Not since Pat Buchanan ran for President has the media hysteria reached the level brought on by the (aborted) nomination of Professor Lani Guinier to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. “Ms. Guinier Buys Into Calhounism” screams the headline attached to an anti-Guinier diatribe by neoconservative columnist Paul Gigot. “Quota Queen” shouts a fingerpointing Wall Street Journal op-ed by neocon Clint Bolick. And Abe Rosenthal, per usual, cries wolf: “She stands for racial polarization.”

When the air-raid sirens go off all at once, we can reasonably assume that there is something more going on than doth meet the eye. Note the use of “Quota Queen,” a racist slur that has overtones of “Welfare Queen.” And the absolute ultimate indictment: Guinier, says Mr. Gigot, agrees with John C. Calhoun and not Martin Luther King!

There are probably very good reasons for questioning Ms. Guinier’s fitness to serve in sensitive areas of the Justice Department. What is interesting about this furor is that she was not done in by conservatives but by those who claim to be dedicated to democratism. So far as one can disentangle any hard information from the hysterical rhetoric and the usual neoconservative tissue of historical, philosophical, and constitutional ignorance, vulgarity, and mendacity, the objections to Ms. Guinier seem to revolve around two of her beliefs: that the black minority and the white majority in America do not have entirely compatible interests, and that there should therefore be some institutionalized weight given to the votes of black people even when they conflict with majority rule.

That is to say, she has questioned the allegedly sacred and traditional American principle of equality and thus touched the raw nerve of democratic socialist mythology. Regarding her first position, Ms. Guinier has simply told the truth—always a dangerous course in American politics. If the quotidian fact, known to every school child in America, that different people have different situations and different interests is publicly acknowledged, what happens to the neocon dream of a society of utterly interchangeable goods? People might discuss real issues rather than chimerical goals and might actually reach a settlement.

As to her second point, nothing could be more American than to question unrestricted majority rule. Our Founding Fathers believed in a government resting ultimately upon the consent of the people (as opposed to the divine right of a monarch or the inherited privileges of an aristocracy, and, of course, by “people” they meant the responsible members of society, not every respirating creature with two legs). They were republicans, not democrats—social, global, or any other kind. They believed majority rule should be limited and chastened even as it, generally and in the long run, prevailed.

After all, they gave us a Constitution with a bicameral legislature; a “popular” House elected within property and other qualifications; a states’ rights Senate; bills that must be read thrice before passage; an indirectly elected President with a veto power; and an independent judiciary. And all this merely to alleviate majority rule in a government that was itself extremely limited in its functions and jurisdiction.

In the spirit of the Founders, John C. Calhoun saw that the restrictions on majority rule were not, in every respect, working as they had been intended. Contrary to Madison’s expectation that various interests in a large country would check each other, different interests had concentrated in different regions, making a “numerical majority” that exploited a minority. Some few small additions were therefore needed in the accepted devices by which the majority was to be restrained.

Further, Calhoun illuminated the moral principle behind such restrictions, which he summed up as the “concurrent majority.” The “mere numerical majority” was not itself an ethical or an adequately democratic idea. What was needed was a higher consensus, a larger majority reaching a decision after deliberation and compromise—a process that could only be invoked by investing the minority with certain institutionalized powers of self-defense. Far from being a rejection of majority rule, the resulting consensus was democratically and morally preferable to the dictate of a 51 percent majority, which might itself be merely a temporary and expedient coalition of self-seekers. Not everyone thinks as poorly of Calhoun’s idea as does Mr. Gigot. A blue-ribbon commission in Britain, which recently delivered the most extensive and hopeful report ever made on the problems of Northern Ireland, makes Calhoun the centerpiece of its proposals.

Ms. Guinier’s particular ideas and the interests that have occasioned them may be good or bad, but there is certainly nothing in the least un-American or undemocratic in a philosophical consideration of the imperfections of majority rule, or of the possibility of different constitutional arrangements. The only thing that is really threatened by such discussion is the “democratic” orthodoxies of those who wish to keep all public debate in channels approved by themselves.

One obvious result of this is to make public discourse vapid and dishonest. Ms. Guinier seems, in fact, to have been willing to write about real and hard issues forthrightly, however provocative some of her solutions might be. And her defenders are quite right that the critics have vulgarized and caricatured her serious intellectual positions. The critics have blurred the valid distinction between a theoretical discussion and a public position and made it impossible for anyone who has ever said anything worthwhile, anything serious enough to be misunderstood by fools, to serve in office. But surely honest and reasonable people should make a distinction between an intellectual position and conduct in public office. Such a distinction, for instance, was very clear in the case of Jefferson—for Jefferson the President and American political leader was not the same man as the philosophe who speculated in private letters to his friends. The Establishment, of course, wants to guarantee that anyone who has ever held any intellectual positions, has ever argued or speculated in a way that they have not approved, is excluded from public office. All officeholders, in their ideal world, would be as brilliant as Dan Quayle or as principled as Judge Souter (and would never include an M.E. Bradford or a Robert Bork).

There is an even deeper dishonesty here—because, in fact, there are extant at this moment in American society institutionalized special privileges for blacks that violate majority rule (as well as traditional principles of law), since a clear majority, for instance, disapproves of affirmative action and busing. Racenorming in employment, double prosecution of offenses against blacks, reparations rather than punishment for riots, and much else is already institutionalized in our society. Ms. Guinier’s critics are not really opposed to this special privilege (though they may worry a bit about quotas cutting into their own turf). What they are opposed to is talking about it honestly in public.

From their viewpoint, they are quite right. Confirmation hearings for Ms. Guinier might well have developed into the first honest and open public discussion of affirmative action in American history—the undoubted result of which would have been vast outrage and the possible unraveling of the civil rights establishment. Open and honest deliberation among all the relevant opinions was essential to Calhoun’s concurrent majority. Real majority rule is the last thing Ms. Guinier’s critics want, even less than she does.

Finally, where Ms. Guinier parts from Calhoun and where she goes wrong is not where she doubts majority rule as sufficient for the protection of a minority. This is an honored American tradition. What is wrong with her position is the moral stance of the parties. All Calhoun wanted was to protect one part of society from another part—to prevent the federal government from exploiting the economy of the minority South for the benefit of the majority North. It was merely a self-protection and an elaboration of the accepted concept of limited government. But what Ms. Guinier poses, of course, is something quite different: not a right of defense, but a permanent, untouchable privilege under an imperial state—for a guaranteed income levy on the majority. Here lies the real problem and the real abandonment of democracy.