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Are Democracies Mostly Majoritarian?

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We are at a juncture when democracies are increasingly being referred to as majoritarian in the global context. The phenomenon of democracies becoming majoritarian has proliferated across the world, ranging from the rise of Trump in the United States (US), Erdogan in Turkey and, Modi in India. Therefore, it warrants an interrogation in this situation to understand what it means for a democracy to be majoritarian. Does this majoritarianism overlap with the idea of illiberal democracy or is it something else?

With this question in mind, a panel discussion on “Are Democracies Mostly Majoritarian?” was organized by the IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute on January 26th, 2021. This lecture was chaired and moderated by Dr Ajay Gudavarthy, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Panellists included Dr Nicholas Tampio, Professor, Fordham University USA and; Dr Trevor Stack, The School of Language, Literature, Music and Visual Culture, University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom.

Are Democracies mostly majoritarian

Dr Ajay Gudavarthy began the discussion by providing different entry points to the most fundamental question of, “what it means to say that democracies are majoritarian?” He defined how democracies are majoritarian is via a numerical majority. He argued that “representative parliamentary democracies are supposed to conjure up these majorities and so it is not the crisis of democracy but of liberalism, which is a different kind of crisis and needs a different kind of interrogation.”

He elaborated the idea of majoritarian in terms of numerical majority comprising socially and economically dominant social groups who forcefully thrust their sectoral interests on the rest of the society through electoral mechanisms or by undermining constitutionalism and liberal institutions. Further, he remarked that majoritarianism becomes a certain kind of convergence of dominant social vision of dominant social elites (Hindu/Brahminical Hindu), which gets eventually acceptable to a range of social subaltern groups (the Dalits and the OBCs). Here majoritarianism takes a populist turn as this convergence is based on consent rather than coercion.

Wary of the fact that critique of the majority is not historically available, and instead manufactured by current populist regimes, Gudavarthy argued that “all identities are manufactured, and hence there should be no problem with the fact that Hindu as an identity is manufactured in the current context. The only problem one could point towards is that these are manufactured through state or legal mechanisms. So, the assumption that manufacturing larger majoritarian identities necessarily displaces the micro-identities in today’s context of technology, media, representative democracy etc. might be slightly misplaced.”

Another issue raised by Gudavarthy was that “majoritarianism in a concrete sense is not limited to the ethnic and religious identities but is more about certain kind of new patron-client and patronage networks that are outside state policy, outside state institutions and democratic institutions. They are para-legal entities which actually catalyzes crime and corruption in a democracy.”

Gudavarthy further floated the question that whether majoritarianism was actually taking us beyond centrism and leading to the correction of certain lopsided processes that have existed in liberal democracies. He called this phenomenon “democratization by default”.

He argued that “majoritarianism, even in giving an optics of unsettling all through its anti-elitist, extra-institutional discourse, seems to be opening up new spaces that did not exist in post-independence Indian history for about 50 years.” The questions of the gender issue within the religious minority, or of sub-caste within Dalit and OBCs, or of corrupt regional leaders or the representation, were certainly not addressed by the old kind of secular constitutionalism.

Prof Nicholas Tampio began by explaining how Donald Trump won the US presidency in 2016 despite losing the popular vote. He argued that Trump received the support of various groups because his views resonated with the popular sentiments about protecting the economy and middle-class jobs. Trump has been recognized as a flag bearer of racism around the globe.

But for Prof Tampio, Trump was more of a populist trying to own the liberals rather than being a hardcore racist. Strong populist leaders like him seek to demonstrate that they will not play by the rules of the liberal elites. He then showed how some Mexican Americans supported Trump despite his call for building a wall to stop illegal immigrants from Latin America. They supported him because of their Christian religious views, opposition to abortion, support for gun rights, and belief that immigrants should come into the country legally. It is misleading to accuse all Trump supporters of being racists.

Prof. Tampio highlighted two strategies through which the Democratic Party in the US responded to Trump’s populism. First, Biden has surrounded himself with technocrats with degrees from Ivy League universities. Second, the Democrats have adopted a morally righteous tone of talking about certain social issues.

