A Place at the Table, or the Whole Damn Dining Room?

What kind of problem is it if a substantial minority of a community’s citizens are deeply and persistently opposed to a policy that the majority support? It is, among other things, a political problem. I found myself in an argument on Twitter with Damon Linker in which he cast himself as defending that proposition against critics like myself or Daniel Drezner, whom he suggested are content to ignore this kind of political problem.

Quite the contrary: worrying about this exact problem is a persistent theme for me at this blog. Which is why I don’t think Damon Linker or Ross Douthat or Rod Dreher are in fact being honest in their professed concern with this problem. I think they’re using that concern as a form of opinion-laundering, as a vicarious way to advocate positions that they’d rather not attribute to themselves.

Why should anyone worry when a democratically-constituted body of any size finds that there is a substantial minority opinion that is persistently excluded from decision-making or policy formation? At what point is that a concern?

It is not, for example, a concern immediately after when two or more factions disagree with one another on the cusp of an important decision and ultimately, one faction loses out in a vote. It is not a concern because the concerns of the losing faction may disappear or erode over time if the majority’s preferences are enacted and produce good outcomes. In many all-male colleges in the United States that shifted over to co-ed admissions between 1955 and 1975, there was considerable opposition from some faculty and alumni, almost all of which evaporated rapidly after their various predictions of negative consequences turned out to be absurdly untrue or out of touch with the wider society.

It is only a concern when that strong disagreement turns out to be persistent and when it conditions the relationships between different factions across the totality of their political participation and social interactions. People persistently disagree about whether cilantro is delicious, but unless you’re a maniac who puts it on everything you serve to other people or a person who throws a cilantro-covered taco back at your host’s face, it’s a divide that has little meaning.

When there is a strong, persistent and meaningful division of this kind, what does the majority owe to the minority faction? And what is the minority faction entitled to do about it?

This is the juncture where I think there’s bad faith—or at least wild inconsistency—involved in a certain kind of performative swoon about the alienation of white voters who want dramatic restrictions on immigration. Bad faith of several different kinds, in fact. First, because the question of why one should be concerned has both a practical component and an ethical component that should need some degree of consistent attention. Second, because the solution to this concern is by no means, “Give the minority what they want or else”.

Why is this a practical problem? Basically, because we assume that convictions held by a substantial minority that are wholly unrepresented in the policies or decisions of a body politic eventually lead to that minority leaving if they can or an uprising if they can’t.

There are a few cases where schism is a fine if still often upsetting outcome, say, in a church or non-profit organization where both groups will be happier under their own banner. There are cases where schism is something no one has ever found a way to do easily: nations and states don’t fission easily. If they can’t leave, then an uprising or civil war is bad for everyone.

But note that in both cases, the commitment of the minority group to their convictions has to be sufficient that they simply cannot abide life under the policies of the majority, and that they are potentially happy to get their way in their own organization, community or country. They can’t have their cake and eat it too—they can’t insist that not only do they have to have their own way, they have to have it over the majority. Because at that point, the practical problem doesn’t abate. It gets worse, in fact: there is nothing more explosive in practical terms than a minority faction that controls the policies that a majority strongly oppose. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to perturb Damon Linker or Ross Douthat or any of the other people wringing their hands in public right now about immigration policy. If they’re worried about what a minority frustrated by not getting their way might do, they ought to worry doubly about what a majority that doesn’t have their views proportionately represented in policy might do. In practical terms, that’s much more threatening and dangerous.

In ethical terms, what does a majority owe to a minority? Consideration and engagement, at least. Where it is possible to devolve or schism authority to allow a minority faction to do as it wills in some limited or bounded space of authority, that might be an ethical as well as practical gesture. There are also structures for deliberation in democratic communities that do a better job at checking or modifying majoritarian authority than simple decision rules that give 50.01 percent unlimited authority to determine all outcomes. The United States has federalism and it also has a government where authority is divided on purpose between different branches as a gesture in that direction, and that’s by no means the only way to erode majoritarian power. The reason this is an ethical obligation as well as a practical one is pretty easy to come by. If you’ve ever been outvoted persistently in a group to which you belong, you recognize that your membership in that group very quickly stops feeling like a fair, equal and human relationship. At some point that stops feeling like democracy and starts feeling more like domination. It matters little if you get to cast a vote if there is never any chance whatsoever of the majority respecting your views. I actually agree that we’re not making a good and patient case for pluralism to many people around the world now. There is some obligation to make this conversation a better conversation, and to not simply shout people down: that’s another thing I’ve been saying for more than a decade through this blog.

