Majority Rule?

Humans have a lot of trouble communicating, and language–which developed to facilitate that communication–frequently gets in the way. (A quote attributed to Talleyrand seems apt: he supposedly opined that “language was given man to conceal his thoughts…”)

Take the word “democracy.” These days, virtually every opinion column, every political speech or tweet or meme centers on threats to American democracy, but a recent New York Times column by Jamelle Bouie reminded me that Republicans and Democrats have rather different approaches to what the term means in American governance.

Bouie’s column didn’t address that longstanding difference–he was talking about how far Congress is from the dictionary definition, which is “majority rule.” He began by pointing out that a Senate majority favors raising the debt limit, protecting citizens’ right to vote, reforming policing…measures that are widely popular and that need to get done.

With a simple majority, in other words, Democrats could secure the full faith and credit of the United States, restore to strength the most important voting rights law in U.S. history and make progress on a critical issue for millions of Americans. They might also, if they have the votes, make it easier for workers to organize a union and, separately, codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.

Of course, the Senate does not run on 51 votes. Instead, members must assemble a supermajority to do anything other than appoint judges, confirm nominees and pass certain spending bills. Pretty much everything else must go through a protracted and convoluted process that makes a mockery of the Senate’s reputation for debate and deliberation.

It would be easy for me to write another jeremiad against the filibuster. I can’t say I’m not tempted. But I also have nothing left to say. Its problems are as well documented as anything could be, and the main argument in its favor — that a counter-majoritarian chamber already structured by equal state representation needs an additional supermajority requirement to protect the “rights” of a partisan minority — does not withstand serious scrutiny.

Of course, Bouie is absolutely correct–if the matters he lists are supposed to reflect majority opinion, as most Americans suppose. As I used to tell my students, the Bill of Rights prohibits American government from invading fundamental liberties, even when a majority approves of that invasion–but other matters, policy matters, are supposed to reflect the will of the majority.

Actually, even before the GOP lost its mind, Republican political orthodoxy rejected that explanation. I can’t count the number of times I heard  that “The United States isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic,” as if those were diametrically-different systems. That we are a republic is technically true: we elect Representatives and Senators to make decisions on our behalf. But this repeated insistence that we are not a democracy but a republic wasn’t evidence of a desire for grammatical precision–it was thinly-veiled paternalism. What those delivering that lecture meant was that we vote to select our “betters,” who are thus empowered to decide what’s best, irrespective of the expressed desires of those voters.

There is, again, a measure of truth to this. We hope that the people we elect will inform themselves of the nuances of policies and support those they believe are in the national interest, especially when their constituents lack sufficient context or technical knowledge to inform their preferences. But as I look back on those discussions, there was a strong whiff of “father knows best” to them. The electoral process–properly crafted (!!)–would put superior people (okay, white Christian males) in office, and they’d run things. Their way.

After all, America isn’t really a democracy…

Not all Republicans believed this, of course. The party once had  thoughtful, responsible people in it. Bouie quoted the very Republican Henry Cabot Lodge who wrote the following in 1890:

“If a minority can prevent action, the majority, which is entitled to rule and is entrusted with power, is at once divested of all responsibility, the great safeguard of free representative institutions.”

Democracy or democratic republic, in all but a few areas where fundamental liberties are at stake, the majority is entitled to rule. And right now, thanks to gerrymandering, the filibuster, vote suppression and demography, a distinct and shrinking minority continues to prevent actions desired by significant majorities.

We’ve suffered a (mostly) bloodless coup.


  1. Although I agree with everything Ms Kennedy says in this post, one sentence stood out as I read it, namely (we vote to select our “betters,” who are thus empowered to decide what’s best, irrespective of the expressed desires of those voters.)

    That is exactly how Alexander Hamilton felt. Somewhere in The Federalist, he said essentially this. Of course, Hamilton, like Jefferson, was a bit autocratic, but even Madison was leery of majority rule in all cases. That “better than thou” attitude seems to have persisted.

