Individualism as Illness and Antidote in Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Majority

In The Tyranny of the Majority, Lani Guinier lays a foundation for bottom-up empowerment in electoral and legislative systems. Rigid adherence to winner-take-all majority rule contorts and rips at the seams of an intrinsically organic and fluid structure. That is, humans comprise the body politic; not only is forcing amorphous interests, identities, and experiences into a rectilinear mold absurd, it is dangerous and oppressive, especially for historically marginalized minorities. Implicit in the majority’s electoral strategy is wholesale attachment to individualism that reigns over group- and community-based interests. Righting the wrongs of the current “I win, you lose” system requires a kind of dynamism, embodied by Guinier’s theory of proportionate interest representation, which transcends the unyielding borders imposed by such top-down electoral strategies as winner-take-all majority rules districts. Guinier exposes the fallacy inherent in individualistic logic that benefits the already well-off group at the cost of legitimate democracy and minority inclusion. I employ individualism as a heuristic to better understand Guinier’s bottom-up program in the following two ways: 1) individualism as tokenism in the black electoral success theory; and 2) liberal individualism as source of inconsistency in virtual representation. I explore how Guinier complicates individualism in the latter prong, ultimately restoring legitimacy to the political philosophy by changing the context of representation. Throughout these cases, Guinier positions just, Madisonian democracy opposite the self-centered individualism that underlies the tyranny of the majority by looking for strength and legitimacy in the people.

Guinier distinguishes between the traditional civil rights campaign of old and the present black electoral success theory that dominates the black community’s political strategy. I show that her discussion of the phenomenon and its failure to mobilize black communities and sustain political engagement hinges on a concept of the corrosive nature of individualism as tokenism initiated by the courts, its lawyers, and many civil rights advocates. In chapter three, Guinier explains that the traditional civil rights movement “viewed broad-based political participation and representation as instrumental to community autonomy and to community-based reform.”[1] Her language here tinges with nostalgia, as the reader understands that Guinier locates a past in which civil rights promised true reform through grassroots tactics. Although the 1960s witnessed a cleaving in the civil rights movement between nationalists and integrationists, the two camps rallied behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Through concerted political action,” Guinier claims, “integration and nationalism converged.”[2] Concentrating its energy around a singular, unifying, and coherent political strategy, the black community forged a stronger self-identity and mobilized people at the local level. Importantly, Guinier’s electoral theories occur at the local county and municipal levels, for it is there that people, particularly minorities, achieve meaningful collective participation to counter their marginalized status in a majority rules system. A sense of excitement permeates the community level, serving as kindling for an enduring, energetic fire and sustaining active engagement in the electoral and post-electoral processes. Strong individuals form even sturdier, more powerful bonds in the fight for the franchise. In time, however, collective engagement transformed into individual valorization and the fire reduced to embers.

Guinier outlines four assumptions that underlie black electoral success theory. In its idealized state, despite its emphasis on the individual elected, the theory retains a strong sense of community. Elected black officials serve as authentic psychological and cultural role models for their communities; they mobilize black voters by virtue of their election; they reduce the adverse effects of polarization inherent in a racist society by working effectively within the legislature; and they continue to work explicitly with and for their black constituency.[3] These assumptions fail, however, to hold up against a reality in which the majority rules with absolute power within the electoral framework of winner-take-all single-member districts. Complicit in the oppressive electoral and legislative status quo, the courts misconstrued an important statute in the Voting Rights Act, ultimately contributing to the failed black electoral success theory’s community-based impetus.

The Voting Rights Act called for the opportunity for blacks to participate equally in the electoral process. Attempting to establish a simple and “equal” standard by which to decide political infractions, the court settled on language that emphasized opportunity for blacks to elect a black official.[4] This tokenism focuses on a false idea of representation that strips the black community of its autonomy and dignity. It shifts the focus from empowered groups to fragile individuals. Indeed, even the civil rights movement ultimately invested in token representation, sacrificing its original community-based methods for a weaker, but more visible shortcut to success. Placing 100 percent faith in the individual black candidate stymied the grassroots movement that promised bottom-up empowerment. Guinier explains that black electoral success theory’s assumptions fail because the individual elected in majority-black single-member districts remains powerless at the legislative level.[5] The system merely transfers racial polarization and racism experienced at the ballot box to the legislature, as deliberation between mostly white elected officials remains prone to microagressions and other marginalizing practices. Moreover, majority-black single-member districts drain group empowerment by transforming “black elected officials into group spokesmodels without continuously articulating either the basis for a cohesive, community agenda or the responsibility to develop any agenda.”[6] Authenticity serves as a stand-in for meaningful interaction between the official and her constituency. Success ought to be measured by a meaningful standard: one that empowers individuals as members of groups with collective interests. Focusing too heavily on a token individual as such threatens the transformative potential inherent in a unified community. Tokenism emphasizes individualism’s superficiality at the hands of a corrupt system. One understands that a Madisonian majority, one checked by virtue of its fluid status, avoids the pitfalls inherent in the current system. Guinier expands on individualism’s limitations in chapter five by identifying its inconsistencies and distinguishing rhetorical differences between “one-person, one-vote” and “one-vote, one-value.”