Just as in practice, though, this is a two-edged sword. A minority view that fails to understand itself as a minority view, that thinks of itself as a majority view that has fallen on temporary hard times, is prone to demand consideration beyond what it has any right to. If I show up as an atheist in a church congregation in my small village, and I ask people to consider me as a human being who has arrived at my own spiritual views with great care, I might be entitled to that consideration. I might even ask for an opportunity to address the group once in a while. But if I demand the pulpit for five minutes every Sunday because otherwise I’m not represented in any of the proceedings, I’m asking for something I have no right to have. I’m not even entitled to some fixed share of the decisions that are made in a democracy, because that undercuts the whole idea of the body politic deliberating together. If we make decisions according to a pie chart in which everyone gets a designated percentage of the decision, we’re not one organization or country, we’re loose association of separate organizations or countries with no right to make demands of one another in the first place. Whether I’m in the majority or minority, I have to be prepared to not have my will enacted sometimes if I’m even remotely serious about democratic decision-making.

This is where I really think Linker and Douthat and others show how little they actually believe in the line they’re slinging about immigration and the views of a faction of white voters. Because the answer to the problem of a persistent minority view is not to always make sure that some aspect of that view is encoded into the end decisions, to ensure that all decisions have something for everyone built into them. The first duty is to ask: who are we dealing with here, and why is it that they’re outvoted? It’s to investigate, and witness. So, let’s say, a population who’ve been systematically excluded from power for profoundly illiberal reasons, because of their ethnicity or race or religion or gender, not because of the content of their views? That requires taking what they say seriously in new ways. A minority who’ve been excluded because they were once the shapers of policy and the majority decided they shouldn’t be? That’s a different consideration. If you’ve actually made policy and you failed or were rejected, then you’re not entitled to the same consideration. If you made policy and you just make it somewhat less—-rather than being excluded completely—-you’re not entitled to the same consideration. If you’re excluded because what you advocate is the destruction of the existing order in its entirety—-you’re not entitled to the same consideration.

Moreover, what on earth do Linker and Douthat and similar writers think is “exclusion”? Even before Donald Trump took office, it was not the case that people who wanted limits on immigration were excluded from the making of immigration policy. The Obama Administration was in fact more aggressive than its predecessors at deporting illegal immigrants. Border controls have been enforced fairly stringently for the last twenty years, and they weren’t exactly porous before that. If you push through, it turns out that what Linker and Douthat really mean is that people who want tight limits on immigration in order to maintain racial and ethnic purity feel as if they’re not welcome to say so in mainstream public discourse. Meaning, it’s not the lack of actual controls on immigration that’s at issue here, it’s the idea that there should be a “place at the table” for the underlying racial and ethnic rationale behind particular limits on particular kinds of immigrants—and that anyone who disagrees should be obligated to be polite in their disagreement.

In a democracy, not every excluded constituency with an opinion has equal status. It’s not a damn equation, it’s a history. Former slaveowners in 1875 still had opinions about slavery that were unreconciled to the new birth of freedom envisioned by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. They were owed nothing, and it is the everlasting shame of the United States that they were given so much they were as Reconstruction crumbled and failed. It doesn’t matter what their percentages were: the point was that the Republic was or should have been on that point committed to a new understanding of its foundations.

This is where the special pleading that Linker and Douthat and Dreher and others are indulging is laid bare. Because they are not equally concerned for every 25% of opinion that is left unfulfilled by majority opinion. They’re not concerned for the many desires of the American majority, let alone various minority factions, that have gone thwarted for forty years and have “no place at the table” in the making of national policy: for campaign finance reform, for gun control, for reproductive rights, for generous funding of public education. They’re not as concerned for making sure that Black Lives Matter or the Green Party has a place at the table and a share of policy. This is not a generalized practical or ethical position that they are taking, in which every thwarted minority faction that has strong, persistent views needs to be incorporated generously into the making and discussing of national policy. It’s only one group that counts: aggrieved white conservatives who want to control the future demography of the United States so that it remains majority white.

Linker has been beating this drum for a few years: that it ought to be possible and legitimate to have a “particularist” preference—to want to live in homogeneous communities. He likes to attribute this view to those other people whom he just wants to have a place at the table rather than advocate that particularism himself. But he doesn’t really mean all kinds of particularism, just this one particular particularism. What goes uninvestigated is whether that is in fact what whites who want strong restrictions on legal and illegal immigration are in fact seeking. Because it’s actually fairly easy within the present United States to move into racially homogenous communities if that’s all you’re after. Pack your bags and head to Idaho or Oregon or Vermont, they’re very white. Why is that not good enough? Because what we’re talking about aren’t genuinely particularist aspirations for cultural homogeneity. They’re not genuine separatism. They don’t want to build something that expresses some distinctive or special culture and requires discipline to do so. That’s what the Amish do. That choice is already available to any group of people in the United States who feel strongly enough about the maintenance of a distinctive way of life. There is already a “place at the table” for that kind of particularism. What the people that Linker and Douthat are pleading for want is heterogeneity, but where they hold a structurally-guaranteed upper hand. They don’t want an end to Latinos cleaning the toilets and washing the dishes in the towns and places they live.W hat Linker’s objects of sympathy want is the ad hoc power to exclude, expel, and control people that they arbitrarily decide are a threat to their own status. To have a few Mexicans or Laotians or blacks, but not too many. To have people who are racially or culturally different around as long as they keep it quiet and out of sight, or as long as that difference is something that the whites like: a restaurant, say. There isn’t a philosophically coherent or consistent argument about a desired way of life that can be given a place at the table behind all of this, beyond the desire to maintain a form of power over racially defined others, to seek a permanent guarantee of their second-class citizenship.

