California: Tocqueville’s nightmare come true November 19, 2008Posted by Sverre in : Political Theory, World politics , trackback
In the euphoria surrounding the presidential election, other events in American politics have been crowded out in media. A darker chapter in American history was written in the presumably liberal state of California. I haven’t heard many (at least outside the US) discuss this, except a few bloggers – among them the authors of one of my favourite blogs, Voting While Intoxicated.
I’m of course talking about the amendment to the Californian constitution to ban gay marriage, which was voted for together with the presidential election. For those who might not be familiar with the American political system, this is quite common – to include propositions to be voted on by the public together with any election. The infamous Proposition 8, named after its number on the ballot, got 52.1 percent of the vote, more than the necessary simple majority for a new state constitution amendment. It reads as follows:
SEC. 7.5. Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.
As a strong supporter of gay rights, this has ruined some of my new found belief in America. But aside from my personal feelings, this is the kind of thing that would make influential political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville turn in his grave.
A French aristocrat and scholar, he travelled the young USA studying their democracy with great admiration. In 1835 he published his most famous book, Democracy in America where he analyzed the political culture of this nation that according to him was the greatest example in his time of what government should be in the future.
Even as a liberal in 1835, I doubt Tocqueville was in favour of gay marriage. Why do I then claim that he would turn in his grave now? Because his greatest warning about democracy was what he called “the tyranny of the majority”, or the possibility of any small majority trampling the rights of a minority. For example a predominantly heterosexual majority of only 52.1 percent of voters removing a fundamental right for a homosexual minority. Not only refusing to allow new gay marriages, but even removing recognition of previously approved ones.
How could this happen? First of all, the American political systems allows new laws to be passed by plebiscite without approval of representative bodies. This is in itself rather uncommon in modern democracies. Secondly, the Californian constitution allows amendment by simple majority rather than the rather common 2/3 supermajority. Any faction of voters totalling more than 50% can decide almost anything they want.
An interesting fact is that Obama’s great success seems to have affected the result in favour of the proposition. As reported by LA Times, there was great support for it in the black population, and Obama’s campaign made black people vote like never before.
Before I get side tracked too far, I’ll rein myself back in by concluding that although Tocqueville might not be too much in favour of gay rights, I’m sure he would – like me – be greatly concerned about this blatant display of tyranny by a pretty slim majority.
UPDATE: Some more posts on the topic of California’s Proposition 8
- The beat in my head: “My thoughts on Prop 8” – some interesting thoughts on whether gay marriage really creates any victims, and a scary piece of propaganda
- Trust, but verify: “Will California uphold the will of the people” – about the legal struggle for overturning the decision in court
- The reformed pastor: “Californinans to vote on Gay Marriage” – a word from the other side, considering the measures to prevent the voting on Proposition 8 “antidemocratic”
- Good as you: “FRC: Why aren’t you being antidemocratic, court basher Arnold?” – a word from the proposition 8 supporters and a counterargument.
- The kitchen table: “Black folks and the passage of prop 8” – a comment by Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton University.