This has been a disturbing week in which two democratic leaders revealed they really don’t understand the concept of democracy. In a democracy, “all men are created equal”, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson said that precept was “sacred” and “undeniable”. Benjamin Franklin called it “self-evident”. Abraham Lincoln held the American democracy was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The corollary to that principle is every citizen, being equal, is entitled to one vote. Democracies are governed by a majority of votes, not by a majority of individuals sharing common characteristics such as skin color or sexual preference.
Antonin Scalia should know this. He is one of nine Supreme Court justices, a powerful position that, by definition, requires judgment and fairness. So it is understandably shocking when he would state from the judicial bench, as he did the other day during arguments over whether to repeal the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that the protections the Act provides blacks and other minorities is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
An entitlement is a right granted by law, although in the common vernacular, the term has become associated with (earned or unearned) benefits bestowed by government. In a democracy, the right to vote is neither a benefit to be bestowed by government, nor even a right to be granted. It is a fundamental right, inherent in the very concept of democracy, inuring to every citizen, vesting when he or she attains a predetermined age. It is not predicated on race, Justice Scalia, nor does it have any time limit or expiration date – it is a perpetual right, not subject to questioning of its perpetuation. Any Justice who could state otherwise, and imply a more invidious sentiment, is neither qualified nor deserving to serve on the Supreme Court.
In a democracy, all citizens are equal, even if they are members of a discrete minority class. The man who brought democracy to Poland, and was lauded for doing so with accolades ranging from the Nobel Peace Prize to the cover of Time magazine, should understand this. Apparently, he does not. On Friday, Polish freedom fighter turned president Lech Walesa announced homosexuals, being a minority, have no right to a prominent role in politics – “They have to know that they are a minority and adjust to smaller things, and not rise to great heights.” He added gays have no right to sit on the front benches in parliament and if present, should sit in back “or even behind a wall.”
What makes democracy arguably superior to other forms of government is precisely the ability of any individual, being deemed equal under the law, to rise to great heights. That’s why, in our American democracy, a member of a minority can rise to become president. A Quaker named Nixon did. A black man named Obama did. And even a Catholic named Kennedy did. Something two other Catholics – Antonin Scalia and Lech Walesa – should keep in mind. Because, one never knows when one will find oneself in the minority.