Guinier weaves together a more nuanced view of individualism in her chapter, “Groups, Representation, and Race Conscious Districting.” She points to its inconsistencies within winner-take-all districts, yet concedes, “voting has garnered its highest constitutional protection when presented as an individual rights issue.”[7] Promoting a one-vote, one-value principle tactfully embraces individualism as a necessity within government and exposes its consistency with bottom-up, group-based empowerment. Starkly adhering to a liberal individualism political philosophy, critics of the Voting Rights Act maintain, “that pressing claims of racial identity and racial disadvantage diminish democracy. We all lose, the theory goes, when some of us identify in racial or ethnic group terms.”[8] This theory is premised on a one-person, one-vote principle that valorizes the individual’s equal opportunity to vote, but not her equal opportunity to participate effectively in the political process. But the system these critics uphold—one entrenched in equipopulous territorial districting—is inherently group-centered, not individualistic. Illuminating inconsistencies within the political philosophy of individualism helps Guinier transition to the more inclusive one-vote, one-value system.

Guinier points to feudalism as the historical origin of territorial districting and virtual representation. She writes, “The feudal tradition helped define the law of the franchise on the theory that ‘it was the land, and not the men which should be represented.’”[9] Relating current districting models to feudalism, Guinier highlights the former’s anachronistic nature, the need for electoral reform, and, importantly, the group-based nature at the heart of America’s predominant electoral system. She explains that Britain’s electoral process recognized boroughs as cognizant, interest-laden subjects.[10] As such, they elected a virtual representative as the embodied voice of a given borough and its constituents. Today, these territorial districts marginalize minorities and benefit those in power. Winners proceed to slice up territories, gerrymandering groups of individuals under the assumption that shared voting habits correspond to territorial districts. Maximizing their potential for reelection, incumbent officials capitalize on this top-down process to sustain unfair power status. This system flies in the face of Madisonian notions of dynamic majorities. A kind of feedback loop, winner-take-all districts eschew Golden Rule principles. Why accommodate minority interests if the majority never loses its position on top? Why allow racial-conscious districting when territorial districts maintain a status quo that satisfies one’s individualistic, power-hungry ego?

Guinier shows that opponents of race-conscious districting, hinging their argument on its alleged “anti-democratic,” “anti-equality” character, are in bad faith. Their territorial districting relies just as heavily on a group-based nature as does race-conscious districting. The difference, Guinier argues, is that the latter more accurately captures the shared historical, psychological, and cultural experiences that comprise group identity.[11] Recognizing and honoring racial groups as a reality in the electoral process transcends the arbitrary lines drawn from external, detached perspectives. Strict adherence to liberal individualism plays into a fantasy in which each person, by virtue of casting a vote, regardless of its results, exercises meaningful political participation. They claim this one-person, one-vote “principle is politically fair because its ideal of universal suffrage incorporates the respect due and the responsibilities owed to each citizen in a democracy.”[12] In highlighting the fallacy inherent in liberal individualism’s ignoring the group-based nature of districts, Guinier beckons her readers to look beyond the self as the meaningful unit of empowerment. An answer to democracy’s ills, she shows, must emerge from groups. Winner-take-all districts, even race-conscious ones, impose superficial interests based on geography, not on human autonomy or dynamic interests. One-vote, one-value, on the other hand, captures a bottom-up electoral process that restores consistency and dignity to individualism while allowing groups self-autonomy in defining their own identities and forming coalitions.

Guinier emphasizes voluntary interest constituencies as a remedy for electoral oppression. In arguing for modified at-large systems of representation, she marries individualism with community-based empowerment. Cumulative voting, in theory, serves to rectify “wasted votes” and return power to the hands of the people.[13] Increasing the number of votes one may cast provides an opportunity for tact in “plumping” one’s votes in accordance with one’s own interest. In apportioning an equal number of votes to each citizen, Guinier’s theory retains a robust sense of individualism, yet avoids the traps inherent to the predominant liberal individualism of the courts. As Guinier claims, a modified at-large system of representation extends a self-empowering electoral method to all citizens (150). No longer at the whim of a corrupt electoral system or arbitrary territorial boundaries, citizens may cast their votes in such a way that determines their own representative relationship to other individuals in a jurisdiction-wide manner. Guinier assumes the role of doctor, or mechanical technician, diagnosing democracy’s affliction and prescribing a cure that results in a more efficient system. One-vote, one-value principles tap into bottom-up political participation, encapsulating the human experience in all its complexities and promoting voter mobilization.

