Last week, a gunman opened fire on a group of Republican members of Congress. Letters sent by the gunman to his local newspaper suggest he was obsessed with Republican policies, and concluded that Donald Trump “Has Destroyed Our Democracy” [sic] and that “It’s Time to Destroy Trump and Co.”
In the wake of the attack, there have been the usual predictable calls for “unity.” These calls, of course, fail to address a central reason why unity appears to be a problem, and why many feel the need to manufacture it where it does not exist.
In the wake of the 2016 election, it was not uncommon to read in both the mainstream media, and in social media, predictions that with a Republican victory, a fascist police state would soon be bringing the hammer down on all the enemies of the regime. In this case, “enemy of the regime” was anyone other than the alleged troglodytes who had voted Trump into office.
Nine months later, we’re still waiting on that border wall and on that Obamacare repeal, and on that tax cut. In fact, all we’re likely to get is more government spending, more deficits, and more war. In short, the new administration will look a lot like the old one.
Nevertheless, there are some significant changes that are likely to take place. The administration may refrain from forcing nuns to pay for someone else’s birth control, and environmental regulations are likely to be loosened. The general tenor of the federal government will shift slightly more toward favoring members of a center-right coalition of interest groups. The change, however, is anything but radical.
Nevertheless, any change that disfavors one’s own preferred interest groups and ideological groups is a real problem for those who find themselves on the outside of the winning coalitions.
Many voters and activists who now feel powerless saw themselves as being in the majority ruling coalition while Obama was in power. Now that he’s been replaced by Trump, the fear of abuse at the hands of the new ruling majority shifts to others.
While the consequences are probably less significant than many imagine, there will be real winners and losers over the next four years compared to what was the case under the previous administration.
Calling for unity and asking people to play nice will do nothing to eliminate this reality. Those groups that saw themselves as being on the outside during the Obama years are all to familiar with what many Obama supporters are now feeling.
Indeed, living among the minority that finds itself out of power is an unpleasant experience in any context.
Ludwig von Mises wrote on this phenomenon. He couched it within the context of immigration, but the lesson learned here applies to any situation in which one group manages to wrest control of government power away from another group:
As long as the state is granted the vast powers which it has today and which public opinion considers to be its right, the thought of having to live in a state whose government is in the hands of members of a foreign nationality is positively terrifying. It is frightful to live in a state in which at every turn one is exposed to persecution—masquerading under the guise of justice—by a ruling majority. It is dreadful to be handicapped even as a child in school on account of one’s nationality and to be in the wrong before every judicial and administrative authority because one belongs to a national minority.
Mises speaks of nationality in this example, but with some modest changes to the text, we could apply this illustration to any number of other examples. It is not necessary for a potentially dangerous majority to be composed of foreigners. Mises might just as easily have said that “the thought of having to live in a state whose government is in the hands of members of a competing ideology is positively terrifying.”
For many, the fear is real, and is indeed analogous to those who fear changes in government control fostered by migrations. Consider another passage by Mises:
“The entire nation, however, is unanimous in fearing inundation by foreigners. The present inhabitants of these favored lands fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country and that they would then have to suffer all the horrors of national persecution…”
In this case, Mises might have said that “Californians are unanimous in fearing a takeover by Southerners and Christians … and they fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country.”
The analogy is a bit clunky here, but it’s not difficult to see the similarity. For most California voters (59 percent of whom voted for Clinton), there is a real fear that the levers of power in Washington really will be “inundated” by members of the so-called “basket of deplorables” that Hillary Clinton spoke of. In the minds of West Coast leftists, the thought of government under the control of evangelical Christians from Texas really is something to fear.
This same leftist might then imagine himself personally subject to the whims of his rightwing enemies in this manner as described my Mises:
And when he appears before a magistrate or any administrative official as a party to a suit or petition, he stands before men whose political thought is foreign to him because it developed under different ideological influences. … At every turn the member of a national minority is made to feel that he lives among strangers and that he is, even if the letter of the law denies it, a second-class citizen.
Again, Mises is speaking of ethnic and linguistic differences, but the observation applies to any sort of minority subject to a majority group with differing values.
Now, we can debate as to how much a leftist from Silicon Valley might “suffer” under the alleged yoke of a rightwing regime that might cut taxes.
The perception of the danger posed by “the other” is very real, however. Nor is this limited to leftists, of course. Sarah Palin’s declaration that there are “real Americans” (i.e., conservatives) who are to be contrasted with presumably fake Americans highlights the tendency to simply declare other ideological groups to be essentially “foreign” to one’s own interests. The fact that these “others” happen to speak the same language or be born in the same legal jurisdiction does little to erase the perception of a rift between different groups.
It’s not surprising then, that the issue of “unity” appears to be a growing problem.
If the members of competing political groups aren’t “real Americans” or are “deplorables,” then one should hardly be motivated to pursue unity with such people. Many may even conclude that violence is necessary.
How to Address the Problem
For Mises, one of the primary answers to the problem of oppressing minorities was to make governments smaller and less powerful — and thus less able to oppress minorities. Again, in the context of immigration, Mises concludes:
It is clear that no solution of the problem of immigration is possible if one adheres to the ideal of the interventionist state, which meddles in every field of human activity, or to that of the socialist state. Only the adoption of the liberal program could make the problem of immigration, which today seems insoluble, completely disappear. In an Australia governed according to liberal principles, what difficulties could arise from the fact that in some parts of the continent Japanese and in other parts Englishmen were in the majority?
In other words, even if ethnic Japanese groups took control of the Australian state, it would not matter if the state were conducted along liberal [i.e., libertarian] lines. But the same might be said of feminists, or Christians, university professors or working class white people. If all were “governed according to liberal principles,” there isn’t a problem. If the state lacks the power to regulate, oppress, and impoverish one group for the benefit of another, then what group is in the majority is irrelevant.
But, if a state “is not conducted along completely liberal lines,” Mises concludes,
there can be no question of even an approach to equal rights in the treatment of the members of the various national groups. There can then be only rulers and those ruled. The only choice is whether one will be hammer or anvil.
Put simply: the bigger the government, the greater the threat when the other guys manage to get political power.
The Other Option: Secession
Should efforts to restrain the state’s overall power fail, another answer is decentralization. And this was Mises’s other solution to the problem of minorities subject to majorities. For Mises, the problem of “self-determination” could be addressed through decentralization, secession, and an acceptance that minority groups must have the option of breaking free from political bonds with majority groups of divergent interests:
The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars. … To call this right of self-determination the “right of self-determination of nations” is to misunderstand it. It is not the right of self-determination of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong…
In his essay on Mises’s views on self-determination and nationalism, Joseph Salerno notes that for Mises the answer lies in “providing for the continual redrawing of state boundaries in accordance with the right of self-determination.” In other words, in order to prevent the oppression of minorities by majorities, it may be necessary to allow the minority group to separate from the majority.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the United States is becoming a country in which every election brings a perceived mandate to forcefully — and even vengefully — impose the winning coalition’s agenda on the losers. In a country where political power is relatively weak, decentralization is effective, and taxes are low, then the effects of a political loss can be relatively minor. But that’s not the situation we now face.