Erdogan’s Majority Rule

Recent events in Turkey ought remind us, if we needed reminding, that freedom and parliamentary democracy are not identical, though many people mistake the one for the other. But if by parliamentary democracy we mean merely government legitimated by a majority of the votes every few years, there is no reason why such democracy should not lead to tyranny. Indeed, a democratic tyranny may be among the most insidious, if not necessarily the worst, of tyrannies, for it possesses the simulacrum of a justification for its oppression, namely the will of the majority.

A counter protest in support of Prime Minister Erdogan.

A counter protest in support of Prime Minister Erdogan.

No one can doubt the democratic legitimacy of Mr Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister. He has won three genuine elections with many more votes than any other candidate (in this respect, his legitimacy is actually far greater than that of most western leaders). And it is probable that if there were elections tomorrow he would win them without difficulty. Moreover, the reasons for this are not difficult to find. Turkey under his government has thrived; and even his worst enemies could not but admit that the country is far better administered under his rule than it was before he came to power. No doubt some of Turkey’s prosperity is attributable to its good fortune in not being permitted to join the European Union; but there is more to success than the avoidance of catastrophic mistakes. Failing to chain yourself to a corpse does not make you an athlete.

Mr Erdogan has also tamed the army, which has more than once intervened to overthrow a democratically-elected government. Ordinarily, this would seem a step in the right direction; but the army was the ultimate guarantor of Kemalist secularism and it may well prove its emasculation was equivocal from the point of view of individual freedom.

The Prime Minister has not hesitated to characterize the demonstrators in Istanbul and elsewhere in a most disparaging, disdainful and insulting way; and surely we know enough about the outcomes of mass demonstrations in several parts of the world not to make the opposite mistake, of considering the participants to be the parfit gentle knights of freedom, especially the freedom of others.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see – indeed, it is difficult not to see – the conflict between Mr Erdogan and the demonstrators as that between two quite different conceptions of society, the first religious and the second secular. No one knows quite how far Mr Erdogan wants to go with his Islamism: whether he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or rather (as the demonstrators fear) a fanatic with a moderate face, or a true pluralist. It is even possible he does not know himself, that he has no blueprint that he is following, and that, like most politicians, he makes things up as he goes along in an attempt to hang on to power. But the auguries are not good.

At first he might have posed as a man merely trying to redress the balance after years of Kemalist repression of the popular religious sentiment of the Turkish people. But now that the muezzins call people to prayer at a volume and length unprecedented in recent Turkish history, and a considerable proportion of the women dress in a supremely unattractive and inelegant way (a shapeless gabardine coat the color of a sea-fog), it is difficult to believe that further Islamization is a mere redressment of the balance between official policy and popular sentiment.

It is more likely that Mr Erdogan sees parliamentary democracy as the tool by which the will of the majority (incarnated, naturally enough, by himself) is imposed upon the minority. And since in Turkey the majority is clearly Islamic, Islamic mores should prevail. Just as for the communist the New Economic Policy or the Popular Front were regrettable, temporary but necessary stages before the advent of true communism, so for Mr Erdogan living and let live has been a regrettable, temporary but necessary stage before people come to live as they ought: ought, that is, as defined by the majority.

At least, this is one possible interpretation of Mr Erdogan’s intentions, the interpretation no doubt of the demonstrators in Taksim Square. They do not care for his ideology of shopping and sharia, the former being the lure for the latter.

If Mr Erdogan sees democracy only as the means by which the will of the majority is imposed upon the minority, we should not complacently suppose that this is a problem confined to Turkey, a country that we are in the condescending habit of thinking of as the backward man of Europe.

Considerations not only of the wishes but of the welfare of the majority have increasingly trumped considerations of freedom in all western democracies.  Almost everywhere (the notable exception being Switzerland) politicians have become drunk not so much with power as with responsibility. Power, however, tends to follow responsibility, which after all is its justification; and where populations look to governors for protection and prosperity, governors are only too willing to oblige. Few people, certainly not members of a modern political class, are able or willing to resist the lure of increased power.

It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that a sense of limitlessness has emerged in our political classes that is not so very different from that of Mr Erdogan. Endowed with infinite responsibility and, at least in their own opinion, with infinitely benevolent intentions, and having come to office by mostly legitimate means, that is to say a majority or plurality of votes as laid down in a constitution, they think they have the right and indeed the duty to remake the world according to their own ideas, or what pass as their own ideas, that led to their election. They know no limits other than practical political ones. Building nations is to them what building a house is to an architect; while populations are children to be trained, deformities to be straightened, teeth to be braced. They are the orthopaedic surgeons of the soul.

The problem is not new, however, and is unlikely to have begun at a definite date such as that of the Battle of Hastings. No trend ever does start in a fashion so convenient for historians as a date. I came unexpectedly across a lucid statement of the problem in a book published ninety years ago by G K Chesterton called Eugenics and Other Evils, in which Chesterton presciently imagined the horrors in which the eugenic attitude would result. ‘Government,’ wrote Chesterton, ‘has become ungovernable; that is, it cannot leave off governing. Law has become lawless; that is, it cannot see where laws should stop.’ No one who has looked at the Labor Code of France, or the regulations governing Medicare, is likely to disagree with these statements.