Importantly, this system reflects the dynamic nature at the heart of human identity and group interest. Mirroring the ebbs and flows of group and individual choice, modified at-large systems of representation restore an important check to absolute majority as exercised in geographic districting. Guinier explains, “Rather than imposing a group identity on a given geographic constituency, this system gives voters the opportunity to associate with the identity that fits their own view of psychological, cultural, and historical reality.”[14] Liberal individualism, as argued above, seeks to reduce groups to their individuals in bad faith. Here, Guinier flips the narrow view on its head, arguing for a system that realizes its fullest potential through near complete individual autonomy. Bestowing power upon the voters recognizes the subjective experiences of people and their communities and seeks to integrate that multiplicity in a constructive way. Elected officials must maintain reciprocal contact with their constituency, as the latter wields greater power over the official’s reelection. This new accountability standard works to ensure that numerically significant minority group interests are guaranteed meaningful political influence over the electoral and legislative process. One-vote, one-value remedies the racial blocks that inherently benefit majority interest groups, enabling coalitions that transcend geographic and racial boundaries.

Guinier shows her system respects the majority as a political reality, writing, “The majority should enjoy a majority of the power, but the minority should also enjoy some power too.”[15] This somewhat conservative acknowledgment—one couched in the language of the Golden Rule—reifies just how unfair her critics and the Clinton Administration were in silencing her on grounds of extremism. Moreover, Guinier is careful to hedge her bets, extending an important caveat towards the end of the chapter. She admittedly recognizes the “balkanizing” and disruptive effect cumulative voting may exact on the electoral process, proposing its implementation “only where the existing election system unfairly distributes political power in a way that is itself disruptive or illegitimate.”[16] It is clear that Guinier’s critics simply never made an effort to understand her work. Perhaps ulterior motives and deep-seated prejudices better explains the reaction Guinier received as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights nominee. Her theories comply with a robust understanding of individualism by encouraging bottom-up participation with the upshot of dismantling a crippling system of oppression. Indeed, the Voting Rights Act amendments of 1982 extend a leg up to minorities, but the proper response ought not to be negative; Guinier shows it ought to be to extend this leg up to all voters. That her critics fail to acknowledge the democratic impetus behind her plan betrays what may better be explained as deep-seated prejudice and fear of veering from the status quo.

As a text within the Critical Race Theory corpus, Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Majority tackles systemic racism inherent in the political status quo. Her argument for bottom-up, voluntary interest constituencies confronts marginalized minority status by seeking to restore power to the individual, which promotes stronger community-based political participation, representation, and mobilization. She lays out individualism as a faulty political philosophy within the context of winner-take-all majority rules districts. Importantly, that same philosophy in a different, bottom-up context provides the grounds on which to develop more robust mechanisms of democratic legitimacy. In chapter three, “The Triumph of Tokenism,” Guinier shows that black electoral success theory valorizes individuals as authentic representatives of an externally defined group. Issues arise as the courts and civil rights advocates alter the principles of meaningful group participation inherent in the Voting Rights Act, opting for a tokenism that narrowly defines political success in terms of number of blacks elected. Nothing guarantees that black officials in majority rules districts adequately represent their constituents’ needs. Moreover, placing too much transformative value on individuals stymies community involvement by rendering groups passive. Guinier then lays out liberal individualism’s inconsistencies within virtual representation that emerges from geographic districting in chapter five. By illuminating the group-based nature inherent in the districting formulas, she exposes liberal individualism’s misguided principles of individual equality. She introduces a modified at-large system—cumulative voting—as a mechanism whereby empowerment and self-autonomy return to the individual. Under this system, individual freedom breeds community participation and group mobilization. Guinier shows that reexamining individualism within a bottom-up framework satisfies the country’s preoccupation with individual freedom. Democracy must return to Madisonian principles that respect the dangers of majority rule by ensuring a dynamic political process. Empowering the people, Guinier’s theories capture that dynamism and restore legitimacy to individualism.

[1] Guinier, Lani, The Tyranny of the Majority, 43.
[2] Ibid., 45.
[3] Ibid., 55-69.
[4] Ibid., 49.
[5] Ibid., 63.
[6] Ibid., 67.
[7] Ibid., 124.
[8] Ibid., 120.
[9] Ibid., 127.
[10] Ibid., 128.
[11] Ibid., 133.
[12] Ibid., 123.
[13] Ibid., 149.
[14] Ibid., 152.
[15] Ibid., 152.
[16] Ibid., 154.

Guinier, Lani. The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy. 4. Print. Martin Kessler Books. New York: Free Press, 1995.

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