Tyranny of the majority

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Tyranny of the majority

Oh Byung-sang
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration began on May 10 but the Democratic Party (DP) still has an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly with 167 seats. Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP) controls only 109 seats. Including small parties and independent lawmakers such as Rep. Min Hyung-bae, the DP practically controls about 60 percent of the legislature.
It is, therefore, still possible that the DP will run the National Assembly despotically, even though it failed to win the last presidential election. Of course, President Yoon has veto power, so the DP cannot create laws on its own. Yet, conflicts between the DP and the executive branch are bound to grow.
During the recent process of passing controversial bills to remove the prosecution’s power to conduct investigations, the DP used various dirty tricks, completely ignoring the National Assembly Act. It is trying to reverse a promise that it will hand over the post of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee chairman to the PPP. The current situation is more serious than in the past when the president’s party was not in control of the legislature.
It can be called a tyranny of the majority, an undemocratic trap that a democracy can fall into. The DP, the majority party, is vetoing the PPP in the National Assembly, confronting the executive branch. It is blinded by a few politicians’ partisanship and doesn’t respond to the opinions of the majority of the people.  
Alexis de Tocqueville had warned of the danger of a tyranny of the majority. His warning was based on experience. Born in 1805, he experienced the aftermath of the French Revolution, which started in 1789. Tocqueville was shocked by the people’s ignorance and passions after they gained political power. An ignorant but passionate public became violently obsessed with collective equality. Tyranny of the majority, therefore, caused the unfortunate outcome that everyone would lose freedom.
 The National Assembly approves the nomination of Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Friday after the Democratic Party, which holds a majority in the legislature, voted in favor. [YONHAP]

The National Assembly approves the nomination of Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Friday after the Democratic Party, which holds a majority in the legislature, voted in favor. [YONHAP]

