Democracy in America… and Wisconsin


Full disclosure: I wrote this on my office computer and I sent it to Social Text Online via my university email. To give fair warning, I use “recall,” “protest,” and other words that the Republican Party of Wisconsin latched onto in requesting that my colleague, historian Bill Cronon, turn over his emails in an effort to curtail academic freedom.

It’s been more than two months since Governor Scott Walker introduced a controversial budget bill to strip public employees in the state of Wisconsin of collective bargaining rights. The mass protests have subsided for now, but the dust hasn’t settled yet.  Signs voicing support for unions and urging Walker’s recall are still visible in many places. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin is coming to the State Capitol this weekend to fire up a Tea Party rally.

Madison may no longer be at the top of the news cycle, but the events that took place here still have a lot to teach us about democracy — especially its susceptibility to a fundamental misunderstanding.

Even as tens of thousands of protestors converged on the Capitol, Republican lawmakers have asserted that “a silent majority” supports the end of collective bargaining. And Governor Walker has said that his election victory amounts to a mandate to follow through on his campaign promises. They may be right. But majority rule is not the same thing as democracy.

This tendency to confuse the perceived will of the majority with the democratic principle alarmed Alexis de Tocqueville back in the 1830s when he traveled through the United States to observe its government and civil institutions. In Democracy in America, he worried that a “tyranny of the majority” would ride roughshod over individual and minority rights.

Because it is more numerous, the majority claims to have moral authority for its agenda. Because the math is irrefutable, the majority often believes that it has the obligation to enact its own mandate. Tocqueville feared that such a force would become “irresistible.” Lost in the tide is the understanding that democracy is about safeguarding the rights of the minority. At risk of being drowned out are the voices of those who lack the moral authority — or deep pockets — to popularize their interests.

My daughter is at the Capitol today for a 4th-grade field trip to learn about civics. Being irresponsible parents, my partner and I urged her to walk into the cavernous rotunda and initiate the chant: “Show me what democracy looks like.” “This is what democracy looks like!” We doubt that our 10-year old will risk public embarrassment. Still, would it be the worst thing in the world, not to mention Madison, not to be part of the majority?

Russ Castronovo is Dorothy Draheim Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His most recent book is Beautiful Democracy:  Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era.


Russ Castronovo