A large blue pie chart with a tiny missing sliver, and a group of people on top of it, rolling it towards a small group on the ground, using the sliver to avoid being crushed.
The tyranny of the majority.

Learning to love and hate democracy

Amy J. Ko

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I started high school in 1995. Kurt Cobain was dead, my after school play was a mix of Super Nintendo and origami, OJ was found not guilty, and President Clinton had just begun his balanced budget initiative, and my state of Oregon had just approved fully convert voting to mail-in ballots. And it had been five years since Oregon’s Measure 5 had gutted the state’s property tax revenue, leading to an annual question about whether my mother, a 5th grade teacher, would continue to have a job.

I wasn’t particularly political at 15. And neither were my parents. But the instability in my schools and my mother’s school made voting a particularly important thing in our household and something that we discussed regularly. I had a constant sense that the broader public in Oregon had complete ignorance about the relationship between property taxes and public school funding. Students in my high school would complain when a teacher was laid off, or when they couldn’t get their locker fixed, but then they would parrot their parent’s anti-tax libertarianism, as if our slowly crumbling school infrastructure was somehow separate from their parent’s taxes. Meanwhile, my mother’s sub-$30,000 income meant that our trips to mall were a game: could we replace our whole wardrobe and buy school supplies for less than $100? What could we reuse from last year, even though it didn’t fit?

And so when the 1996 November ballot came, and the new direct democracy Measure 47 promised to devastate state income even further, voting was essential to my family’s survival. I remember sitting down with the ballot with my mom and my brother, talking through the measure and reading through the voters guide about the impacts it would have. We also talked about the candidates running for the state legislature and their stance on state funding as well. It was the first time I realized what politics was: a system for organizing power, to decide who gets what resources and opportunities and who doesn’t. But also a system for organizing information and disinformation about those decisions, often and primarily in service of the wealthy.

Measure 47 passed that year and its amended cousin Measure 50, which ultimately led to a loss of $41 billion in state revenue. Rural hospitals closed, schools closed, teachers were laid off. If I remember correctly, my mom received a pink slip at the end of that school year, and was unemployed for the summer, only to be rehired 2 weeks before the next school year, to our relief. Some of my favorite teachers, many of whom had won the Presidential Teaching award, received pay cuts and left teaching. As I worked a part time job to save for college applications and AP exam fees, public K-12 schools began to collapse. I approached college with a belief that democracy, for all its promises of empowerment, often makes horrible, devastating, ignorant decisions, deceived by greedy lies of the rich and our own compulsion to prioritize now over later.

That didn’t stop me from believing in it anyway. Throughout my twenties, I regularly engaged in fighting hateful ballot measures over the next decade, participating in community organizing, writing state legislatures, engaging in extended debates with friends and family. And always voting. Even though I only had one vote, I believed in a system that incentivized me to help build coalitions and educate the public, fighting against the majority for basic human rights for myself and my communities. This fight always felt just barely possible. And it preserved my sense of hope and optimism about progress.

As I worked through my gender troubles in my thirties, however, this hope began to fade. As I accepted that I was part of not just a minority, but an extremely tiny minority that was broadly ridiculed and othered by the majority, I wondered how much hope democracy really had to offer trans people like myself. Anarchy, dictatorship, communism, and other systems surely weren’t any better for us. But how could gender non-conforming people, at less than 1% of humanity, ever hope to build a coalition large enough to earn basic civil rights, even in a democracy? Even if half of my country came to accept us, in a system where simple majorities often do not translate to majorities in Congress or the Supreme Court, it would take a massive shift in culture and understanding to approach anything resembling a democratic majority. My relationship to democracy began to shift from one where incremental progress was always just barely possible, to one where I expected loss of civil rights would be a regular feature of my life.

But it was worse than that. Because the more I learned about what it meant to be on the margins in society, the more I realized just how little capacity people on the margins have to organize and advocate. My community spends most of its time trying to keep our jobs, trying to maintain our physical and mental health, trying to build community after losing friends and family to transphobia, and now, also trying to keep our right to health care and restrooms. And this is on top of any intersecting experiences we have because of race, disability, or class, creating unique and compounding challenges that displace most of the time we might use to engage in democracy. If democracy requires coalitions, and coalitions require community at scale, and scale requires money, time, and effort, where will that effort come from for a group that has to fight to even exist?

These challenges raise a simple question: how can a system of political governance that empowers the majority serve the margins? The answer is usually law. In the U.S., this primarily comes down to one law, won after a bloody civil war, to protect the rights of Black Americans. Namely, the 14th amendment and its equal protection clause:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Any person. Equal protection. These are the words that hypothetically protect trans and gender non-conforming people from the tyranny of the cis majority. And the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices that take their sweet time trying to decide whether blatant denials of equal protection are indeed unconstitutional. And the millions of government employees charged with deciding whether the law compels them to oppress or liberate us, and whether they will follow that law. In 1866, it was still mostly hypothetical, since women couldn’t vote for another 54 years, and most Americans flagrantly ignored this constitutional right, as many still do. This law, which originally only protected the rights of Black men, and then the rights of Black women, may someday become the law to protect Black trans people, and by extension me, finally giving us the freedom to be ourselves, without shame, disgust, or abandonment.

I am not anti-democratic. To me, democracy is still the least bad system. But in its current form, it’s basic commitment to majoritarian rule it is not something that leads to justice, or even equity, or even equality. It is something that leads to whatever incremental change an ignorant, ambivalent majority is willing to tolerate. And that is usually very little, especially when it asks something of them. And so I vote, and I fight, and I organize, understanding that if I do, I might be as free as this country has always promised. And I might not. Whether I am is mostly up to cis people and their chronic indifference to trans oppression. And whether all trans people are is up to the the chronic ambivalence of the wealthy white cis het men that still rule this country, largely in service of themselves, and at the expense of everyone else.

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Amy J. Ko

Professor, University of Washington iSchool (she/her). Code, learning, design, justice. Trans, queer, parent, and lover of learning.