Discover more from Arc Digital
The Petty Tyranny of a Local Majority
A library fight in central Arkansas highlights the little illiberalisms of local politics
My home of Saline County, Arkansas is a mix of urban, suburban, and rural development on the west and southwest side of the Little Rock metro area. It’s a Republican stronghold in the relatively bluer central region of the state, one of the fastest growing counties in Arkansas, and one of America’s many battlegrounds over banning books.
Here, the fight around “dangerous” books led to a power grab by county officials to oust the county librarian, Patty Hector. The build-up to her firing began in April, when the Saline County Quorum Court adopted a motion requiring the relocation of books deemed inappropriate for minors away from the children’s section of the library. The resolution allows an objection from any person to result in a book’s removal from the children’s section.
A main reason they made this decision was to ensure compliance with Act 372, which seeks to restrict minors’ access to supposedly inappropriate books, and makes librarians accountable for the distribution of such materials to children. Key provisions of the bill have since been blocked by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds.
Hector defied the April motion, arguing that requiring her to reshelve books to hard-to-access places was still an act of censorship, and noting the unwillingness of groups like Saline County Republican Women to release a list of books they deem objectionable. This set the librarian on a collision course with Saline County Judge Matt Brumley. Over the summer, county officials voted 11-2 to transfer additional hiring and firing oversight of the county library board to Brumley, and he finally exercised that power as expected this October.
Saline County’s Quorum Court is entirely Republican. The county is consistently red in local, state, and federal elections. And even Act 372 is the product of state Republican supermajorities in the legislature and a Republican governor elected with over 60% of the vote. So there is nothing strictly undemocratic about all of this.
But it is illiberal and anti-pluralist. And it is an example of the power majorities—often numerically overwhelming ones—can exert in local politics. This tyranny of the majority is being wielded in service of Republican culture war grievances.
Saline County does, after all, have LGBTQ residents. It has non-white residents, although it is statistically a few points whiter than the state average. It is pernicious to suggest literature that reflects the interior worlds of racial, sexual, and gender minorities is not fit to display or promote in the public library.
What’s more, the books that convey the experiences and perspectives of minority groups are not solely for the edification of those groups. Stories with challenging material are not strictly for those readers who instinctively seek out the provocative or avant-garde. Reading these perspectives can make anyone more open-minded and thoughtful.
Fiction is regularly described by writers and those who work with reading and literacy programs as a tool for improving our understanding of ourselves and the world. But we also have some empirical research that bolsters this adage. As Jeannie Kidera has pointed out over at Big Think, cognitive research now backs our intuitive understanding of fiction as a means of increasing empathy and activating key parts of the brain. It’s not enough to read history alone. As Derek Beres has argued, we need more than non-fiction to understand our world.
Empathy is crucial for the functioning of democracy. In Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation, political scientist Michael E. Morrell notes that, “Research on group polarization, biases, altruism, helping behavior, reciprocity, and the commitment to continued deliberation indicates that people are highly unlikely to reach the kind of agreement posited by deliberative democrats if they do not engage in the process of empathy.” He argues, “The empirical evidence also indicates that empathy can have positive effects even in a deliberative process that focuses on decision-making in which there are winners and losers…”
America’s youth stand to grow up in a remarkably diverse country. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Nearly half of U.S. adolescents in 2019 identified as a racial or ethnic minority.” LGBTQ identification in the U.S. has been on the rise, up from 5.6% in 2020 to 7.1% in 2022 per Gallup. The Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law estimated the total number of LGBTQ youth (aged 13-17) living in Arkansas in 2020 to be 19,000.
When asked about her group’s interests in removing books, Saline County Republican Women member Mary Lewis told a local news outlet, "We need to make sure they have a solid foundation of goodness, not things that are not to be.” The obvious implication is that many objectors clearly understand the power of exposing young readers to experiences that either mirror their own or, perhaps even more powerfully, do not.
Designating these books as harmful is not only a slight against the marginalized youth of America, but a disservice to every young reader here. Across the country, kids are growing up in school districts, counties, and municipalities where local leaders are using their authority to foster cultures of restriction and illiberalism.
Not only do these highly localized actions attack freedoms of expression and identity that have been taken as a given in our national democracy. They threaten to undermine the liberal, pluralistic, and deliberative values of our democracy at the root.