As the fight over voting rights prepares to glow red hot in Washington, D.C. in the coming weeks, on Friday January 7, America lost one of its most brilliant civil rights lawyers, scholars and fervent advocates for voting equity, Harvard Professor Emerita, Lani Guinier.
Her acclaimed work, “The Tyranny of the Majority” published in 1994, a collection of her law review articles and essays, provided clear insight into her deep thinking about democracy. One of the themes of this collection focused on her analysis of how “winner take all” district elections fall short of the nation’s goals
The title of her book–Tyranny of the Majority–is rooted in an 1830 observation by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who at the time noted that with the rise of democracy in the United States, it benefits, which included—equality before the law–would one day replace monarchies around the world as a preferred form of governance. However, he expressed stark concern with what he saw in this country that he believed carried negative consequences. Something he described as a new tyranny—the tyranny of the majority that overpowers the will of minorities. He noted how the will of the majority became the rule of the day in the U.S. and those outside the majority–primarily Blacks, Indigenous people (and other people of color)—were at the mercy and/or wrath of the nation’s white majority.
Under this form of tyranny, majorities impose their viewpoints on and subjugate minorities to majority opinion. As a result, minorities tend to conform to majority opinion out of a fear of repercussions. This can be especially true de Tocqueville expressed, when the majority is racially prejudiced.
Guinier believed the tyranny of the majority makes the idea of one person, one vote, largely inadequate in a system where minority interests are inevitably disregarded, trampled over by those in the majority.
Guinier believed the tyranny of the majority makes the idea of one person, one vote, largely inadequate in a system where minority interests, whether due to race, class, or other reasons, are inevitably disregarded, trampled over by those in the majority.
Guinier advocated for alternatives to be explored and considered to give minority interests greater consideration in the nation’s democracy.
It was Guinier’s legal acumen in the areas of voting rights and affirmative action that garnered widespread attention and may ultimately have led to her nomination by President Bill Clinton to be the first Black woman to lead the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
However, no sooner had Clinton made the nomination, before the Republican Party launched a full-scale character assassination to discredit Guinier and it wasn’t long before Clinton aka “Bubba” joined the repudiation. He withdrew her nomination and dismissively threw her under the proverbial bus claiming he had never read her scholarly works and after doing so, found her theories for empowering Black people–too radical.
This was typical of how “good ole boy” Clinton acquiesced to his conservative leanings, southern roots, and corporate sponsors at the expense of his Black supporters. Blacks experienced this again and again during Clinton’s tenure as president—consider ‘welfare to work’ and anti-crime initiatives among other actions Clinton took that still impact Black communities across the country some 30 years hence.
Clinton and his ilk were not the only ones hesitant about Guinier’s political thinking, even some on the left were wary of her breakthrough ideas about the voting process and issues related to it including redistricting.
Although Guinier was denied an opportunity to make history in the U.S. Justice Department by Clinton, one of her students eventually would. And, this time when conservatives came with attacks similar to what they used against Guinier, President Joe Biden did not back down. As a result, Kristen Clarke made history in 2021 as the nation’s first Black woman to lead the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Lani Guinier Speaks at DePauw University
Clarke commented on Twitter about Guinier’s passing. “Lani Guinier was one of the nation’s most dedicated civil rights lawyers and brightest scholars — she cared deeply about political representation and ensuring that all communities have a voice in our democracy. We’ve lost a giant.”
Today, few can argue that many of Guinier’s insights are now mainstream. Consider her arguments about redistricting, for example, that stressed districts should not be drawn to shore up votes for incumbents (regardless of party). In other words, politicians should not be allowed to use redistricting as a vehicle to select their voters as a way to secure their elected positions.
Although denied an opportunity to make history at the Justice Department, Guinier’s many accomplishments include serving in the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice, heading the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s voting rights project and being the first woman of color ever appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School.
In the online publication Harvard Law Today, Harvard Law Professor John F. Manning wrote, “Lani devoted her life to justice, equality, empowerment, and democracy and made the world better as a result. Her voice, her wisdom, her integrity, her bravery, her caring for others, her imagination and rigorous thinking, and her unerring sense of justice will inspire those who knew her and those who come to know of her life and legacy in the years to come.”
Harvard University Law Professor Kenneth Mack stated, “Her work on voting and democracy — the work that would bring so much controversy — was all about the fragility of democratic systems.”
Guinier had long professed the experience of Black communities in their ongoing struggle to participate in the nation’s democratic system of voting was evidence of unseen problems in American democracy. Blacks, she said, were “canaries in the coal mine” that something was amiss in the nation’s democratic process of majority rule. It was this fragility that the nation witnessed first hand on January 6, 2021.
Republicans (and probably many Democrats) were once apoplectic regarding Guinier’s philosophy that, “In a racially divided society majority rule is not a reliable instrument of democracy.” Of course, they adamantly disagreed, when she said it.
I am almost certain however, their views are destined to change in the coming years because by 2035, experts project the nation’s white majority will become the nation’s minority. What will be their opinion about the Tyranny of the Majority theory they have so readily dismissed when they are no longer the majority? Time will tell.
Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.