De Tocqueville referred to this as “democratic despotism.” (Anti-intellectualism, mentioned by Yoon in his inauguration speech, is a concept conservatives use to warn against tyranny within a democracy.) Instead of equality, conservative intellectuals pay attention to freedom. (Yoon’s inauguration speech mentioned freedom 35 times, but never mentioned equality. It feels like a declaration of liberalism, vowing to not concede to a tyranny of democracy.)
De Tocqueville discovered freedom, sacrificed by a tyranny of democracy from the French Revolution, in the United States. In 1831, Tocqueville visited the United States to find a true alternative. At the time, European intellectuals saw the United States as a successful model of liberal democracy, after it was established in 1776 as a result of the American War of Independence. The Founding Fathers created a political system that was a complete model of a liberal democracy. Therefore, the foundation process of the United States was also called the American Revolution.  
The American Revolution “was caused by a mature and thoughtful taste for freedom. No disorderly passions drove it. On the contrary, it proceeded hand in hand with a love of order and legality,” he wrote.
The political system that crafted the American liberal democracy is a meticulous separation of powers and an elaborate system of a commonwealth. Powers are separated and keep each other in check, allowing individuals to protect their freedom.
The Founding Fathers of the United States studied all political systems ranging from the ancient Greek and Roman republics, medieval republics of Venice and Florence as well as the British constitutional monarchy. The Commonwealth of Oceana, written by James Harrington, was their key resource. And that essay of political philosophy starts by stressing the importance of a bicameral legislature.  
“For example, two of them have a cake yet undivided, which was given between them: that each of them therefore might have that which is due, ‘Divide,’ says one to the other, ‘and I will choose; or let me divide, and you shall choose.’ If this be but once agreed upon, it is enough; for the dividend, dividing unequally, loses, in regard that the other takes the better half. Wherefore she divides equally, and so both have right,” he wrote.
But in a commonwealth consisting of a single council, there is no other to choose than that which divided, he wrote. The problem cannot be resolved unless another council is created to choose. If the senate, which has the power to divide the cake, is an organization of wisdom for the commonwealth, the house, which has the power to choose, is an organization that is about the commonwealth’s interest. Debates in the senate divide the cake fairly and it is the decision of the house to choose one of the two.
He stressed the importance of a bicameral legislature because the legislative branch is the first branch out of the three branches. In a commonwealth system, the legislative branch reflects sovereign opinions the best, and its power is the strongest. In contrast, when it is corrupted, tyranny of the majority takes place.
That is why the United States has a bicameral legislature. The fundamental intention is to disperse the power of legislation. Separation of powers among the legislative, judicial and administrative branches is the fundamental mechanism of checks and balances, but that is not enough to completely stop an abuse of power. Because the legislative power is too strong, the legislative branch was divided further between the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The Senate and the House of Representatives were created to keep each other in check. All bills need to go through both Senate and House. They have veto power against each other. Of course, the president has a veto power too.
The Senate and the House divided their authorities properly. The House is in charge of finance while the Senate is in charge of diplomacy. They both have the simultaneous decision power on topics of grave importance such as a war. For a presidential impeachment, an indictment is by the House but the trial is operated by the Senate. The members of the House, who reflect public sentiments directly, are elected every two years, while Senators are guaranteed six-year terms.
The root of the bicameral legislature came from the ancient Greek and Roman Republic. Tyranny of the majority was a problem even 2,500 years ago. And separation of powers was the resolution. The system has a philosophy.
Athens of Greece is the origin. The popular assembly of ecclesia is attended by all male citizens over 20 years old, except slaves. The assembly holds meetings about 40 times a year and the leader is decided by drawing lots. Members who are over 30 serve a public post based on lots, and the tenure is less than one year. Drawing lots was a mechanism to exclude the influence of certain groups. A short tenure and a ban on reselection were intended to stop one person from controlling power.
Despite such a system, it created the system of ostracism, in which a citizen could be expelled from Athens for 10 years. When the ecclesia decided at the beginning of the year, a vote took place in March. The people wrote down a name of a powerful person on a broken piece of pottery and the one who received the most votes would be expelled for 10 years. There was a high chance that the vote was being abused in a power struggle or a propaganda campaign, and it had actually done so, the people of the Athens did not hesitate to use the drastic measure to stop concentration of powers.
If the democracy in Athens was a primitive form in a small city-state, the Roman Republic was far more refined. The U.S. system was nearly identical to that of Rome.
The Roman Republic had a popular assembly, equivalent to the House of Representatives, and the Senate. Only men who were older than 15 and owned property and arms were allowed to attend the assembly. The assembly elected consuls and high-ranking public servants, created laws and passed bills drafted by consuls or the Senate.
The Senate kept the assembly in check. It confirmed public servants elected by the assembly and ratified the laws. National security and diplomatic powers including expansion and formation of the military belonged to the senate.
The initial draft of the Republic of Korea’s constitution in 1948 was intended to establish a bicameral legislature. Syngman Rhee, head of the National Assembly, changed the parliamentary system into the presidential system and the plan to establish a bicameral legislature was changed into a unicameral legislature. Rhee, who promoted the American-style presidential system, shut down any arguments against his plan by saying that any delay caused by challenging his decision would be deemed opposition to a plan to establish the government.
It was clear that Rhee would become the founding president, and he chose to strengthen presidential powers further and seek speedy support of the National Assembly. He became a strong president and the National Assembly became his rubber-stamp legislature. With unchecked power, the presidential system became a dictatorship.
After military dictatorships, Korea continued to see more imperial presidents. After the Democratic Party won 180 seats in the 2020 legislative election, reckless operations began in the National Assembly. When the legislative branch became stronger and partisan conflicts grew serious, the possibility of reckless operations of the legislature grew. We need a mechanism to stop them.
Because the problem has deep roots, there is not an easy solution. To introduce a bicameral legislature, we must amend the constitution. Lawmakers won’t push forward an amendment that will divide their powers and shorten their terms. 
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