Terms of Engagement

The Tyranny of the Majority

How John Quincy Adams explains the protests in Turkey and Brazil.


It’s been quite a week for the abuse of democratic principles by putatively democratic leaders. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used riot police to clear Istanbul’s Taksim Square of peaceful demonstrators, whom he has denounced as "a few looters" and "a few bums." Egypt’s upper house passed a law restricting the operation of non-government organizations which Egyptian civil society groups assert "lays the foundation for a new police state" by the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsy. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest practically everything — though there the government has professed bafflement rather than outrage.

What the events in Egypt and Turkey have in common is a particular kind of perversion of democracy — electoral authoritarianism. Both Erdogan and Morsy treat their followers — who probably do not in either case constitute an absolute majority of the country — as "the people" in whose name they rule, while treating their opponents as enemies, flotsam, non-citizens beholden to foreign ideas or foreign sponsors. And they are hardly alone. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has installed a dictatorship on behalf of his nationalistic electoral base, as did Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez before his death. The difference is that no one mistakes Russia or Venezuela for democracies; the tumult in Turkey and Egypt threatens something precious, or at least hopeful.

Neither Erdogan nor Morsy have gone remotely as far as Putin or Chávez, though Morsy came close when he issued an edict last November exempting his own decisions from judicial review, and thus temporarily combining all executive, legislative, and judicial power in his own hands. (He was forced to backtrack the following month.) But both men seem sincerely persuaded that they, and they alone, incarnate the will of the people. "[They say] Tayyip Erdogan is a dictator," the Turkish prime minister said of himself in the third person in a televised speech. "If they call one who serves the people a dictator, I cannot say anything." Playing with populist fire — but very adroitly — Erdogan provoked pro-regime demonstrations even bigger than the ones in Taksim Square where opponents assailed him as a budding autocrat.

Erdogan and Morsy, Chávez and Putin — all are megalomaniacs who cannot or will not distinguish between "the people’s will" and their own. But this is also a disease of young democracies, where the stakes are so high that both ruler and opposition often see compromise as a betrayal of the national interest. This was true even in the first decades of the American republic. John Adams’s rivals accused him of trying to restore monarchic rule; and when Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, served as president, both his great rival, Andrew Jackson, and Vice President John C. Calhoun insisted that he was planning to subvert the Constitution and impose dictatorial rule. Adams and his allies were convinced with almost equal certainty that Jackson, if elected, would destroy the Union. The concept of legitimate difference of opinion was very slow to take hold.

Nations lucky enough to have a Nelson Mandela or a George Washington receive a lasting lesson in the democratic uses of power. And when, as in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracies emerge from a series of bargains between reformers and the ruling elite, everyone gets the chance to learn the arts of compromise. But when power must be seized through revolutionary action, as in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, the one rule people know is that the winner takes all. How, then, do leaders learn to represent a whole people rather than just the faction that elected them?

They don’t, naturally — but voters can teach them a lesson. Serbs united in 2000 to defeat the authoritarian populist Slobodan Milosevic, who had forged a political majority out of virulent nationalism. But this requires a united and purposeful opposition, which cannot be said either of Turkey’s old-line pro-Ataturk Republican People’s Party or the deeply fragmented opposition to Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood. It’s not just the ruling party, but the entire political culture, of new democracies which often enables electoral authoritarianism.

Culture matters; and so do rules. In Patterns of Democracy, political scientist Arend Lijphart argues that democratic governments come in two basic models: majoritarian, like the British, with strong single-party cabinets dominating decision-making, or "consensual," with power exercised through coalitions. Lijphart observes that while in homogeneous societies all citizens can feel reasonably represented in a majoritarian system, the same model in nations deeply divided by class or identity "spells majoritarian dictatorship and civil strife." He argues for electoral rules which guarantee a measure of proportional representation, coalition governments, an empowered and truly bicameral legislature, decentralization. Lijphart claims that the consensual model maximizes democratic legitimacy without sacrificing effectiveness.

Electoral rules help explain the difference between the way Turkey and Brazil, two dynamic young democracies, have reacted to mass street protest. While Erdogan has demonized his foes, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has praised protestors for waking the country to its shortcomings. Brazil, too, faces a crisis, but not a crisis of representation, as Turkey does. Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar at Stanford, points out that both Rousseff and her Erdogan-like predecessor, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, had to do far more political bargaining than Erdogan because they rule through coalitions while Erdogan controls a parliamentary majority. And the reason for this, in turn, is that Turkish law excludes parties from parliament which do not win more than 10 percent of the national vote. The Turkish system enables Erdogan’s worst impulses. Working with rival parties might force him to learn a few hard lessons.

Democracies become consolidated through some combination of good rules and good habits — constitutions and culture. But they often fail before they reach that point, and a whole subset of the academic literature anatomizes cases of backsliding. (Mali would be the most recent example.) It’s hardly impossible to imagine a scenario in Egypt in which the army re-takes command after the non-stop conflict between Morsy, the secular opposition, and the judiciary provokes even more chaos, violence, and economic paralysis than it already has. In effect, everyone’s high-handed behavior licenses everyone else’s high-handed behavior, democracy fails and Egypt’s returns to a new version of the status quo ante — as Pakistan, for example, has done several times.

But that’s not the likeliest scenario in Egypt, and certainly not in Turkey. The era in which citizens will accept a return to autocracy, much less clamor for it, is drawing to a close. What we really see in the mass demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere is an unwillingness to accept an implicit compact in which democratic citizenship is limited to voting — and a paralyzed political class which does not know how to respond to these demands. "Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes it choice," Erdogan lectured his people. Wrong. Electoral authoritarianism won’t work the way it used to beca
use too many people won’t accept that transaction. The dictatorship of the majority, or the hypothetical majority, will continue in a few places, like Russia. But its days are numbered in Venezuela, and I can’t see it happening in Turkey.

The real problem is that unresponsive democracies will provoke more protest, which will provoke more reaction, and the sense of hopefulness and common purpose in nations like Brazil and Turkey will give way to rancor and division, leading to a drop in investment and productivity, and thus more rancor and division. In the Arab world, only Tunisia seems to be bridging the divides among groups to forge a workable new order; Egypt and Libya are heading for different forms of democratic dysfunction. These countries need time to learn new habits, and to devise better rules. The political thinker Samuel Huntington observed that democracy in the United States wasn’t fully consolidated until the Republican Adams lost to the Democrat Jackson, after which the Jacksonians in turn gave way to the Whigs. Change of regime is tonic for a democracy. And that, we hope, is where Erdogan and Morsy will prove that they are not Putin or Chávez.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1

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