Stephen Douglas, Hezbullah, and the Tyranny of the Majority

When was the last time you saw Stephen Douglas used in the same sentence with Hezbullah? I’d be willing to bet it’s been a while. The connection occurred to me recently while reading a biography of Ulysses Grant that went into the origins of the Civil War.

As a refresher, Stephen Douglas was the other half of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates and could possibly have been the sixteenth President instead of Lincoln. Hezbullah, The Party of God, is a terrorist/political organization in Lebanon. So what can they possibly have in common? Something interesting. Or at least something I find interesting.

Let’s first step back and ask a hypothetical question. Do you believe in democracy? Who doesn’t? Even the people who don’t claim they do. So when can believing in democracy be problematic?

Prior to the 1860 presidential election, Stephen Douglas stood foursquare in the camp of a belief in democracy. The complication was that he believed that territories should be able to choose for themselves whether they should enter the union as slave or free states. It wasn’t accurate to say that Douglas was pro-slavery, but he felt the voters should decide. I think it’s safe to say that most of us today would at least feel uncomfortable with that position. But at the time, under the laws of the union, the voters would have been white males and more than a few would have voted for the continuance of slavery. So what was preferable, being anti-democracy or pro-slavery? Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

To be fair, I’m not a historian but I suspect that Douglas was anti-slavery but believed that the best path to achieving this was to get himself elected. Maybe he could have done it without a civil war. Who knows? But Douglas’s motivations beg the question of what to do when democracy comes up with the wrong answer.

Hezbullah provides a surprisingly similar paradox. Is US foreign policy pro-democracy? I think so, in general if not in every instance. And I think most people, at least most Americans, would agree. So when might that not be the case? In the 2009 Lebanese general elections Hezbullah won a commanding share of the seats in the Lebanese parliament. I won’t go into the reasons except to say that in addition to being a terrorist organization, Hezbullah was an effective social organization helping the victims of the various wars and attacks that occurred in Lebanon during that period and built up a fair amount of popular support. Needless to say, The US wasn’t happy with the result and put a fair amount of effort into undoing its effects. So a similar question arises? Are you anti-democracy or pro-terror?

So what’s the point? Hard to say exactly, except that it’s not a simple world, in spite of what much of the news people and politicians today would have you believe. Sometimes principles, positive principles, clash, and it takes some thought to come to a decision on how to feel about those things. These two cases are pretty black and white, but there are a lot of others where it isn’t as clear that John Stuart Mill’s concern about the tyranny of the majority is valid. At what point do we decide it’s a problem? And in a government that is set up to be run by the majority, how do you deal with this kind of issue? Who gets to decide?

I know these are all questions and no answers, but the reality is that there are no simple answers. One thing is sure though, a few minutes in front of a television with people screaming out self-selected facts is no way to prepare to make them.

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