Tag Archives: majority rule

Majority Rule

Majority rule in our democratic republic is more complicated than we like to think.

For one thing, our particular form of government carves out matters that are specifically insulated from what the Founders called the “passions of the majority”–the individual liberties enumerated and “reserved to the people” by various provisions of the Bill of Rights. For another, in those areas where majority opinion is supposed to count, our mechanism for determining what a majority of citizens really wants  is the vote–and not every citizen entitled to cast a vote does so. (The differences between what popular majorities want and what gets enacted can often be seen by comparing polling and survey research with legislation passed by victorious candidates.)

And don’t get me started on the Electoral College.

Then there’s the distortion regularly provided by media–very much including Twitter and Facebook, etc. We too often assume that the loudest and most persistent voices reflect the opinion of majorities–and that is not a well-founded assumption.

Take, for example, the issue of vaccine mandates.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution’s William Galston suggests that requiring vaccination is a lot more popular than we might imagine if we only listened to the hysterical purveyors of misinformation and conspiracy theories. (Recently, those vaccine deniers were accurately–if intemperately–labeled “assholes” by the Mayor of West Lafayette, Indiana. I don’t know him, but I’m pretty sure I’d really like him.)

Galston did a deep dive into the data. Not surprisingly, he found that unvaccinated Americans were less concerned about COVID than those who’d had the sense to get vaccinated.

In the face of massive evidence to the contrary, more than half of unvaccinated adults regard getting vaccinated as a bigger risk to their health than is getting infected with the coronavirus. Only one in five of the unvaccinated say that the spread of the delta variant has made them more likely to get vaccinated. These data do not support hopes that the recent outbreak will suffice to increase vaccination rates enough to bring the pandemic under control.

The data also reflects surprisingly robust support for vaccine mandates.

Since the beginning in March 2020, government’s response to the pandemic has occasioned intense controversy, much of it along partisan lines. Although the level of conflict remains high, recent events have solidified public support for the most intrusive policy government can undertake—mandatory vaccinations. According to a survey conducted by the Covid States Project, 64% of Americans now support mandatory vaccinations for everyone, and 70% support them as a requirement for boarding airplanes. More than 6 in 10 say that vaccinations should be required for K-12 students returning for in-school instruction as well as for college students attending classes at their institutions. And the most recent Economist/YouGov survey found that more than 60% support mandatory vaccinations for frontline workers—prison guards, police officers, teachers, medical providers, and the military—and for members of Congress as well…

“Solid majorities of every racial and ethnic group support vaccine mandates, as do Americans at all levels of age, income, and education.

The data also supports the growing recognition by sane Americans that the GOP has  devolved into a cult of anti-science, anti-evidence, crazy folks: Only 45% of Republicans support vaccine mandates, compared to 84% of Democrats.

When I sent my children to school, I was required–mandated– to provide evidence that they’d been vaccinated, and thus did not threaten the health and safety of the other children with whom they would be taught. When I was young myself, Americans lined up with gratitude to receive the polio vaccine that would allow them to avoid the alternatives–death, or imprisonment in iron lungs.

When providing for “the General Welfare” requires rules–mandates– a majority of us understand that such mandates not only do not infringe our liberties, but actually give us more liberty–allowing us to go about our daily lives without the danger of infection (or the need to wear a mask).

Vaccine mandates are supported by medical science, by law, by morality, and by a majority of Americans. We periodically need to remind ourselves that “loudest” doesn’t equate to “most”–and that a fair number of the hysterical people shouting about “personal freedom” can’t define it and don’t want their neighbors to have it.

 

 

Democracy? Or Liberal Democracy?

Back in the Ice Age, when I was a high-school English teacher, I spent some time in my classes discussing the sometimes subtle differences between the definitions and connotations of words.

America’s political discussions would benefit from a similar focus.

What brought this to mind was a “guest essay” in the New York Times, discussing the importance of distinguishing between actual democracies and states that have edged–albeit through popular vote–into autocracy. Here is the crux of the essay:

In a report published in March, the Swedish research organization V Dem posits that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to the levels last found around 1990.” In V Dem’s judgment, the elected autocracy — a political regime in which democracy is reduced to the unconstrained power of a majority — is today’s most common regime type. India, Turkey and Hungary are exemplars. These new authoritarians are very different from their Cold War-era relatives, which were often military regimes. They cross the borders between democracy and authoritarianism almost as frequently as smugglers cross state borders.

