Groupthink: How Democracy Maintains Evil and Injustice

by Benjamin Studebaker

This morning an entirely new line of attack on democracy occurred to me, and I feel an intense pressure to share it with all my readers. In the past, I have argued that democracy has a tendency to result in the political preferences of the median voter being realised. There is, however, a related implication that did not occur to me at the time of writing and which has such spectacular implications so as to deserve a post unto itself for explication.

The core of the idea is groupthink–the tendency for organisations with large amounts of disagreement to tend toward some sort of acceptable consensus view. In democracy, in order to produce a government that is more or less agreeable to the masses, the government cannot take a position that differs radically from what most people believe. In other words, democratic regimes cannot violate or change social and cultural norms.

Think about what a social or cultural norm is–it is a belief or practise common to most people within a given society. By its very definition, the majority in a given democratic state will support current social and cultural norms, and so the government the majority elects is overwhelmingly likely to support such norms as well. If it did not, how could it expect to stay in office?

One might say that this seems to be begging the question as to how societies reform and change at all–when the majority slowly comes around over the course of many years to new social and cultural norms, it will elect a government that reflects those changes. The democratic government does not change norms; it reflects them.

The thing is, often times, what is considered socially or culturally acceptable in a given society is actually extremely unethical and immoral. Subjugation of women, slavery, racism, militant nationalism, all of these things were at one time considered socially and culturally acceptable in western societies, and many of them continue to be acceptable in other countries or even within select communities within our modern countries. What is most important to note about these sorts of things is that it is not as if we wake up one morning and suddenly a majority realises that they are bad and the democratic government responds accordingly. Long before a majority of people recognised these evils and injustices, individual philosophers and intellectuals saw them to be wrong.

Consider Plato. Plato lived several thousand years ago, but he nonetheless advocated that women be educated in the same manner as men, said that many women were more skilled than many men in many areas, and advocated the formation of Platonic friendships between men and women so that they might learn from one another. Plato’s only concession to the sexism of his day was his claim that the very best of men were better than the very best of women. His beliefs were rejected by the democracy of Athens. Consider how many years passed before a majority of people took on Plato’s views. Consider how many women have lived poorer lives because gender equality was not implemented until a majority of people were willing to agree to it.

Consider Thomas Paine. Paine lived in the 18th century and was an early opponent of slavery and racism, along with some of the founding fathers of American democracy, like John Adams. Because the views of these men were not supported by a majority of people, slavery remained part of American life for nearly a century after the founding of the country, and racism has a legacy that stays with the United States even to this day. Consider how many African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other Americans have suffered for that.

The same thing can be said for so many other ideas that we now consider more or less essential to a just and good society–everything from the social safety net to universal health care to public education had advocates decades, centuries, and sometimes even millennia before they were implemented widely. Tremendous injustice happened because the majority was permitted to rule on the basis of its social norms and values irrespective of their real moral or metaphysical value. People suffered and died as a result.

Throughout history, always there has been grave injustice and moral evil. There is no historical society we could look back upon as modern people and go “yes, here was a society that was brilliant and just”. Yet, right now, there are many people who more or less accept the social norms that we live under today, and who believe that the democratic governments that sustain and fail to challenge those norms are good governments. It would take the greatest historical conceit and arrogance to say “all societies that have gone before me have contained terrible evil and injustice about which nothing was done, but my society is the first to be different”, yet this is what we do when we support democracy.

There are numerous ideas out there, held by minorities mostly consisting of intellectuals, philosophers, and academics, all of which are considered wrong for the very reasons opposition to slavery, racism, sexism, poverty and all the other injustices were historically dismissed. You’ve heard the dismissals. They’re unrealistic. They’re economic suicide. They’re just weird and uncomfortable. Public opinion is only now just turning on homosexual rights. Imagine if you had brought up gay marriage a decade ago, or further back than that. You would be dismissed as a radical, a socially deviant person with unrealistic and dangerous views, and no one would have voted for you or those who held your position. You could travel back in time to 1776 and argue passionately for the abolition of slavery, you could even tell everyone precisely what would happen if they failed to listen, and they would label you a lunatic and ignore you completely.

There’s a logical fallacy for this–argumentum ad populum, the fallacy of thinking that the existence of large numbers of people who believe a given thing is evidence of its truth. Common sense is either nonsense, or it’s none too common.

Somewhere out there, a few individuals are having ideas that, some decades, centuries, or millennia from now, will be considered absolutely essential to a good and just society. People will sit and talk about the people of the 21st century, as we sit and talk about the people of previous centuries, and ask why they were so wicked as to permit those injustices and evils to flourish. The answer will be democracy. It will be that they chose governments not of the wise or of the visionaries, to lead them to new truths, but of those who were like themselves to preserve the ideas already ruling. They institutionalised their social norms, and set them to rule over all. What ignorance, and from that ignorance, what wickedness.