Democracy as a Tool of Oppression

June 17, 2010

I’m a teacher.  Who just came back from some time living in Shanghai, China.  Who is concerned with matters of oppression.  And who is currently preparing to train some staff for the arts-based youth camp I work at over the summers.  (*1)

How is this all connected?  Patience, my friends.

Without giving away too many identifying characteristics of said camp, the kids are organized into groups that sleep in the same structure and do some team-building and social-skills work together.  For now, let’s call these “Family Groups” (although that’s not what we call them at camp).

Often, at camp, these “Family Groups” have conflicts.  Middle school and high school kids do that sometimes.  Especially groups of middle school and high school kids who don’t know each other well and share living spaces.

Now, when these kids have conflicts, it is the role of the staff member in charge of the particular “Family Group” to step in and help out.  And it is my job to make sure that said staff members are sufficiently trained to do so in a healthy, safe way.

So, while designing the training piece to address this, I found myself realizing something – democracy is a terrible way to try to resolve these conflicts.  Furthermore, in a situation where not all the staff are culturally competent and/or aware, democracy often just reinforces unfair dynamics within the group.

Let me give you all a ridiculously common example:

Kid A and B have trouble sleeping when it’s completely dark.  At home, they’ve got nightlights.  At camp, they tend to sleep with a flashlight on next to them.  However, Kid A and B are not the most popular.

As a result, Kids C, D, and E are especially unkind to Kids A and B.  They also don’t like flashlights being on at night, because it affects their sleep.  This results in tension within the group, which eventually comes to the staff member in charge of the group.  After trying to handle it in various ways, the staff member invariably ends up falling back on a very USian solution: put it to a vote.

Of course, the end result is pretty much pre-determined.  Kids C, D, and E cast their majority votes to cause Kids A and B to sleep in the dark.  That’s fair, right?

Well, no, actually.  That’s just democracy.

Because it doesn’t take a lot of examination to realize that that is a ridiculously unfair solution.  Two out of five kids have to spend their nights uncomfortable and fearful because the three other kids are annoyed by flashlights?  Uh-uh.  Especially when you consider that – most of the time – at least one of those “majority” kids simply casts the vote with the more-popular kids out of social fear.  They don’t want to stand out.  They go along with the crowd.

As a result?  Tyranny of the majority.

And it’s not like this is a new concept.  Not at all.  But it’s interesting how often we (those living and/or raised in the U.S.) like to forget that.  That democracy is simply a form of government that says that if a “majority” votes for something, then it is right.  That’s how we had our oh-so-noble “Founding Fathers” create a nation that endorsed slavery and deprived women and people of color of a vote.  (*2)

But we’re conditioned from birth in this country to equate “Democracy” with “freedom.”  “Voting” with “fairness.”  The laws created by this inherently unbalanced political system as “justice.” It took me close to a year in a country with a different political system to recall these obvious misconceptions.

And so situations like the one I outlined above are commonplace in classrooms and camps everywhere – settle conflicts through a vote.  Make the socially weaker “minority” just deal with everybody else’s decisions.

And it is exactly this faulty belief system – that a vote is inherently fair – that supports systems of oppression in this country.  If the “majority” votes to take away immigrants’ rights – that’s okay, because it was put to a vote.  In the smaller case of the camp I work at, it’s a subtle way to allow racism or other injustices to prevail, without the staff having to reflect or feel responsible for it.

So am I saying that “democracy” is evil?  No.  I tend to agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the “worst form of government in the world, except all others that have been tried.”  It’s a better system than most.  It makes it a little less likely that terrible things will happen to people.

But I think it’s important to always keep in mind the truth of what this system represents – and that it can easily be used to oppress.  That it is not inherently fair or just.  And that we have to be constantly addressing that and re-thinking solutions and how we bring voices to the table in order to overcome these flaws.

Bringing “democracy” to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and various ex-Soviet or African nations hasn’t exactly swept justice, equality, or prosperity into the world.  Maybe that’s because we like to think of “democracy” as a solution, as opposed to a tool.  When we think of it as a solution (as with Iraq or my camper example), we tend to cause more problems and further injustice by not putting in enough thought or following up fully.  When we realize it’s only a tool – with it’s own set of problems and dangers – then we can actually get somewhere, because then we attach it to other problem-solving systems.