Prof Tampio answered the central concern of the discussion with a viewpoint that, “democracy is not majoritarianism, it’s not Trump voters plus one, and it’s not Biden’s voters plus one.” He elaborated on John Dewey’s framework of democracy and called it “a way of life, a way of showing people respect”. He highlighted how in majoritarianism, only the majority has a voice but in a democracy, everybody has a voice.

“To have a democratic society you have to listen to people who you disagree with”, he said. He then put forth the relationship between liberalism and democracy. He argued that “liberalism meant leaving people alone and separate, letting them be who they are, which Isaiah Berlin called negative freedom.”  Therefore, “democracy is about power and positive freedom. So, in a democracy you want maximum participation of people in the political order”. It is a governmental system with federalism and different avenues of power but it is also a culture in which everyone deserves respect and a chance to express themselves.

Finally, he argued that “ethics is when you are working on yourself but politics is when you are working with other people”, such that no one is excluded from having a voice. Tampio exhorted the leaders, scholars and observers to keep this in mind before redesigning American institutions or rethinking the American culture. He emphasized that the creation of an anti-majoritarianism ethos requires collective practices and habits that encourage a democratic way of being in the world. And hence the big question for him is how to cultivate those democratic habits.

Representational image.

Dr Trevor Stack argued that “when a majority votes for something whether in the election of referenda or the legislature, the majority votes stands for the will of the demos– the common people. Hence the term majoritarianism is used for governments that claim the majority vote and get an absolute mandate to do as they please and denounce any attempt that limits what they do and especially considers minority interests as anti-democratic”.

He added that “here majorities shift from issue to issue and from moment to moment such that those in the minority in one instance may find themselves in the majority at another moment. But cultural nationalism as a stronger version of majoritarianism looks to establish more permanent majorities which at the same time gives rise to permanent minorities who find themselves marked off by enduring cultural markers and thus effectively exiled for politics in the long term.”

Stack, drawing inspiration from the works of Prof Gurpreet Mahajan- an eminent Political Scientist, highlighted a fascinating contrast between Canada and India. In Canada, there are fierce controversies over the rights accorded to the francophone and indigenous minorities but what is not disputed is that they are the salient minorities.

In India there is little consensus over who minorities are and if they are worthy of recognition, giving rise to endless claims and counterclaims that can only be resolved politically produced in the process over new minorities. The situation is further compounded by the fact that no community could be unambiguously identified as majorities, not even the Hindus due to caste and linguistic complications. So, Stack concluded that “for Prof Mahajan, it would seem that until recently India’s problem in that sense has not been the ossification of majorities but on the contrary their radical instability”.

Dr Stack provided a history of Scotland and explained how it was not a majoritarian democracy but at least in theory a representative one as the leaders are elected via a proportional representation system. He argued in favour of Hannah Arendt’s model of council democracy that imagines a version of democracy in which minorities are not permanently relegated to the sidelines and policies are decided by forms of consensus.

He also argued that “the long term exiling of minorities from politics through the establishment of enduring majorities is only one of the risks of contemporary electoral democracy. Currently, in many parts of the world, savvy electoral operators make a mockery of financial regulation, injecting large amounts of cash of often dubious origin to manufacture electoral majorities”. And this might culminate into deep-rooted crime and corruption, the way it happened in Mexico.

Prof Haragopal Gudavarthy added to the discussion with an intriguing argument that people have mistaken democracy for elections and stated, “in a country like India where there is a multi-party system, now a party which is to get 30-33% votes come to power and they construct the majority and are supposed to represent the majority even though 67% have not chosen them. These winners then superimpose the concept of the majority”. In the end, a broader consensus was generated that certain trends can be observed, identified and theorized but the issue is also quite open-ended with fast-changing processes, therefore inviting for more dialogue at this juncture to make sense of the world we live in.

*Shivani Choudhary is pursuing M Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a research intern at IMPRI.

Dr Simi Mehta, Shivani Choudhary

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