Which once again casts this all in a different light. Perhaps one thing a democracy shouldn’t make a place at the table for is a desire for something other than democracy. Perhaps one thing a free society shouldn’t make a place for at the table is a desire to impose unequal restrictions on the freedom of some subset of its citizens.

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5 Responses to A Place at the Table, or the Whole Damn Dining Room?

  1. I think your instincts are pointing you in the right direction, but you are not going to get anywhere unless you define your terms. You used a form of the term “democracy” seven times in your essay but “republic” only once. There are differences between the two terms and they are very important. The problems you are concerned about here are found in republics all the time, but they are not a natural part of democracy.

    The problems you are concerned about are not primarily the mistreatment of minorities at the hands of majorities. In our republic there are seven hated groups who are mistreated by seven favored groups, and yet the seven hated groups are more numerous and in a real democracy they would be in power. The seven hated groups are the not-male, the not-white, the not-well-to-do, the not-Christian, the not-heterosexual, the not-native-born, and the disabled. You can see who the seven favored groups are.

    In democracies power is kept in the hands of the people. Transformative power is distributed equally among all citizens. If we truly lived in a democracy then the problems you are concerned about would vanish. In such a government the people, all the people, would have an equal voice in determining the rules by which we all must live. That does not happen in a republic.

    Ezra Klein has an essay on his blog right now in which he talks about a book entitled “How Democracies Die.” Klein and the authors of the book are dead wrong. They are talking about republics, not democracies. Republics die from the kinds of problems you are describing here. Republics allow people to form factions and factions do all the things you describe. Democracies crush factions.

    For the record, James Madison, in Federalist 10 told us that our government is a republic not a democracy. and he explained the differences.

    “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. ”

    I know that all living politicians and all political scientists and probably all historians and all public school teachers, and, and, and, believe that America is a democracy but it is not. It is a republic and the difference identified by Madison, the delegation of the government to a few people by means of elections enables all of the problems you are concerned about.

    If you keep on trying to solve our problems within the framework of the present systems of government and economics you will always fail.

    If, on the other hand, you want to take a step back and design a real democracy then you will succeed.

  2. This is a wonderful synthesis of various threads of multiple online arguments lately, Tim: pink hats, shitholes, and more. I agree with a great deal, but not all, of it. I think you’re completely out of line in putting Damon’s association with this line of reasoning–he really does show sympathy to exclusivist and communitarian thinking because he’s a Millian liberal, convinced of the rightness and the prudence of allowing every individual voice be heard, rather than a democrat thinking about the necessity of holding a majority together–on the same level as Ross Douthat’s or Rod’s, as they actually affirm (along with their own various inconsistencies) the legitimacy of some kind of community exclusion or hierarchy. But even that bad step on your part brings us around to your conclusion, which is a forthright defense of the notion that democratic government depends on the cultural acceptance of certain democratic norms, and particularly, as you clearly imply though never state, liberal democratic norms. I’m not sure I agree with that–illiberal democracy is one of my occasional interests–but as I said before, I like it when liberals recognize their own exclusions; I think it enriches the argument all around. “Perhaps one thing a democracy shouldn’t make a place at the table for is a desire for something other than democracy” isn’t quite going full Macedo, but it’s close, and pretty persuasive on its own terms as well. Well done, sir. See you on the barricades (and no, I didn’t say which side I was on)!

  3. Frederic Bush says:

    Dreher’s book _The Benedict Option_ is in fact a call for conservatives to segregate into small homogeneous communities so they can discriminate against gays and lesbians without repercussions.

  4. Helen Andrews says:

    In what sense were fears about co-ed admissions “absurdly untrue”? The future its opponents predicted looks exactly like the campus sexual assault crisis.

    It’s one thing to discount the fears of immigration restrictionists because they have not materialized yet (except in California), it’s another thing to scoff at warnings that history has already vindicated.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you’d want to go back and look at the content of those warnings. The typical complaint was that men would no longer study or be interested in their work as students because they would be distracted by women. If you want to say, “That’s exactly what’s happened”, I think for one you’d be hopelessly androcentric–e.g., as if male distraction matters more than female opportunity, which co-education has undoubtedly enabled. But also I think you’d just be plain empirically wrong–for the most part, men are just as attentive (or inattentive) as ever, and if they’re not, the fact that a woman is sitting next to them is not the issue.

    I also think, if we’re just talking assault and harassment, that’s empirically wrong to say, “There was no harassment until women were present to be harassed” is both empirically and ethically wrong.

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