All that said, then what’s the best way to solve the conflict I keep returning to above?  We tend to go with mediation and consensus-building. (*3)  Let the kids talk it out and find a compromise.  Which is, of course, more time-consuming (which is why “the vote” happens so often, instead), but has the happy  result of actually solving the issues at hand (by bringing out the more real, underlying issues that stay hidden and unresolved with lazy, irresponsible “solutions” like voting).

So.  Go out there.  Vote.  Make yourself heard.  Be counted.  It’s important.

Just don’t think that having done so guarantees your (or others’) freedom – because there’s so much more work left to do.

(*1)  Which is what brought me back Stateside . . . will be back in China in the fall.

(*2) Of course, this means that these “Fathers” created a democracy where the majority of people could not vote.  A bit ironic, no?

(*3)  But it always – ultimately – depends on the kids and the situation.

(*4)  Hmm . . . in looking for a photo for this post, I found this article that covers this topic quite well.  



  1. This is exactly why I follow this blog! Great analysis!

  2. ok, so i’m going to be completely, completely, harsh, but only because i LOVE your blog normally and i know you can do better.

    this is one of the most ignorant political analyses i’ve seen on a blog; it’s right up there with sarah palin’s facebook feed.

    yeah, a ‘democracy’ would suck. that’s why we don’t live in one here in the US; we have a representative democracy, which is a completely different animal.

    your concerns – for example, “tyranny of the majority” – are addressed in a representative democracy. in fact, the founding fathers, in creating what they saw as a republican form of government, were *explicitly* worried about a tyranny of the majority. the provisions they built in were *supposed* to tilt toward oligarchical because they didn’t want the rabble (the poor, uneducated, black, women, etc) messing with their perfect fully representative democracy.

    So, some bad eliminated along with some good, but please don’t confuse our democratic republic with democracy. the founding fathers (with both good and evil intent) did actually know what they were doing there. if your camp kids wanted a lesson in US gov’t, they should vote for a representative who’d create a law, and they’d have the ability to appeal it in front of a judiciary, not to mention the executive powers of the camp counselors.

    not only have you conflated representative democracy with democracy, you have *completely* ignored how canny, savvy and intelligent the founding fathers actually were. (read a selection of jefferson’s papers sometime, seriously. the man was a legal genius — which obviously does not always equal ‘pioneer of progressive morality’.)

    what really galls me is that while lamenting how “democracies” eliminate opportunities for consensus-building and compromise, you, in the _same_post_ bring up the founding fathers and slavery. really???? the constitution is one the most famous examples of political compromise in our history, *especially* concerning the contentious issue of slavery.

    rather than go on and on, i’m sure you can read the wikis on your own. here are some terms to start with: the 3/5ths compromise, the great compromise & slave importation to the US. The fact is, the progressive members of the philadelphia convention (even those who owned slaves) KNEW slavery was untenable in the long term and built in provisions that would all but guarantee its eventual elimination (would have been nice if we could have avoided the war, but hey no one’s perfect).

    as the modern day propaganda masters intended, you think “spreading democracy” means spreading the one-person-one vote tyranny of the majority abroad, but the fact is the new nation builders are no less politically and legally savvy than the founding fathers were. take a detailed look at the “democracies” we’ve “established” in iraq and afghanistan. you’ll find all sorts of checks and balances to power — most of which are designed to maintain a tyranny of the minority (in other words, the supremacy of US-backed interests).

    you’re certainly right about one thing: it’s complete bs when we talk about “spreading democracy” because whatever flavor of democracy, it almost certainly does not mean equality, fairness, and freedom, whether in our own country or abroad.

  3. Very thought provoking post. The image is very appropriate, the US cannot force democracy on people.

  4. I’m going to agree some with parker6252.

    While the propaganda machine talked about spreading democracy, it doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that democracies and representative government were in fact unacceptable to elites in the US, which is why we have such a sorry history of intervention abroad.

    But yeah, you conflate democracy with voting systems, as well as the form of government we have here.

    Now, the US Constitution is pretty good, though I would argue that it is in many ways a failure, in the sense that very few other nations have used the kind of model for government we use here. (Most went with parliamentary systems of some sort, with proportional representation, but that is another discussion).

