in raising rabbits and chickens. The children are healthy and strong. They go to bed early and rise early. They are studious, disciplined, courteous with each other and their parents, though they are still prone to all the brief skirmishes and outbursts which are the province of childhood.

One day, new construction begins across the street. Soon, a red roof and golden arches gleam in the free American sunshine. McDonald’s has come to town. Our father has heard of this place in rumors from the big city. He is wary. He eyes askance the long lines of smiling diners who are there when he leaves home each morning and returns each evening. Then, on his way to work one morning, he gives in. He orders breakfast. It is delicious, and he is ashamed. He does not tell his wife. But the seed has been planted, and when a McDonald’s opens across the street from his office, his doom is sealed. He gets his lunch there every day. Before long, his wife notices: “But darling, your pants have gotten tight, haven’t they?” 

“Haha,” shouts little Timmy from across the table, “tight pants! Daddy’s getting fat!”

Little Timmy’s been saucy lately. Because there’s more. Mommy’s noticed McDonald’s, too. She and the children have been enjoying its savory riches every day as well.

Weight rises, tempers flare, the garden out back goes to seed, and the rabbits, escaped from their cages, devour its goods and then disappear themselves. Our family is off on a long road toward divorce, depression, and heart disease.

This is caricature. Yet it is difficult to imagine a polity more like caricature than America, and in any case the point stands: virtue is difficult, and in vicious circumstances we tend almost inexorably to vice. Just as good laws may do much to encourage virtue, bad laws lead to bad habits, to bad ways of thinking, to bad lives.

Democracy does not necessitate such moral decadence. Even Aristotle makes the allowance that the majority may at times, pooling their collective virtue, be capable of greater good than a few excellent individuals. A well-educated and morally upright body politic may indeed become a light among the world’s nations. Alexis de Tocqueville seems to have thought the America he knew to be just that sort of country.

But history is not a chronicle of constant progress. A citizenry becomes good when circumstances tend toward the goodness of its members. And our usurious, technocratic culture does not tend to produce goodness. It rather thrives on our failing to be good, on our inability to achieve that excellence for which we are made. The fast-food chains depend on our preference for the cheap, the quick, and the salty. The auto dealer and the bank profit in proportion to our poor decision-making. The healthcare industry, harnessed to the insurance cabal, grows rich on our disease. And the smartphone makers have made of us that standing reserve which Martin Heidegger saw as the great danger of technology. We have become a herd of consumers trained to buy the new model, year after year, on credit extended to death and beyond. A sick, depressed, lascivious, imprudent populace best serves the interests of the powers that be.

To this it should be added that while more information is available to us than ever before, we are also more open than ever to those who would misinform us, whether through ignorance or malice. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and the universe of podcasts provide limitless space to the amateur horde in search of money and a moment of fame. Looking into the screens of our computers, our televisions, our smartphones, our watches, listening to our radios and earbuds and Alexas, we are awash in information and misinformation and ill-equipped to tell the difference.

Has the Court cut against the will of our majority? Good. Our majority has lost its senses. Perhaps after fifty more years it will have regained them. Sound law may help, but the restoration of the American people to the greatness of which they are capable will not occur simply by law but by a return to the moral sobriety that produces good husbands and wives, good mothers and fathers, good men and women and children who are educated in things good, true, and beautiful and so produce a culture which allows for happiness.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

  • Daniel Fitzpatrick

    Daniel Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel Only the Lover Sings. His new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrated by sculptor Timothy Schmalz, was published last year in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. His nonfiction study of the sabbath and acedia, Pharaoh Within, is forthcoming this year from Sophia Institute Press. He lives in Tampa with his wife and three children.

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