Many of today’s new non-democracies are in fact former democracies. And in many of these countries, citizens voted for authoritarian populists specifically in the hope of making democracy work for them. The government’s supporters in electoral autocracies like India and Hungary or electoral democracies like Poland, countries that organizations like V Dem and its American counterpart Freedom House countenance as democratic backsliders, will insist that they live in democracies. As of January, the percentage of Indians who trusted Prime Minister Narendra Modi was far higher than the number of Americans or Europeans who trusted their leaders. (To be fair, Mr. Modi’s popularity has taken a serious hit over the past month as Covid-19 has raged across India in large part because of what many describe as the starkest failure of governance since the country’s independence.)

There are a number of implications–and warnings– that might be drawn from this analysis, but what it triggered in my mind was definitional. When we use the term “democracy,” most of us think simply of majority rule. And as the described slide into autocracy illustrates, majorities can endorse very repressive measures and elect very unqualified and/or evil people.

A while back, I read a book by Fareed Zakaria (the title now escapes me) in which he drew a very important–even profound–distinction between “democracy” and “liberal democracy.” A system of flat-out majority rule can be every bit as tyrannical as a system empowering an emperor; what America has (if we can keep it) is majority rule constrained by the Bill of Rights, a liberal democracy which limits the sorts of government actions that a majority of our citizens can endorse.

These constraints–and the reasons for them–are widely misunderstood, but they protect our individual liberties.

The Bill of Rights puts certain matters beyond the regulatory power of the state. Your neighbors cannot vote to make you a Baptist or Unitarian, they cannot send government censors to your local library, and they cannot deny equal civil rights to populations they might wish to marginalize or oppress. In effect, the Bill of Rights is meant to limit the nature of decisions that government can make, even when a majority of citizens would like for government to impose those decisions on everyone.

The dictionary definition of “democracy” is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” When most Americans hear “democracy,” however, the connotation is really “liberal democracy”–majority rule with constraints that safeguard individual freedom.

Unfortunately, that assumption elides a very important distinction between “pure” democracy and limited/liberal democracy, and that distinction matters. A lot.

 

 

Winner Take All

In Indianapolis, early voting for the upcoming municipal elections just commenced, and my husband and I dutifully cast our ballots in advance of election day.

After all, we could be hit by a bus or otherwise “snuffed out” between now and the actual date of the election. This way, we’re sure our votes for Mayor and City-County Council will count.

Unlike our votes for President.

Each time we participate in the democratic process, I am reminded of all the ways in which that process has become less democratic. Voter suppression, voter I.D. laws, polls closing at 6:00 pm–there are numerous ways that the Republican super-majority in our state has made casting a vote onerous for everyone, but especially for the minority and working-class folks who tend to vote Democratic.

Indiana isn’t alone. There are so many ways that the party that controls a statehouse can erase the votes of citizens in the opposing party–at least, in Presidential contests. The most pernicious–and probably least understood–is “winner take all.”

A recent op-ed from the New York Times explains.

The column began with a discussion of the Electoral College, and the changes in the way it works–especially the manner in which we choose Electors– since it was first conceived by Alexander Hamilton. But as the author noted, today’s Electors aren’t the problem.

What really disregards the will of the people is the winner-take-all rule currently used by every state but Maine and Nebraska. Giving all electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote erases the votes of citizens in the political minority — say, the 4.5 million people who voted for Donald Trump in California, or the 3.9 million who voted for Hillary Clinton in Texas. Nationwide, this was the fate of 55 million people in 2016, or 42 percent of the country’s electorate.

The winner-take-all rule encourages campaigns to focus on closely divided battleground states, where a swing of even a few hundred votes can move a huge bloc of electors — creating presidents out of popular-vote losers, like George W. Bush and Donald Trump. This violates the central democratic (or, if you prefer, republican) premises of political equality and majority rule.

What most people don’t realize is that the winner-take-all rule exists nowhere in the Constitution. It’s a pure creation of the states. They can award their electors by congressional district, as Maine and Nebraska do, or in proportion to the state’s popular vote, as several states have considered.

Or, of course, states could award their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote, which would be the result of enough states signing on to the National Vote Compact.

If the Compact cannot reach its target of signatory states having a total of 270 Electoral Votes, my own preference would be a proportionate allocation. If 60% of the votes are cast for candidate A, candidate A gets 60% of the state’s electoral votes–not 100%. People in the political minority in a state would suddenly have an incentive to vote–an incentive that doesn’t exist now. A presidential vote by a Democrat in Indiana or a Republican in California simply doesn’t count.

Allocating votes by Congressional District risks replicating the major flaw of today’s Electoral College–awarding disproportionate weight to less-populated rural areas. (Thanks to population shifts since the Constitution was ratified, today’s Electoral College effectively makes every rural vote worth one and a third of every urban vote.)

The problem is, to work properly, all states would have to make the change to proportional allocation–and that won’t happen. So we’re stuck.

Until we figure a way to get rid of the Electoral College, we will continue to have Presidents elected by–and answerable to–a minority of the voters. I don’t know what you call that, but it isn’t democracy.

