“Tyranny Of The Majority”

Part 2 continued -

By its committee system, Congress also has a mechanism that requires more than simple Congressional majority rule. For a bill to get to the floor, it must generally have a majority committee affirmative vote. This is designed to give relatively greater expertise and specialized attention greater influence over the fate of bills than just majority opinion.

But the greatest obstacle to simple majority rule is the Constitution itself because no legislation passed by a simple majority which is inconsistent with its provisions is valid law. And, although, contrary to the belief of many, the Constitution is not totally immutable, it is so difficult to change, and requires such broad support for change, that only those changes which are acceptable to a vast majority of citizens in a vast number of different blocks or segments of the country (i.e., states or state legislatures) can be made. Two thirds of both houses each, or two thirds of state legislatures must propose an amendment (or a Constitutional Convention), and then three fourths of the states (through their legislatures or constitutional conventions) must ratify the amendments. This is no easy route to tyranny by a mere majority.

My contention here is that while politics and government legislation seems to be about getting sufficient numbers of votes, the underlying principle is that proposed legislation, and candidates seeking certain offices, such as the Presidency, must appeal to sufficiently widespread and diverse groups of people that no simple majority can hold absolute or potentially tyrannical power just on the basis of sheer numbers.

There is another aspect of American government that I believe would prevent tyranny of the majority, though it is an accidental or derivative feature, one which seems often to be unappreciated by particular Congresses. It is also one which once unappreciated invites further lack of appreciation in retribution. The idea is that because majority rule in Congress is at best temporary and secure only until the next election, it would be wise not to pass laws that are intolerable to the minority party, so that they do not do the same against you when they become the majority. To do otherwise is to invite a damaging feud or the political equivalence of the nuclear policy known as ‘mutually assured destruction’ (M.A.D. for short, in one of the most apt acronyms ever designed). Unfortunately political groups, here or abroad, are not usually wise in this regard. Or they tend to hold the belief that if they could just get a law on the books it will become less objectionable somehow before the next election. It seems to me, however, unequivocal that if you rule by sheer majority numbers without looking for an acceptable accommodation of the minority, that, if and when they become the majority, they will not try to accommodate you. In that case both sides lose for at least part of the time, instead of both sides having what they need the whole time. With common sense and sensitivity apparently not forced on legislators by nature, nurture, or the ephemeralness of power, it is left to formal voting mechanisms to try to force cooperation.

Now, as I believe that Hamilton saw, the best way to achieve widespread appeal to diverse groups is to accommodate, whenever possible, their real needs in a way that they realize does so. It is not always easy to figure out how to do that[url=http://4.hidemyass.com/ip-1/encoded/Oi8vY2l2aWx3YXJ0YWxrLmNvbQ%3D%3D][u][color=#0066cc](2)[/color][/u][/url]– either to discover what is mutually accommodating or to show that it is — but the results when successful seem to me far better than compromising in ways that cause nearly as much mutual loss as they do mutual gains. And it is better than mutual back-scratching, whereby one legislator votes for another legislator’s bad program in order to receive a reciprocal vote on his own bad program. It is also better than finding “common ground” in the normal sense, whereby each accepts only the lowest common denominator solution between them, which may not solve the problem of either. If farmers have needs and large corporations have needs, it does not help either side much for legislators to meet the needs only of large farming corporations, any more than if I want us to go to a city which happens to be north of us and my wife wants us to go to a city which happens to be east of us, that we therefore go to a city which is northeast of us. Not all common ground is helpful merely because it is common.

One more example of possibly accommodating legislation: many working people have daycare needs for their children, children have educational needs, schools are understaffed, and senior citizens often need assisted or senior-friendly living quarters with some sort of activities to relieve boredom and anxiety. It is entirely possible that legislatures beset by funding requests for all these things could meet all of them at once by authorizing funds for plans that will meet the needs of all three groups at once — having daycare and mentoring facilities in senior-oriented or assisted living institutions, so that those seniors who were able and willing to teach or to take care of small children could voluntarily do so with whatever time and energy they could comfortably give, and thus be busy, and productive, and could justifiably feel useful.

