Democracy’s Violence

Democracy’s Violence, a book manuscript based on my dissertation research, examines the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, W. E. B. Du Bois, B. R. Ambedkar, and Hannah Arendt to illuminate the causes, forms, and consequences of collective violence in modern democracies. Through close readings of Democracy in America, Black Reconstruction in America, The Annihilation of Caste, and The Origins of Totalitarianism, I present a globally-informed concept of majoritarian domination grounded in comparative political theory without relinquishing the historical specificity and uniqueness of each thinker. I interpret and extend the intuitions they propose to defend democratic sociality, constituted by fraternity, courageous humility, and concerted social action, as preventive and remedy to mass violence.

The conditions under which majorities have exercised illegitimate and arbitrary power has long beguiled political theorists. Yet, like many other important political concepts, it defies easy labels and definitions. I present a new theory of majoritarian domination, or the majority’s avoidable and illegitimate exercise of governmental power that undermines minorities’ basic interests. Majoritarian domination subsumes intuitions from three traditions of political theory— contemporary democratic theory, postcolonial theory, and 19th and 20th-century Euro-American political thought. Moreover, I demonstrate how Afro-modern and Dalit theorists, Du Bois and Ambedkar, inaugurated a tradition of critical democratic theory, which promises more robust analyses and answers to democracy’s eternal questions.

Majoritarian domination has four mechanisms: permanence, exaggeration, conformism, and pluralistic ignorance. Permanence connotes the transformation of the majority from an abstract and episodic collective of individuals into a socially enumerated majority, especially a group bound by an ascriptive identity. Exaggeration refers to the elected majority’s attack on institutions in the name of majority will. Conformism connotes the pressure to speak, behave, or think in a manner specified by the majority. Pluralistic Ignorance is a state of uncertainty about others’ beliefs that leads individuals to think everyone except themselves supports the majority from sincere conviction while they comply because they feel pressured to do so.

Methodologically, I demonstrate that focusing on the empirical social majorities and the hierarchies within society illustrates the intellectual and material production and consequences of permanence. My account of identity formation and activation through democratic competition explains the oppression of Blacks and Natives in the United States, and Dalits and Muslims in colonial and contemporary India, and Jews and colonial subjects in 20th century Europe. Conceptually, majoritarian domination explains the disfigurement of democratic equality even in the absence of a populist leader and through the active collaboration of mainstream political parties.

I propose democratic sociality as a social and institutional remedy for majoritarian domination. With Tocqueville, I argue that the spirit of collective activity that made American democracy unique and vibrant in his observations requires specification and modification to correct for the violence that is constitutive of American political life. Fraternity, drawn from Ambedkar’s Deweyan influences, refers to common collective experiences across numerous domains of shared activity in a society. Courageous humility, grounded in Du Bois’ historical writings and social epistemology, connotes the necessary disposition of the oppressed and oppressors in societies that have yet to overcome deep inequities in social standing. Concerted social action, drawing upon Arendt’s On the Human Condition, clarifies the importance of acting together to pursue political ends.