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Democracy, Freedom and Heterogeneity



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It might be argued that human heterogeneity is the bane of democracy. Writing in 1748 in The Spirit of the Laws, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, contended that its effects could not be overcome and that a society had to be both small and homogenous to be free. The Baron made this argument, following some 20 years of intensive study and after having read Thomas Hobbes and John Locke who each had postulated that, left to their own devices, human beings would soon create insufferable living conditions for one another. This would occur due to their propensity to find reasons to scorn and tyrannize one another, based in part on their individual physical needs, and in part on their perceived differences and their incapacity in their selfishness to accept those. Following these celebrated thinkers, Montesquieu suggested humans could not accept differences among their number and would instead use those to deprive one another of their freedom. For the Baron, that reality implied that to attain a free and democratic society, individuals had to be similar so as to be less likely to find cause to “other” those unlike themselves in their midst and thereby imperil the freedom of all. In practice, this stricture, for Montesquieu, meant that members of a self-governing population could differ little along lines of ethnicity, tribe, race and religion, among other possibly divisive characteristics. Montesquieu also postulated that freedom could not be preserved if the populace involved did not possess virtue; that is, if its members could not act on behalf of others and be willing to accede to the needs of the commons in lieu of their personal desires, when prudent and appropriate to do so for the public good. Since Hobbes and Locke, among others, had argued that human beings did not naturally consistently evidence such capacities, Montesquieu contended, these attributes had to be encouraged by social and governance structures whenever possible. A population that would be free had constantly and persistently to be acculturated to virtue, understood in this way.

Put differently, the Swiss Baron took it for granted that the ugly wellsprings of behavior emphasized by Hobbes, which suggested that human beings could not naturally tolerate differences among themselves without finding cause to use those distinctions to hate and tyrannize, were both ever operative and unavoidable. One could not eliminate these impulses. The challenge instead was to find means to control them, including designing governing institutions predicated on a realistic assessment of their implications for social well-being.

Agreeing with this judgment and with the analysis underpinning it, our nation’s framers nonetheless disputed Montesquieu’s conclusion that only a small and homogeneous republic could endure given this reality. Writing in The Federalist, James Madison suggested that federalism, a separation of powers and the checking power of competing factions would serve in a large and heterogeneous society to rein in humanity’s impulse to deprive some in their number of their rights based on their real or imagined differences. While arguing that such a republic could survive, the Founders nonetheless agreed with Montesquieu that the citizenry needed also to possess virtue if tyrannical behavior was to be prevented. To realize that result the Framers sought both to ensure that those who could vote would have a stake in the regime and to guarantee that those who participated in politics would likely discipline their own behavior in the name of the commons. Alexander Hamilton argued in The Federalist that leaders would be encouraged so to behave out of concern for how future generations might regard them.

All well and good, one might say, but there is surely substantial evidence in recent United States and world history that suggests how difficult it is to entrust human beings to deal successfully with difference and thereby to preserve the freedom of diverse groups within their societies. Globally, unscrupulous leaders from Hitler to Milosevic to the organizers of the genocide in Rwanda have successfully exploited human propensities to hate on the basis of difference in their quest for power. While not genocidal, Americans saw fit nonetheless to tyrannize Japanese Americans by “interning” them during World War II, and for too many years discriminated formally in law against African Americans and many other minority groups. These more recent examples are but a small sample of many that might be cited. This fact suggests that the impulse to loathe, fear and mistrust on the basis of difference remains a strong force among human beings generally and in the U.S. population, too. It may not be viewed simply as a problem of the 18th century.

As a correspondent writing first from England, and then from the front in North Africa and during the invasion of Italy by allied troops during World War II, John Steinbeck pointed to another dimension of the portent of heterogeneity for democracy and freedom by highlighting what might be called its dual character. Steinbeck’s dispatches were collected and published in 1958 as Once there was a War and he remarked in one report that the problem of difference was nonetheless real among even the closest of allied troops when they imagined their compatriots in group rather than individual terms:

The whole problem seems to lie in generalities (about groups). Once you have made a generality, you are stuck with it. You have to defend it. Let’s say the British and/or American soldier is a superb soldier. The British and/or American officer is a gentleman. You start in with a lie. There are good ones and bad ones. … We get along very well as individuals. But just the moment we become the Americans and they become the British, trouble is not far behind (Folio Society edition, 2013, pp.69-70).

Paradoxically, people who differ along many characteristics may have strong rapport as individuals, but as soon as someone reminds them of their dissimilarities and aggregates those to broader populations, this picture clouds considerably. Thus, one may get on well with a member of another religious, ethnic or racial group as neighbors until that person is assigned membership in an amorphous and generalized “other” group and you are told they are, for example, “taking” your job. Just this sort of argument was employed to demonize Hispanic immigrants in parts of the United States during the recent economic recession. As Steinbeck predicted, when that population came to be treated as a group by many Americans it could be “othered” and all manner of uninformed and vicious discrimination could ensue. Some U.S. and state political, economic and media leaders have made similar claims over the years, suggesting that Jews, Catholics, African-Americans and immigrants and citizens of Irish, Chinese or Japanese descent were somehow less than other Americans, but nonetheless threatening as groups and therefore appropriately were the target of mass discrimination and steps to deny them their civil rights.

It seems safe to conclude that heterogeneity remains a principal challenge to self-governance and the assurance of civil rights in the United States and elsewhere today. Interestingly, it appears even more important now than when the Founders wrote to recognize the importance of acculturating the citizenry to Montesquieu’s understanding of virtue. The last several years have demonstrated that a determined minority can effectively block our nation’s institutions from accurately reflecting the will of the country’s majority, while also revealing a propensity among some of our political leaders to “other” groups in our diverse society to gain political advantage in the short-term. History and philosophy alike suggest this tendency is dangerous for freedom. It is more significant than ever that our citizens be equipped to judge such claims prudently and to realize their implications not only for their own supposed advantage, but also for their communities. This concern is vital and the dangers to be addressed real and continuing, if freedom for all is to be preserved in our heterogeneous society.

Publication Date

February 16, 2014