Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Charles Taylor and the "Excluded" in a Democracy

Some of us are reading through the selections in Charles Taylor's Dilemmas and Connections this semester. The chapters are individual essays he has written in other contexts, so it is a veritable grab bag of joy. Every essay is his genius applied to some other subject.

I deeply resonate with most of what he says on most topics. He has a certain clarity befitting an analytically trained philosopher but he has the right sympathies for the more obtuse phenomenological thinkers. Most of the time, my reaction to him is, "Of course." He captures the general inklings of the best thinking in society and expresses them with a depth and clarity befitting a world class thinker. I find myself often with delight expressing to myself, "Yes!"

Yet there is not a finality to his explorations. Keith Drury compared his writing style to a cat that is playing with something. He moves a subject along without giving any impression that he has given anything like the last word on it. He is like a genius hitch hiker we pick up for a few miles, talk about something with and then leave at the next truck stop.

1. This chapter seemed particularly helpful in expressing what I think educated people think about democracy but that few of us could have expressed as clearly as he does. Here are some of its key thoughts:
  • "Democracy, particularly liberal democracy, is a great philosophy of inclusion" (124). By "liberal democracy," he means one that truly includes everyone, not the pretend democracy of America's origins, where women and slaves didn't count.
  • There is, however, a dangerous side effect of democracy--at various times, there will be "excluded groups." For example, if you are a Democrat in Indiana, your vote will almost never win. You get to vote, but your vote more or less doesn't count as far as its effect. 
  • Countries regularly have national minorities who are outvoted every time and, if the majority does not treat them with respect, will inevitably increasingly feel oppressed.
And let me just stop here and give what I take to be the bottom line of this essay. It is important for the majorities of a nation to treat national minorities with respect, to make sure that they feel included in the conversation even when the votes don't go their way. Similarly, the national majorities should give some lee way toward these groups even when it has the power not to.

So democracy, whose essence is about inclusion, will often regularly gravitate toward the exclusion of national minorities. This essay is inspired by Quebec in Canada, which could be outvoted by the English-speaking majority of Canada easily on every issue. But it is in Canada's long term best interest to respect, converse with, and court Quebec within reasonable limits.

The fact that this essay is about Canada is also a convenient aspect to it, for few people can be objective about their own country. Like Nathan with David, it is easier to see ourselves in someone else's story.

2. So he plays around with the idea that "nationalism," as it were, can be a by-product of democracy (127).
  • When minorities begin to flow into a country, there is a tendency to want to exclude them from the democratic process. We did this when the Irish came. We did it with blacks. We are doing this now with people from Latin America. We say, they aren't true Americans. They shouldn't get a say in the destiny of America. 
  • The attempt to pass voter ID laws in the US right now is transparently an example of this--an attempt on the part of the majority to exclude the unwanted minority from the democratic process.
  • In its worst form, "nationalists" might try to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing so that only the true "whatever" is left. (cf. the congresswoman wanting to ferret out those from Congress who aren't "true Americans"--textbook reaction to a perceived majority sensing a loss of control)
  • By the same token, the majority can never be allowed to vote democracy itself out. This is why we have a Bill of Rights. This is why we have the judicial system, to keep the majority from oppressing the minority. 
  • I believe there are Americans who don't get this. American democracy does not mean that the majority wins no matter what. The majority can't vote to kill the minority. There are boundaries to what the majority can decide or else the democracy itself will self-destruct.
Much of what I have just said doesn't actually come from Taylor's essay, but I have applied it to America. I know it will be controversial and that saddens me, because I can't imagine how anyone could argue against it (or why a Christian would want to). I am really dumbfounded that anyone could disagree with anything I just said.
3. Back to Taylor:
  • "The condition of a viable political identity is that people must actually be able to relate to it, to find themselves reflected in it" (143). In other words, the minority must feel like it belongs even though it is consistently outvoted.
  • Minorities and majorities must share an "identity space." "There are no exclusive claims to a given territory by historic right" (144). 
  • And those of us in the majority had better be nice to those in the minority, or they won't be nice to us when they become the majority. 


John Mark said...

Care to expand your thoughts on Voter ID. Republicans generally oppose, Dems support, we know that. And the implication is, as I understand it, that this a way of excluding 'black' voters. I've lived in 'whitesville' my whole life so this has never been something I've thought much about. I have never thought it unreasonable to be asked for ID when voting. I would love to here what you think, if you care to.

John Mark said...

Good grief! I meant Republicans support ID laws, Democrats oppose.

JRS said...

It's important to remember that we are a constitutional republic not a democracy.