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Scaling Democracy
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Scaling Democracy

Democracy is great, but as the franchise increases, majorities can get the power to oppress minorities.


Barring some crazy news breaking between now and tomorrow—I know, what’re the odds of that?—I’m going to write my regular column on the Middle East stuff, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it here. 

But since some readers are wildly overinterpreting my silence on the topic, let me say it plainly: It’s a big deal and a good thing, and Donald Trump deserves some credit—on the merits, but even more so according to the rules of the game. On the merits part, Trump rejected the existing assumptions about how the Middle East works in general and the Israel-Palestinian issue in particular. I think his views on the region, as with so many issues, are very simplistic (he talks about sand a lot). But in this instance, simplicity aligned with reality was a good bet. I think this thread from my friend Noah Pollak is very good, even if I think it leaves a few important things out. 

Anyway, I’ll cover all that substance-y stuff in the column. 

But as for the rules of the game, we can spend a little time on that. 

I turned on CNN at 5 p.m. yesterday to catch the coverage of the signing ceremony. Wolf Blitzer was anchoring, and while I didn’t think his stage-setting was great, it wasn’t terrible. However it was a missed opportunity in that Wolf actually knows a great deal about the Middle East. (He was a journalist stationed in Jerusalem for decades and speaks fluent Hebrew.) Wolf quickly went to White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who offered one or two sentences about the ceremony and the agreement before quickly pivoting to the “real” issue: That those in attendance weren’t wearing masks or social distancing properly. In his interview with Jared Kushner, he didn’t ask about the accords. He asked about mask-wearing. 

Look, I think the Trump administration’s disregard for its own pandemic protocols is indefensible and worthy of both coverage and condemnation. But it simply wasn’t the news of the day. And you can be sure that if a similar breakthrough occurred—yes, even during a pandemic—under a Democratic administration, this would be hailed as an enormous, historic moment. And if people weren’t wearing masks, that would get about as much attention as the substance of the agreement got in CNN’s coverage.

And that’s what I mean about the “game.” I’ve argued for decades now that presidents get way too much credit—and blame—for stuff that happens on their watch. For instance, presidents don’t “create” very many jobs, outside of government. Implicit in this formulation is that presidents “run” the economy the way a captain runs a ship. They don’t. There’s no machine with a button that says “Create Jobs” or “Destroy Jobs.” And people who actually believe in the free market should understand that. Similarly, not every foreign policy breakthrough is as simple as saying, “The president did it.” Ronald Reagan gets a lot of credit for the end of the Cold War, and rightly so. But any serious understanding of what led to the Cold War’s demise has to involve doling out credit to lots of people and to forces beyond any president’s control. 

But such nuance and context is not a major part of the equation of daily journalism, particularly daily TV journalism. That doesn’t reflect well on the profession but that’s how the game has been played for generations. And as frustrating—and often stupid—as the rules of that game are, throwing them out to deny Trump credit is not in the interest of the country or the media itself. I understand that so much of elite media now caters to what their niche audiences want to hear rather than what they need to hear. But if you want to refute the Trumpian narrative that the media is illegitimate (or at least ignorable) because all they care about is undermining Trump, maybe you shouldn’t live down to Trumpian expectations.

Democracy at scale.

Let’s say you really love democracy and think every country should be democratic. Indeed, if you take the assumptions embedded in conceptions of human rights and follow them to their logical conclusion, you should think this. Right and wrong don’t lose their meaning simply by crossing some national or international border. 

Now, I actually do think this. I think ideally every country in the world should be democratic, in the way we describe countries like America, Britain, France, etc. as democracies. This doesn’t mean we should—or could—forcibly convert every despotic nation to democracy nor should we impose our strict definitions of democracy on anyone. But as a general rule, we should be on the side of democracy and democracies always and everywhere. But, I also think it would be insane—truly insane—to run the whole world as a single democratic polity. 

So here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if the U.N. were really a “parliament of man.”

As Barbie once said, “Math is hard,” but bear with me. World population is currently 7.8 billion. So if every delegate to the U.N. represented, say, 10 million people, China and India (which each have just under 1.4 billion people) would get 140 representatives apiece. The United States would get 33. France would get six or seven, and Canada three or four. 

Who here thinks that sounds like a great idea? 

If you do think that’d be awesome and fair? Well, then bless your heart.

But I think—and certainly hope—most reasonable would think this is an absolutely terrible idea. These two countries—accounting for 35 percent of the world’s population—would start out with essentially 70 percent of the votes they’d need for a majority. Does anyone doubt they couldn’t cobble together the final 15 percent of the world’s population (plus one) to get them there?

