»  National Review Online

January 28, 2002



I used to have a colleague who was way out on the political Left. On every issue you could think of, she was a straight-down-the-ticket hard-left liberal: pro-abortion, anti-gun, affirmative action, anti-military, soak the rich, the whole package. Her ideal of an American politician — I asked her once — was Norman Thomas. No kidding.

A word she used a lot, I noticed, was "majoritarianism". She had, in fact, a minor obsession on this point. We must beware, she used to warn me, of the peril of majoritarianism. The majority must be restrained. Majorities favored segregation! Majorities kept women in subjection! Majorities supported the Vietnam war! Majorities marginalized homosexuals! Majorities condoned the Final Solution! Beware majoritarianism! Her favorite short story, which she even got me to read, was that dopey one by that woman writer whose name I forget, about the village where once a year they pick someone by lot and stone him to death. "This is the greatest American short story," my colleague assured me. Uh-huh.

Now, of course, she had a point (about majorities, not about that dumb story). "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" is not a bad slogan, and as a natural contrarian myself, I'm very ready to cast a suspicious eye on anything that has majority approval. I am also, like you, a member of several minorities myself: gun owner, dog owner, immigrant, conservative Republican, etc. Things can be taken too far, though. As malign and cruel as the will of the majority may occasionally be, we should consider the possibility that an unrestrained fear and loathing of the majority might lead us into a different, equally poisonous, political aberration: the sin of minoritarianism.

Let me illustrate what I mean. I was arguing recently with someone — not that colleague — about abortion. Now, this is a topic I confess I don't feel strongly about. I think abortion's wrong, should be discouraged, and should be hedged around with restrictions. I certainly don't think it's equal to murder, though, and I wouldn't vote for it to be made illegal in my state. (As to what business it is of the federal government, that one has me baffled.) If there is some definite medical, psychiatric or social reason — something more pressing than mere personal convenience — and if, in the case of a minor, parental approval is forthcoming; and if, where the impregnator steps forward, his approval is forthcoming too, I'd allow it. I guess that makes me an abortion liberal by conservative American standards, and I'm sorry if that breaks your heart, but that's how I feel.

Well, my opponent was arguing for unrestricted abortion rights; a position that I, as I have just explained, don't agree with. To buttress my case against open abortion, I said something I didn't think about much at the time, but which seems to me worth discussing. I said approximately this: "Huge numbers of Americans — a majority in many states — find abortion offensive and immoral. I don't see why their sensibilities should be assaulted, just to accommodate people who want convenience abortions."

The key word here is "accommodate." How far should society go to accommodate the wishes of minorities? A very popular answer at the present point in U.S. history, at any rate on the Left, and at any rate in regard to "approved" minorities, is: "All the way! Give 'em everything they want!" I'm sorry, but I don't buy this.

In a civilized liberal democracy, majorities owe certain things to harmless minorities: tolerance, civility, and the rights affirmed in the Constitution — freedom of speech, assembly, etc. However, it seems to me that minorities owe something to the majority in return: mainly, a proper respect for their tastes, beliefs and sensibilities, and a decent restraint in challenging them, if there are some reasonable grounds for challenging them. This contract imposes some costs on minorities, of course, but I think they should look on those costs as the price of the tolerance they enjoy. Is that patronizing? Well, then add "being patronized" to the list of costs — none of which, in any case I can think of in American society today, is much more arduous or oppressive than that. There are, after all, reciprocal costs on the majority when they make those accommodations.

Take the minority of female citizens who want to be sexually active but can't be bothered to practice birth control. If a woman can't get an abortion, she'll just have to bear a child: which is to say, she will have to suffer a few months physical discomfort, followed by a moderately painful, but brief, clinical procedure. When you consider the kinds of penalties you can incur for other bad life choices, this is a bagatelle. The child can be given for adoption — plenty of people would be glad of it, so good will come from the error, which is more than you can say for most other kinds of human folly.

Again, take the clamor for homosexual "marriage." Big majorities of Americans think this idea is shocking. Why should those people's feelings be outraged in order to add a slight, optional convenience to the lives of a minority? Why, to put it bluntly, should the 97 per cent of the population who are not homosexual permit themselves to be jerked around by three per cent who are? — Permit themselves to be insulted, to be told that their feelings, which are honestly held and harm no-one, are bigoted, reactionary and neanderthal? Why should an institution thousands of years old, and revered by tens of millions of people, be turned inside out to placate a few thousand — or even a few million — noisy activists?

Yet again, take those Americans, like my wife, who speak English as a second language. It would be a great convenience for them if the state and federal governments did everything multilingually. Is that an accommodation we — we, the English-speaking majority — should make? Why not? Where's the harm in it? The harm is, that every time we make an accommodation of that kind, we lose a bit of the common center of norms that people — ordinary non-intellectual people, who don't want to re-invent society every thirty years — organize their lives around.

I sometimes suspect that my leftist friends see America as a fever swamp of racism, malice, envy and cruelty. They see the great mass of ordinary folk as a seething, dangerous mob, just looking for the opportunity to impose their norms by naked force on helpless, cowering minorities: to bring back Jim Crow, slam the closet door on homosexuals, kick women out of the professions and Jews out of the country clubs, and jeer at the English-challenged. Well, the ordinary Americans I know aren't like that, and don't want to do any of that. They are decent and tolerant, with very few exceptions.

Historian John Lukacs, in his book A Thread of Years, has a mid-20th-century Jewish immigrant from Central Europe express amazement that, in this country, the majority (white people) is scared of a minority (black people). In a way, this fear speaks well of Americans; and the knowledge of what actually happened to Central European minorities in the mid-20th century is surely one of the reasons the majority is so willing to yield to minority demands — and that speaks well of Americans, too. At the same time, it's hard not to feel that there is something ignoble about the phenomenon Lukacs observed. Moderation is appropriate in all peacetime arrangements; and the problem with being constantly bent over backwards to please others is, that after too much of it, you may find you've lost the ability to stand up straight and proud.

I don't see any danger at all that majorities will ride roughshod over minorities unless restrained by wise, omniscient elites. I do, though, see the opposite danger: that by allowing themselves to be browbeaten by those elites into yielding on every single point of accommodation demanded by every loud minority, the majority will find at last that they have no institutions, no traditions, no moral landmarks, no common understandings left, and will be adrift in a wasteland of moral relativism, naked to the cold, heartless winds of intellectual fashion.