The Ultimate Minority Right

In recent weeks, I kept meaning to write up a stylized history of the evolution of political ideology over recent centuries. But my examples—why Andrew Jackson rather than Alexander Hamilton will get booted off the currency, how Spike Lee learned painfully to start denouncing Hollywood for being run by whites and stop denouncing it for being run by Jews, and why democracy in Poland is undemocratic—grew into entire columns.

So now it’s time to get past the illustrations to the big picture. Here’s a simple outline of four eras, each when a different political ideology seemed inarguable:

(1) hereditary right

(2) majority rule

(3) minority right

(4) the inalienable right of minorities to become the majority (while maintaining all the privileges of a modern minority)

A half millennium ago, political power in the West was largely organized around the hereditary principle, whether aristocratic or monarchical. There were partial exceptions in which elections or randomness played a role in selecting leaders, such as the papacy, Venice, and the Holy Roman Empire. And medieval legislatures still survived. The trend in the 16th century, however, was toward the novel ideology of divine right monarchy.

Hereditary rule is seldom defended explicitly these days, but it retains a powerful grip on our political impulses. For example, the main qualification of the new Liberal prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, is that he is the son of a former Liberal prime minister and a prominent groupie of the classic-rock era. Similarly, the great and good of America complacently assumed throughout the first half of the 2015 that the voters of both parties would have no objections to another Clinton-vs.-Bush election in 2016.

Over time, however, hereditary rule lost favor and the concept of majority rule, which had been in bad odor with intellectuals since the Athenian democracy executed Socrates, grew in self-evidentness.

During the first half century of the United States, Hamiltonian restrictions on the power of the masses, such as property requirements for the vote, eroded under the momentum toward Jacksonian democracy. The United Kingdom lagged, but followed in the same direction, repeatedly cutting back on property restrictions on the vote from 1832 to 1918.

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