    One thing the US Constitution was designed for was stability. That’s also pretty explicit. And it was a real concern after the Articles of Confederation’s failures.

    But man, I do understand what you are getting at, but the problem is I also feel like you haven’t delved all that deeply into the history here, nor have you thought through the issues of “consensus building” in a political context. With kids, it might work, for a few minutes, but remember they are going to defer to your authority as an adult sometimes — there is social pressure to do that, if of a different sort.

    I also think there’s something to be said for the majority getting a chance to express its will. I can think of a lot of practices of a minority that are oppressive, wrong, or just plain irritating to the rest of us and we decided, as a society, we don’t want to deal with it.

    Bigamy, for instance. Female genital mutilation. We make rules about animal slaughter so a group that practices ritual sacrifice of cows or chickens has to accommodate that. All kinds of things. Noise ordinances, even. Sorry, I can’t blast my stereo in my apartment even if it makes me feel good to rock out to heavy metal.

    I doubt you’d see such as particularly tyrranical, you know?

  5. @parker and Jesse-
    I just wrote a long-a** comment that got accidentally deleted, and I don’t want to do it again . . . As always, though, thanks for calling me out and challenging my writing – and I’m not personally offended by the manner in which you did so (I’m a middle school teacher, you know?).

    So – I’m not disagreeing with either of you, really, and I won’t say this was my best writing.

    In clarification, I’m simply saying that “democracy” – in GENERAL – no matter what specific form we have, can be used as a tool for oppression just like anything else. Our form of government has all sorts of checks and balances because the founders were aware of that – AND – it is still used to take away freedoms and oppress “minorities.”

    “Representative democracy” just allowed the State of Arizona to “legally” target brown folks for harassment and degradation – and appeals don’t seem to be doing sh– to stop that one. Our system also allowed for TAKING AWAY same-sex partnering rights in California.

    So – I’m fully aware of how our government works. The school I worked at most recently in the States had a Student Representative Board voted for and run in the same manner as our U.S. government. I was lazy in not explaining how our government differs and just stuck to the “one vote” type concept – but mostly because that wasn’t particularly relevant to where I was trying to go.

    The main point was simply – “democracy” (in whatever form, no matter how many checks and balances we place on it) does NOT equate to “equality” or “fairness” or “justice.” It is – and always will be – a tool that can be easily misused by those with more power or “representation.” It’s better than most, but it’s not perfect.

    And it is our responsibility to keep that knowledge in mind, so that we don’t make the mistake (like I said in my post) of thinking that a form of government – no matter how well-thought-out – alone can make anything better for people without thinking through the million other factors that come into play regarding history, culture, ethnicities, etc.

    On a smaller level? Working with kids – plain and simple, a “vote” isn’t “fair.” Most youth workers are white. A lot of kids aren’t. And sticking to a vote alone in cases of conflict most often just end up with having the “minority” (racial, gender, religious, class, etc.) just have to “shut up and take it.” Which is actually what Jesse described above.

    Are other solutions perfect? Hell no. They are all just tools that can work – or not – as the situation provides, but they’re a little bit more fair (when you have the time).

    As for the “wrongness” or “irritation” of various minority practices, I’m not really going to go there right now – but there are some MAJOR assumptions and cultural-based judgments being thrown out in those assumptions that don’t sit well with me.

    This was rambling and perhaps a bit incoherent (a week of no sleep will do that to you), but I hope it clarifies my intentions a little bit more.

  6. I just found your blog today and this post in particular caught my attention. I don’t usually comment, but it’s such a relief to read something about democracy (whether representative or the Aristotelian version, whatever) that doesn’t just fall into the “democracy good, all else bad.”

    I won’t go into the US government, but I grew up in a failed democracy in Southeast Asia that was set up by the US government in order to protect their interests. The country has continued to spiral down, and the same pattern of corruption, abuse and exploitation that takes advantage of the weaknesses of a democratic system is repeated in every other post-colonial country.

    The truth is that when you have a population that is mostly poor, uneducated and ignorant, democratic forms of government will not work. The power structures left in place by former colonial governments have to be changed first (good luck with that), then a middle class has to be encouraged in order to create social stability.