Remember, just because China and India are democracies in this scenario doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be keen on voting to do stuff that would be very bad for America. And just because their agenda would be democratic wouldn’t mean it couldn’t be tyrannical. As the Founding Fathers were keen to point out, democratic majorities can be just as despotic as any other kind of ruler. What if the world voted to ban English or Christianity, or for that matter, solar panels, quinoa, or private property? You can shout, “It’s democracy!” all you want—it would still be despotic.

So even if you were all-in for global government, you might want some checks on the power of the global masses. You might suggest splitting the U.N. parliament into two. One body would be representative of population, but the other would be representative of individual nations. Under this scheme, America would get its 33 representatives and China its 140 in the lower body, but only two in the upper body. Little Lebanon, even though it only has 6.6 million inhabitants, would get one vote in the lower body, but two in the upper body. 

Still, this might not be enough to allay your concerns. After all, both global legislatures could still end up voting for some terrible things, like banning free speech or basset hounds. So you might also want some further guarantees enshrined in a charter of some kind that put some things pretty much off limits from the global majority. You might think of publishing a kind of bull (like the pope does—it’s actually where the word “bill” in its legislative understanding comes from) that enumerates those rights. You might even call it something like … a Bill of Rights, and establish some rules that make it extremely difficult to amend. 

Hopefully by now, you know what I’m getting at. Democracy is great. But it’s not perfectly scalable, because as the franchise increases, majorities can get the power to oppress minorities. The best way to ensure that the most people get to live the way they want to live is to put in reasonable bulwarks at every level. I’m against global government, at least for the next few centuries, but even if I were in favor of it, I’d want some substantial subsidiarity built in. Singapore should be democratic, but it should be a democracy primarily for Singaporeans. The ability of the global majority to erase or simply meddle with how Singaporeans govern themselves would have to be severely constrained for world government to be remotely decent or just.

This was exactly the thinking that went into the American system of federalism, and it’s central to the Electoral College. And I am simply amazed by how many people can’t wrap their heads around this. I wrote about the Electoral College in my first column this week, and the responses from some people are utterly bizarre to me. It’s as if I was defending dictatorship or something. 

Subsidizing subsidiarity.

In a properly ordered free society, the questions left to the whole country to decide democratically would be very limited. That’s not because I don’t like democracy, but because I want democracy to function properly. The number of political questions in, say, Rhode Island, that are also the business of Californians is very small—or should be. Yes, we all get to decide whether or not Rhode Island can have slaves—they can’t—but why Californians should get a vote on whether Rhode Islanders can sell unpasteurized cheese is beyond me.

Some of the opposition to the Electoral College and, increasingly, the Senate because they’re “undemocratic” is obviously sincere. I just think it’s wildly wrong and impractical. The Senate is democratic, for Pete’s sake. Californians democratically choose their senators. If you want to get rid of senators, what is the point of having states at all? And if you want to give residents of California more political clout, why not just break up California? That would be much easier procedurally than getting rid of the sSenate. And if you don’t like that idea, you have to explain why it’s important for California to be a state in the first place. 

But a lot of the opposition is really just about power. One giveaway is that the people who say it’s outrageous that small population states like Montana and Wyoming get two votes in the Senate never mention that Vermont and Hawaii do, too. Another tell, as I noted, is that the same people who rail against the Electoral College as a bastion of slavery were quite boastful of the Democrats’ “Blue Wall” in the Electoral College until 2016.

I wish I could say that right-wing support for the Electoral College was all in good faith, but I suspect that much of it these days is driven by the same sort of calculation. If the math worked the other way, you can be sure that Trump and the new nationalists would denounce the Electoral College as an outdated relic holding back the authentic Will of the People™. “The system is rigged!” Indeed, if you take the logic of nationalism seriously, you should oppose the Electoral College as just another Enlightenment-era relic holding back the Volksgemeinschaft or something. 

The truth is that federalism (localism, subsidiarity—choose your own label) is the best system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness, because it lets the most people live the way they want to live. Pure democracy, like all other forms of despotism and totalitarianism, is contemptuous of minority communities, even when huge majorities of those communities want to live differently than the larger majority. And if you should happen to live in a minority community that doesn’t suit you, the great thing about federalism is that it protects other communities that might be more to your liking. 

In a global democracy, Costa Rica should be able to live pretty much as it wants. And in a continental democracy, Rhode Island should too—the logic stays the same, after all.

Photograph by Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.