With mechanisms in place that make it difficult to pass laws because philosophical numerical minorities can readily prevent enactment, the ideal strategy would be to make proposed legislation as palatable and accommodating as possible to as many people and “factions” as possible. Unfortunately legislators have found a host of ways to circumvent the need for such accommodation with the mechanisms so far established. But the newly elected 2001 Congress, being as closely divided as it is, might allow legislators and the President to hone the ability to create measures that not only accommodate each other but that accommodate a broader segment of their constituencies. And if we are lucky, they will cultivate skills in this area which will serve numerical minorities well even if one political party should happen to gain numerical ascendancy in the future.


1. One of the interesting procedural or formal measures instituted to prevent tyranny of the majority against long-term, identifiable minorities, such as black citizens in the South, was the rule in one community that for legislation to pass, it not only had to have a majority of council members vote for it, but that included in the majority there had to be at least 2/5 or 1/4 or some such minimal minority vote in favor of it. That was clearly an attempt to make legislation be at least somewhat acceptable to minority factions. And though it was not the same as any mechanisms in the Constitution, I believe it is in the spirit of the purpose for which they were intended. It is not an undemocratic device any more than the considerable mechanisms in the Constitution are which also prevent rule by simple numerical majorities among the people. ([url=http://4.hidemyass.com/ip-1/encoded/Oi8vY2l2aWx3YXJ0YWxrLmNvbQ%3D%3D][u][color=#0066cc]Return to text.[/color][/u][/url])

2. As a photographer, I have a plan for customers who would like to get a large number of pictures but who cannot afford my prices for full service: I take the pictures and give them the film which they have processed. They then can buy whichever reprints and enlargements they like for wholesale prices. But they have to do the work that I would otherwise have to charge them for. They don’t mind doing the work in order to save money. And I don’t mind making less from individual family’s because I can make up the difference by doing more of the kind of work I enjoy doing — shooting pictures — for more people. That is an accommodation on both our parts. But the real accommodation I want to discuss, that was more difficult to figure out was the case in which the first lab I recommended tried to help out the family by numbering the pictures, but numbered them incorrectly. The family had reprints done at a different lab I recommended for that, and got $200 worth of the wrong reprints. They called me in distress. It was easy to figure out the way the pictures were misnumbered after seeing what happened, so I told them I would pay the $200 and they could re-order and pay for the correct pictures. But in order to make up the $200, I went back to the first lab which had made the mistake, which was also a camera store, and I asked them to use their ability to buy camera equipment wholesale in order to help me get a bunch of equipment I could not otherwise afford and would not otherwise purchase, for a savings of far more than the $200 I had paid for the photographs. That way, the camera store made some money they would not otherwise have made at all, for doing no more work than placing an order; I was able to buy some equipment I could not otherwise have afforded; and the customer received the pictures they wanted for the price they wanted to pay. I consider that a good example of a mutually acceptable accommodation that was not immediately obvious from the problem, which seemed to indicate initially that someone would have to lose. ([url=http://4.hidemyass.com/ip-1/encoded/Oi8vY2l2aWx3YXJ0YWxrLmNvbQ%3D%3D][u][color=#0066cc]Return to text.[/color][/u][/url])

The American federal government is a republic, in Madison’s terms ([i]Federalist [/i]#10[i])[/i], rather than a democracy, because people do not vote themselves but are governed by representatives they elect. However, the word “democracy” has become expanded since Madison’s time to include, at least in the popular meaning, democratically elected representative government. America now is usually referred to as a democracy. I believe that when the teachers told the students that the election was democratic they were really meaning that it was the American way of doing things, which was intended to imply that it was therefore fair and good. If the word [i]democratic[/i] just means majority rule, then it does no good to answer the students’ complaint –that majority rule in this case was unfair– by saying that the election was fair because it was democratic, since that would just be to say that majority rule is fair because it is majority rule. At any rate, the point is that this election was not necessarily the American way of doing things (whether we want to call it [i]democratic[/i] or not), because our founding fathers wanted to prevent just this sort of tyranny of the majority that democracy in the strict or old sense tends to foster or permit. [color=#000066][The need for a footnote such as this one was called to my attention separately by Charles A. Gallo and by Brian Keith Moseley who were each concerned that I called the American form of government a democracy instead of a republic.][/color]

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