Tag Archives: majoritarianism

When Should The Majority Rule?

In the wake of Boris Johnson’s victory in the election in the UK, a distinguished scholar of comparative constitutionalism posted a lengthy analysis to a listserv in which I participate. Much of that analysis is technical and of interest mainly to other academics, but I was struck by her opening observation:

Calling the Johnson victory a landslide assumes that the results of nationwide first-past-the-post constituency elections adequately capture public sentiment. Yes, Johnson got an overwhelming majority of seats but he didn’t win even a simple majority of the vote. In fact, it turns out that the Tories were up a mere 1.2% in vote totals over their disastrous 2017 election results – in which they lost their parliamentary majority and had to enter a confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP. Labour is now being called down and out with the worst election results (measured in seats) since the 1930s because they were 7.8% down from 2017. Compared with the 2015 election, they were only 2% down, hardly the stuff of grand tragedy…

The UK first-past-the-post electoral system is fiendishly sensitive to small vote shifts which can produce seismic effects depending on how they are distributed across constituencies.

Sound like another electoral system with which you’re familiar?

Politicians and pundits will continue their ongoing arguments for and against the Electoral College, and the British are evidently embroiled in similar discussions about the operation of their system, but there is an underlying issue with which we very rarely engage: what sorts of social and legal arrangements ought to be decided by popular majorities, and what sorts ought to be protected from the passions of those same majorities?

Defenders of the Electoral College point to the Founders’ well-documented concerns about those “passions of the majority,” and to their initial reluctance to remit even the choice of Senators to popular vote. Opponents point to evidence that the Electoral College was a concession to Southern states– they would have been severely disadvantaged in a system where the popular vote prevailed, because their slaves wouldn’t count.

Whatever side of that argument you find most persuasive, the question remains: in the 21st Century, which decisions should be made by popular vote, and which should not?

A fair reading of the Founders’ basic approach–buttressed by political philosophers from the Enlightenment to modern times–suggests that they favored some form of majority rule for issues of governance, and protection from the “passions of the majority” for issues of human and/or individual rights.

If we look at the Constitution, we see that laws are to be made by representatives of the people (the reason we call ourselves a representative democracy). Although it is certainly true that those representatives were supposed to vote for legislation based upon their presumed knowledge and personal beliefs, if those votes proved to be inconsistent with the desires of their constituents, the constituents could vote them out. (It’s also worth noting that legislation was supposed to be passed by a simple majority vote of those legislators–something that seems quaint in an era where overuse of the filibuster means we need super-majorities in the Senate to pass pretty much anything.)

If we look at the Bill of Rights, we see a very different standard. Because the Founders believed in “natural rights”–that is, they believed that humans (okay, white male humans) are born with certain “unalienable rights”–they protected the exercise of those rights against the sentiments of popular majorities.

When you think about it, it’s a striking dichotomy.

It is supposed to take a majority of American voters (or states) to choose the people who will run our government. It is supposed to take a majority of lawmakers to pass legislation. But individual citizens are supposed to be protected against the disapproval of those same popular majorities when they are exercising their fundamental rights.

We can–and do–argue about how to define “fundamental rights” and how to ensure that vote totals accurately reflect majority sentiment. But I think it is fair to say that when electoral systems operate to privilege minority parties and candidates over those preferred by majorities, those systems are neither democratically nor constitutionally legitimate.


Me versus Us

NPR aired a brief report yesterday on recent research into “framing,” the manner in which Americans make policy arguments. According to the researcher, Americans are less likely to respond to appeals to the common good or the public interest than we are to appeals to individual rights and benefits. Our Constitutional emphasis on individual rights, in this analysis, has led to a culture in which policies are evaluated through a highly individualized prism–what we might call a “what’s in it for me” approach.

If this research is correct, Americans have confused a healthy distrust of majoritarianism with an unhealthy disdain for the common good. Those aren’t the same thing. A distrust of the preferences of popular majorities–the “passions of the mob”–is built into our national DNA, and we are right to guard against violations of individual rights that can result. But that is different from civic behavior that elevates personal preferences and immediate gratification over consideration of the good of the community.

The discussion of mass transit is an example. Those who are opposed to a tax for transit are not arguing that transit would be bad for the community–an argument I disagree with, but a legitimate basis for opposition. They are arguing that they don’t want to pay for it, because they don’t believe it will benefit them personally. (Actually, as I pointed out, we all benefit in numerous ways–tangible and intangible–when we live in a community with a better quality of life, but that’s a different argument.)

The researcher on NPR recommended that policy arguments be framed to appeal to the individual–this is what is in it for you!–rather than with appeals to the common good. Perhaps that advice is strategically sound.

But what does it say about us as citizens?

Thank You for Proving My Point….

It seems that each new day brings new evidence that too many Americans haven’t the foggiest idea what’s in the U.S. Constitution or what its provisions mean.

Exhibit #1: the large cross erected on public property in Dugger, Indiana. The huge cross with “Jesus Saves” prominently printed on it has been challenged by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The town fathers–evidently recognizing a loser when they see one–agreed to move it rather than spending tax dollars on expensive and hopeless litigation. But residents are up in arms. My favorite quote came from the fellow who said people who were offended could just look elsewhere.

How much do you want to wager that he’d feel differently if the symbol on public property praised Satan? or Allah? or Karl Marx?

This is a recurring battle. As the courts routinely point out, the rules are pretty clear: government cannot sponsor or endorse religion. Government cannot sponsor or endorse atheism, either. Government must stay neutral when it comes to the expression of political or religious beliefs. Allowing a religious symbol on public property is an impermissible endorsement of that religion–exactly the sort of favoritism the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids.

This sort of conflict is easy enough to resolve. Move the cross to private property. People will still see it.  Folks who reject this relatively simple fix are really giving away the game–no matter what they claim, they don’t just want people to see their message. They want government to endorse their message. They want special status and recognition for their religious beliefs.

Exhibit #2. Micah Clark. Again.

The AFA has its panties in a bunch–as usual–because the Indiana Chamber of Commerce is considering opposing the mis-named “Marriage Protection Amendment.”

Why oh why would the Chamber “want to see marriage unraveled and destabilized” in Indiana? Micah wants to know. Here’s a clue, Micah–that “destabilization” hasn’t happened anywhere that same-sex marriages are legal. Quite the opposite, in fact–Massachusetts, the first U.S. state to recognize same-sex unions, has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country.

Leaving aside the hysterical rhetoric and tortured “evidence” in the AFA’s Weekly Email, one sentence leapt out at me: “It is the people of Indiana who should decide on marriage.”

No, Micah, it isn’t.

In our system, we don’t get to vote on other people’s fundamental rights. We don’t get to vote to segregate black people, we don’t get to vote against interracial or interfaith marriages. We don’t get to vote to abolish jury trials, or to override restrictions on search and seizures. We don’t get to vote to make people Baptists or Episcopalians.

Justice Jackson said it best, many years ago, in West Virginia Board v. Barnette:

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

Maybe you don’t agree that people who are different from you should have the same civil liberties and rights that you enjoy. Fine. Don’t agree with it. But it is the law of the land, and you really ought to know that.

I wonder what new evidence tomorrow will bring….