    To be honest, every current system of government we know will always exploit and abuse the poor, but in a lot of ways, there is a particularly insidious evil that democratic governments bring. People place so many expectations and hopes in democracy — it’s like they believe that once you get it, everything will become better right away. There will be electricity, running water, you’ll lose weight and get a new girlfriend, Santa will start visiting your house, whatever. The poor are particularly susceptible to this fantasy because they have been fed so much propaganda, and really, what else can they hope for? But when democratic governments are established in post-colonial countries and fail (and they all do), the people are then told by their former colonial masters, “Well, we told you so. You’re too dumb and brown to govern yourselves properly. Look at us, we’re democratic and WE’RE RICH!” And so colonial mentality and internalized racism are further ingrained in post-colonial societies. We’re blamed for our own victimization, and we learn to blame ourselves.

    Although I am a half-hearted socialist, I honestly think that post-colonial countries should look beyond Western forms of government and try to figure out what works best for them. Even with its problems, Singapore has done really well, and now they’re in the next stage of political development where they have to consider how they can best serve their population. Whether that leads them to a fully representative government, who knows? But it’s something that at least they are doing on their own, rather than at the behest of a former colonial master. (I’ve also read that General Kagame followed the Singaporean model and that’s why Rwanda has become secure and is developing economically.)

    At the end of the day, I think people have been brainwashed into thinking that democratic government is synonymous with good government, when a billion people can attest to the opposite.

    Good government is good government regardless of what form it takes.

  7. Great article.
    There seems to be a lot of people that doesn’t grasp the idea that just because more people agree on one particular thing (especially when it relates to self-interest), it doesn’t necessarily mean they are always right.

    And that’s one of the reasons why issues relating minorities always have a much harder time to get recognition. When something doesn’t affect the majority, many are happy to dismiss the issue as ‘over-reacting’ or ‘over-sensitive’ and make it into a non-issue. Just because the problem doesn’t affect most people, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be fixed.

    It gets even more complicated when it’s something that unfairly discriminates against minorities but benefits the majority. And democracy will almost always reward the majority at the expense of the minority in those situations.

    Is democracy still the best governing system in my view? Yes (Only because the other systems are equally as bad). Is it perfect like some of the Chauvinist like to promote it as and will it stamped out all unfairness?

    HELL NO.

  8. “Democracy” as propagated by the US Govt and “democracy” in its strictest definition(s) are almost two separate things. Democracy was founded and first found in ancient present-day Greece (they were city-states/poleis back then, so we can’t call the collective a single nation known as Greece as we do today).

    Plato had some things to say on democracy/republics.


    (one of many synopses on Plato’s work)

    As prominent a founding father as James Madison maintained: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

    Basically, a true democracy cannot maintain itself and adhere to the principles of democracy if each individual citizen of a given democratic society is not prepared intellectually/emotionally/rationally. Otherwise…yes, it becomes more of a tyranny of a majority…or an oligarchy of some sort (there are many “-archy” ‘s depending on the situation).

    However, a republic is a representative democracy, so perhaps we can think of teachers/counselors as representatives of the children…and teachers/counselors would be working in the children’s best interests as the children are not mentally prepared to participate in a true democracy.

    As a side note, the USA is actually a Republic…though, in practice, our “representatives” often work towards personal goals instead of the people’s goals (that they’re supposed to be representing). Until someone comes-up with a more perfect system, this is what we have to deal with. I’m relying on advancing technology to enable that more perfect system sometime in the future.

  9. I realize this comment is late in the game, but I just wanted to say thank you for pointing out the misconceptions many of us Americans have about our own system of government.
    I wish that the United States would stop trying to impose our belief systems and philosophies on other peoples around the world. It is insulting to other people. We’re telling them that their culture is inferior, that they are inferior, for not conforming to our culture. And we expect our system to be a “one size fits all.” I can’t fit into a size 4 pair of jeans, so what makes the United States think that every other country can wear the same clothes?
    Ultimately, I think many think in terms of which system of government helps the people the most. However, I don’t think the system really matters. As illustrated by countries throughout the world, democracy does not ensure fairness because the people who control the system are not fair. Likewise, a monarchy can be very fair and just if the ruler of the monarchy is fair and just.

    In reading back on this post, I suppose I’m really just rehashing some of what Maloy stated. But I suppose I just wanted it to be known that I really appreciate this article (especially because I’m a blonde-haired, blue-eyed military brat who feels like the only one for miles that holds such sentiments).

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