 

Are We Americans?

I recently participated in a session of “Cocktail Judaism”—an activity sponsored by Indianapolis congregation Beth El Zedeck for members interested in exploring current issues in the context of Jewish values. The environment is informal; congregants meet at a local restaurant on a weekday evening, and various “experts” are invited to lead the discussion.

On this particular evening, I shared the microphone with my more knowledgeable cousin, Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communication. We were asked to facilitate a discussion revolving around a question posed by Rabbi Dennis Sasso: What does it mean to be an American, and how will the answer to that question matter to the 2020 election?

I argued that–at the very least—being American requires understanding, supporting and protecting two essential elements of our country’s version of liberal democracy–majority rule and its libertarian brake, aka the Bill of Rights.

In order to protect the legitimacy of U.S. government, we need to address the escalating assaults on majority rule: Gerrymandering (the practice whereby legislators choose their voters, rather than the other way around); the growth of vote suppression tactics (everything from voter ID laws to the spread of disinformation); the disproportionate influence of rural voters thanks to the operation of the Electoral College; the current (mis)use of the filibuster, which now requires a Senate supermajority to pass anything; and the enormous influence of money in politics, especially in the wake of Citizens United.

In order to protect individual liberty– i.e., the constraints on majority rule required by the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment–we need to reinvigorate and protect the libertarian principle that animated the nation’s Founders: the right of all people to live as they see fit, so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of others, and so long as they are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. That “live and let live” principle doesn’t just  require us to limit government over-reach; it requires that we combat racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia…all of the “isms” that deprive some citizens of equal civic status and that deny them the full expression of their individual liberties.

Understanding and protecting both majority rule and individual rights requires an informed citizenry–and an all-out assault on civic ignorance and apathy.

In response to a question from Jeff, participants indicated their concerns about a wide range of issues: gun control, the environment, health care, reproductive rights, the Supreme Court…an important litany with which we’re all familiar. These are all, admittedly, absolutely critical issues.

That said, I’ve become increasingly convinced that 2020 is about America’s structural and systemic distortions—that our first order of business must be to confront the misuses of power that make fair and productive political debate about substantive issues impossible. These failures of American governance need to be addressed before any of the policymakers we elect will be able to discuss, let alone pass, rational, evidence-based policies.

You can’t drive a car if it’s lost its wheels, and you can’t govern if your institutions have lost their legitimacy.

Unless the systems are fair, no minority of any sort–political, religious, racial, economic–is safe.

America’s Constitution was all about checks and balances and the rule of law. Until we eliminate systemic corruption and return our government to those foundational operating  principles, we aren’t Americans—we’re just an assortment of contending constituencies who happen to occupy the same nation-state.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Ah, democracy!

Like so many words echoing through today’s content-free political tantrums, “democracy” gets thrown around by folks who don’t seem to understand how it is supposed to work. (“Liberty” is similarly misused; in the recent RFRA debate, defenders of the law used it to mean retailers’ right to discriminate against customers whose identities or behaviors offended their religious beliefs.)

My observation about the misuse of “democracy” is prompted by a recent blog–diatribe, actually–posted by an Indianapolis school board member named Gail Cosby. (Full disclosure here: I wouldn’t have seen the post, nor would I be following the school board’s “inside baseball” disagreements if our daughter and a former graduate student of mine weren’t both members of that body. So while I am a constituent of Cosby’s, I come with a somewhat amplified point of view.)

In the wake of the most recent school board elections, Cosby has found herself in the minority (alone, actually) on several issues, and has taken to accusing those with whom she disagrees of bad faith, hostility and “undemocratic” behavior. She is absolutely entitled to her opinions, whatever one may think of the propriety or accuracy of these accusatory posts, but like too many other Americans, she quite clearly does not understand the democratic process.

And that leads me to my larger point.

When voters elect a legislative body–the General Assembly, the City-County Council, the School Board–the majority rules. Losing a vote, failing to have your opinion carry the day, or failing to have all your demands met is not evidence of anti-democratic behavior, or “failure to collaborate.” It is the way the system works. The obligation of those of us who find ourselves in a minority position–and believe me, I’ve been in minority positions a lot— is to persuade enough other people of the wisdom/prudence/soundness of your position that you become a majority.

Of course, that takes effort, and persistence, and a willingness to listen and to compromise.

One of the reasons American politics is so debased these days is that too many people share Cosby’s evident disinclination to participate in the hard work required by the democratic process. Too many legislators want to blame their inability to get their own way on other people’s bad faith, or ulterior motives, or “undemocratic” behavior.

To say that the majority isn’t always right is an understatement. But that doesn’t make majority rule undemocratic.