Chesterton continued, ‘The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government.’ It is unwise, however, to rely on the everlasting meekness of mobs.

Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

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  1. M. Report says

    ” Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as ‘Bad Luck’.”

    – Robert A. Heinlein

    Even the French have accepted this: Their research shows that modern
    technological society is sustained by the smart minority and advanced
    by the even smaller minority of geniuses.
    Ergodan will destroy his own country, sooner rather than later if he
    is foolish enough to involve it in the Islamist Jihad against Israel.

  2. Brett Champion says

    I have little doubt that Erdogan is not only not a pluralist, but he isn’t even a real democrat. He once said that democracy is a train you ride until you reach your destination. The implication being that we play at democracy until we’ve achieved victory and then we don’t let the democratic process restart, at least if it looks like we’ll lose.

    That’s not to say that Turkey is in danger of becoming a dictatorship, or even a managed democracy, like Russia has become. But, similar to but different from Erdogan’s sentiment, democracy is a means to an end, not an end itself. Where my feeling differs from Erdogan’s is that the end isn’t a set of policy objectives supported by a majority of citizens, but the protection of the natural human rights of every citizen. In the real world, democracy is just the least bad option for empowering a government so that it doesn’t violate those rights.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”

    This is the danger that Erdogan’s majoritarianism is possibly leading to: that the rights of the minority in Turkey will be trampled under foot and their natural rights to life, liberty, and property (I prefer Locke’s rendition) will be violated. It is for each society to decide on its own where the line is that defines what is or is not a right to be protected, but there is clearly a large number of Turks who feel that Erdogan has gotten dangerously close to, if not crossed over, the line on any number of issues.

  3. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Democracy is a process not a condition.

    When it is determined that the process is teleological (shall function to attain specific ends) Liberty is doomed.

    That is what is occurring over wide swathes of the “developed” societies.

  4. Mr. X says

    “No one can doubt the democratic legitimacy of Mr Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister. He has won three genuine elections with many more votes than any other candidate (in this respect, his legitimacy is actually far greater than that of most western leaders). ”

    One could say the same about the elected authoritarian Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Yes United Russia engaged in ballot box stuffing in certain regions. But who else won, the Communists? No one.

    Turkey’s current crackdown on demonstrators is more severe than anything Putin’s OMON have done in years if not ever. However while Erdogan gets criticism as a frontline NATO state Turkey itself escapes the blame (with the exception of Spengler) for its shrinking freedoms even as the franchise and online speech is more widespread than ever. How to explain this contradiction without understanding that Islamist Turks have more babies than the seculars of Istanbul? And the same goes for the revived Holy Rus with their three or four children out in the wide open spaces of Russia compared to the liberals of Moscow and St. Petersburg. While being directly identified with the State can be corrupting to the Russian Orthodox Church, being wide open to blasphemy, insult and vandalism (FEMEN chopping down crosses) cheered on by the West’s leading media outlets is not healthy either. Christ commanded that the individual believer turn the other cheek, but he did not tell the Centurion to surrender his arms and hug the barbarians or even Jewish zealots who would kill him as a foreign occupier.

    Similarly Russia pains the Anglo-American elites who continue to insist (falsely) that it is ‘dying off’ demographically when the data has long since shown that Russia has reached replacement levels, and only a modest uptick in immigration (say from the jobless nations crushed by the EU like Spain, Bulgaria or Greece) would see it resume population growth again. Only Samuel P. Huntington, who was already old enough to care less what Davos Man and Harvard colleagues thought of him, foresaw the return of Orthodoxy/Byzantium as a civilization in 2000 when the Atlantic and the Economist were all saying Russia was doomed to irrelevance and further territorial breakup.

  5. Mr. X says

    Expanding my comment above, as Theodore Dalrymple knows very well these days it is parts of the U.S. and UK that look increasingly ‘Third World’. But the power of self-delusion, nostalgia for the Reagan era when the U.S. was unquestionably no. 1 and ignorance is terribly strong in Washington on the Right. Look at George F. Will’s recent column dismissing Russia as a Third World country that has nuclear weapons, a bigger more natural resource rich version of Pakistan. I wonder if Will has set foot in Moscow since 1989 and where would he feel safer to walk through at night — southeastern Moscow or Washington D.C. SE? Set aside actual facts like Russia having the highest per capita income among the BRICs, achieving purchasing power parity with South Korea, or having the highest rate of [uncensored] Internet penetration in Europe outside of Germany [levels soon to be higher in fact, than in the UK!]. Just look at the ugliness of our respective national capitals outside the most privileged enclaves. Or the obesity/ugliness of women under 40 who should be in the prime of their beauty in the USA versus Russia or even poorer countries like Romania or Ukraine.


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