Since the beginning of the American experiment in self-government, we all have been worried about what Founding Father John Adams and French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.”
That’s the idea that, in a pure democracy, whichever leader or faction can muster the most votes will make and enforce the laws, and those on the losing end have no further say. It could mean that the winners would slaughter the losers, banish them or seize their property as the spoils of war.
Worry about the excesses of democracy led the founding generation and those afterward to come up with a mumblety-peg arrangement of government that, even with democratic elections at its base, divides actual power among enough layers and levels that someone would have to win an awful lot of elections to take control of any society.
Our system at least claims to put some things beyond the reach of majority votes. Freedom of religion and speech, due process of law, not having your property confiscated without fair payment, stuff like that, isn’t dependent, at least in theory, on who won the last election.
In the 20th century the concept of a “minority” became less about the losing side in an election and more about varieties of human beings who were denied the rights and privileges of personhood due to skin color, religious heritage or sexuality. We’ve made a lot of progress toward the total inclusion of everyone, at least before the law, enough that it is sometimes seen as advantageous to claim minority status for yourself in order to get what you want.
Hence things like the Senate filibuster, the parliamentary technique that allows a minority to frustrate the will of the majority by stopping legislation from moving forward unless it wins the support of at least 60 of the 100 senators. Or even the existence of the Senate itself, where the two-senator-per-state rule means senators representing a minority of the people — states with more cows than people — can regularly outvote those who hold the brief of a much greater majority.
When such worthies as Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee defends the filibuster against the charge that it empowers the minority over the majority, he wonders what your problem is. Isn’t America all about defending the rights of the minority?
Not that kind of minority.
If a bare majority of senators had the power to pass, say, a new federal voting rights act, or to raise taxes on the rich, or to adopt the Green New Deal, that would not be denying a minority its rights. Everyone who lost that argument could still speak and write and go to church and buy property and be secure from unlawful arrests or unwarranted searches and seizures. And they could still vote.
Between the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the skill of Republicans to gerrymander House districts to give majority power to a minority of voters, America is very much moving to a position where we are seeing a superiority, if not total tyranny, of the minority.
And when the political perversion of our system isn’t full or fast enough, there’s always the threat of armed violence to tip the balance.
The mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol a year ago Thursday, along with the armed hooligans who have threatened lawful legislative assemblies in Michigan, Oregon and elsewhere, are the claims of a minority of Americans to hold power over the majority just because they are louder and meaner and more violent.
They have no claim that their rights of speech, religion, peaceable assembly, property, due process and voting are under threat because The Former Guy didn’t win the 2020 election or because people who don’t look like them have an equal chance to register and vote. It’s all no more than a massive, and potentially deadly, temper tantrum thrown by people who don’t really care if it is a majority or a minority that rules, just as long as it’s them in charge.
Our democracy, our republic, our constitutional protections for minorities and for each individual, are all under threat because the idea of “minority” is being wrongly shifted from those whose basic rights need protection to those who think they are specially entitled to rule due to skin color, heritage or possession of the most semi-automatic weapons.
Our constitutional balance can work if we hew to the principles of universal voting rights, fair election districts, majority rule with firm Bill of Rights protections for each individual. That way, it will matter who wins an election, but not matter so much that there will be a need for those who lose to rise up violently. Because they will still be around to vote in the next election.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has voted for a great many losing candidates in his time. It doesn’t discourage him at all.