  2. Sheila writes, “We’ve suffered a (mostly) bloodless coup.”

    Franklin shouted, “A republic if you can keep it.”

    I’ve looked at our creation from multiple views and I don’t see either a republic or democracy. What I see and others have confirmed, is an oligarchy.

    Those with the most gold should make the rules. The excluded parties were quite obvious to any who reviews it once again after clearing the mind of any preconceived notions.

    White patriarchal owners of land or business. If anything, they protected themselves from majority rule at all costs. We the people was a marketing slogan.

    Even after the North won the war and freed the slaves, Grant’s promise of 40 acres and a mule was quickly rescinded by the oligarchy with interest.

    Some would say we were still a British colony even though we “won” our independence. Our rulers were secular humanists even though Christians today clamor that we have always been a Christian Nation.

    The oligarchs like Koch still are battling the financial oligarchs on Wall Street for control. Meanwhile, the MIC wants to start a war with China. We’ll lose before it starts.

  3. I have read that the originators of the “republic”idea, the Greeks, saw it as the people in all parts of the country looking among themselves for a wise person to go meet with their peers to deal with national issues, answering a single item: “what is the best approach to this issue for the whole country”, need much discussion and, likely, compromise.

    How far we are from that…

  4. Otto von Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the next best thing.” Turns out there is no next best thing when you’re fighting for your life and that’s where we are today. Some days, I’m glad I’m old.

  5. Like Peggy, some days I am glad I am old. But, I have four children and a grandchild, so my investment persists.
    Come on Denocrats, get your stuff together and at least get rid of the fillibuster. It would be a start, and I wouldn’t have to hold my nose when I vote.

  6. If the democrats get rid of the fillibuster, they might regret that after the mid-term elections in ’22. The rules for this strange political format have changed and as a result, it is easier for an obstructionist Senator to use it.

    As long as the inequity in wealth persists, we will not have a democracy. We will continue to have a government that favors those who hoard their wealth and hide it to avoid taxation. This, in turn, will prevent our government from addressing the budget deficit. It will also move us more toward looking like a 3rd world country where there is no middle class.

    Millenials are now resigning from jobs where the pay is poor and management does not know that the success of their company is directly linked to how well they treat their employees. Governments have disempowered unions. As a result, we now have labor shortages.

    The lack of financial campaign regulation, gerrymandering, and the electoral college, and the MIT all contribute to the oligarchy.

    I miss the days when our elected leaders believed in servant leadership and serving the greater good.

  7. I use Wikipedia often because of portion size. Often, deep understanding of a topic is not the kind of self-education I’m in the market for. I’m out to broaden my education into areas that were not particularly relevant to my career but are now in terms of trying to leave my grandchildren a better place. Two definitions from there strike me as stark truth about our possibly impending collapse in terms of being the home of the free. The liberal democracy that we are credited with introducing to the world is at odds with illiberalism or authoritarian capitalism.

  8. The “we are not a democracy, we are a republic” debate is so much nonsense. We are not a DIRECT democracy, yes, but we have a representative democracy, which has been described as a “republic.” But saying we are not a “democracy” is simply not accurate.

    One thing Bouie seems to miss (haven’t read the full piece, just what Sheila published) is that many of the examples he cites are not things that are traditionally the responsibility of the national government. Things like policing, voting procedures, etc. are state (and local) responsibilities under our constitutional framework. Sure Congress can sometimes work around constitutional limits on its authority, but that is an obstacle in addition to their not being majority rule in Congress.

  9. Paul – What has been must always be? It ain’t the 18th Century. We are more interconnected than ever. Let a mining company in Minnesota poison Lake Superior – we never had an EPA – let workers die – we never had labor laws at a national level – Let coal fired plants cause acid rain to the east of their location – if it was good enough for the Founders….

    For those who warn that changing the filibuster (or eliminating it) would come back to bite the Democrats – this is the era of His Lordship McConnell. Leave the filibuster as it is and watch him modify it at will for whatever purposes he wants and then change it back again – there is only one rule for Moscow Mitch – whatever he wants at that moment.

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