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Anti-democracy and you

Troubling pieces of legislation like Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration bill, France’s proposed ban on wearing face-covering veils in public and last year’s Swiss law banning the construction of minarets may seem like simple acts of bigotry. True enough, but there’s also something more far-reaching at play.

It’s safe to assume that you’ve heard all about Arizona’s law, some of the more extreme provisions of which are currently delayed by a stay issued in federal court. Also widely reported was Switzerland’s referendum, in late 2009, which made it unconstitutional for minarets—towers sometimes attached to mosques—to be built in the country.

French legislators didn’t receive quite the same amount of press a few weeks ago when they passed a bill that would make it illegal for Muslim women (or anyone) to publicly wear a veil or any other garment that covers the entire face. The proposal will become law in France if the Constitutional Council approves it.

It’s well known that democracies exist under constant threat of “the tyranny of the majority.” You’ve probably read Federalist No. 10, in which James Madison warns against factionalism: “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government… enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”

The French veil-ban, SB 1070 and the Swiss anti-minaret amendment all involve certain factions—badly misguided French senators or pandering Arizona legislators or a reactionary Swiss voting public—conspiring to create laws that target specific racial, ethnic or religious groups and restrict their liberties in ways not otherwise foisted upon citizens belonging to other groups. In other words, powerful majority factions and/or their representatives have, in the United States, France and Switzerland, been guilty of tyranny against particular minority factions.

So, we have yet another set of reminders of the dangers of factionalism, and the difficulty of keeping democracies—with their usual implicit pledges of equal rights for all, etc.—in good health. Madison was right in Federalist No. 10, and woe be to us if we ever start to ignore him. Let’s do whatever we can to fight and block and repeal these stupid laws and all like them.

Agreed. But as it turns out, however, the fight against corrosive factionalism isn’t always as straightforward or as satisfying as the struggle against individually deplorable pieces of legislation.

In America, for instance, both extremes of the left-right political spectrum—and everyone in between—are almost constantly guilty of reactionary rhetoric that has little to do with solving problems. For evidence of factionalist conceits, look to President Obama’s infamous campaign remark about broadly stereotyped working-class voters who “cling to guns or religion” or any screed that uses the word “liberal” accusatorily.

Clichéd terminology like “partisanship” and “culture wars” aside, the truth is that Madison had it even more right than we usually give him credit for. Factionalism doesn’t have to flirt with active bigotry (like the three laws discussed earlier) to be dangerous to the functioning of a democracy. All that’s needed is for people to group up and begin nursing disdain and misinformed resentment of other people.

How do you tell an ardent factionalist apart from someone who simply happens to be part of a group, political or otherwise? Simple: Listen and see who is bent on imagining some enemies into existence. The damaging kinds of factionalist thought require that you view the human race as a series of factions, all of which are either allies or enemies of your faction. Needless to say, that’s not a mindset that leads to any particular flowering of reason or noble impulses.

In the case of the United States, the problem is not that our political culture features strong disagreements—that’s healthy. The problem is that unnecessarily divisive factionalism is ever-present in our political rhetoric. We stand on a slippery slope when we indulge factionalist posturing, which employs factual, if extremely broad categories—native-born vs. immigrant, Christian vs. Muslim—and more ephemeral ones—liberal vs. conservative—to emphasize demographic distinctions.

This kind of rabid distinction-drawing can lead to a total breakdown of communication and sympathy. It’s all too easy to start to believe that we are as different, and therefore as naturally opposed to one another, as peddlers of divisive factionalist rhetoric would lead us to believe. In reality, we’re all just citizens, with plenty of problems in common. Minarets aren’t one of them.

Only out of a morass of factionalism could otherwise healthy democracies dredge up laws as maliciously divisive as the three idiocies on display in Arizona, France and Switzerland. Let’s hope that we at Duke—as a faction, if you will—are learning to avoid such groupthink. Mindlessness may not be literally anti-democratic, but it might as well be.

Connor Southard is a Trinity junior. He is studying in New York for the semester. His column runs every Thursday.

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