Port: How does democracy cope when what's right isn't what's popular?

What do we do, in a system of government that's organized around popularity, when justice isn't popular?

Signs and flags waved amidst cheers and chants, as health care workers and supporters gathered to protest vaccine mandates by the federal government and private businesses. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

MINOT, N.D. — Last weekend, I got pulled into binge-watching an HBO show called "Show Me A Hero."

I'm a sucker for an F. Scott Fitzgerald reference and pretty much anything David Simon is involved in. Once I started watching the series, I couldn't look away.

I was under the misapprehension that it had been released recently because the subject matter is so apt to the politics of 2021, but it came out in 2015 (the book was published in 1999).

The focus is the political and legal battle to integrate housing in Yonkers, New York, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and specifically the efforts of young Mayor Nick Wasicsko. Yonkers had been using federal housing money to segregate people of color into slums away from white neighborhoods. The NAACP sued, and a federal judge found that the constitution had been violated, ordering Yonkers to approve a more geographically diverse housing plan.



Under intense pressure from the white majority in the electorate, the city leaders refused, prompting the court to force the issue by levying financially ruinous contempt fines against the municipal government. Wasicsko bravely attempts to comply with the law, while all around him, his fellow politicians opt for cowardice and pandering in the face of a howling mob.
It's a gripping story with a (perhaps unintended) parable about populism for the present, which is probably the most populist era in American history thanks to social media and other factors.

It wasn't hard to imagine the mobs of angry citizens in the show howling about face masks and vaccines instead of property values and crime.

Democracy works best when political majorities are well-informed and pursuing reasonable things.

It is at its worst when the electorate is, well, wrong. Democracy is heavily invested in the idea that the masses will, in the aggregate, get it right. And, in the aggregate, they generally do.

But how about when the majority is wrong?

What's required then are leaders willing to buck what's popular and do what's right.

Those, I hardly need to tell you, are in short supply.

At one point in the show, the federal judge tells Wasicsko that justice isn't about popularity. "Yeah, but politics is," Wasicsko replies.


And that's the problem. What do we do, in a system of government organized around popularity, when justice isn't popular?

Our founders, who created our system, seemed to be aware of this quandary. In Federalist 63 , James Madison warns of "particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn."

Those words, published 233 years ago, are as true today as they've ever been.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

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Rob Port

Rob Port column sig
Rob Port

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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