Today it is common to define democracy as a system of “majority rule.” Unfortunately. This claim is false in three senses. First, except in very small and homogeneous polities, perhaps a village, there is no “majority” that could “rule” in any sense. And even here, as we will see, something quite different tends to happen.
Second, until the rise of utilitarianism, no ethical argument for democracy ever based it on majority rule. That includes arguments for the American Constitution, which were based on individual rights, not majority rule. The term “majority rule” was at most a short-hand phrase for pragmatic day-to-day politics, and even then, strictly speaking, it is misleading.
Third, the majority rule ideal rapidly leads to absurdity.
The Illusion of a majority
For about 100 years now political scientists, sociologists, and economists have thrown cold water on the ideal of democracies having rational and informed citizens debating and determining public policy. If sometimes overblown, their criticisms correctly point out that most citizens are ignorant about most issues, and often vote based on prejudices acquired growing up in their family or during early adulthood. Irrational appeals and attacks on other candidates are often more politically effective than wonkish arguments about policy. Such an electorate can often be manipulated by elites, as we have seen repeatedly here in the U.S.
In addition, democratic politics exists in a perpetual state of flux and compromises, as voters choose “lesser evils” while elected politicians horse trade, and in most cases defend a mix of local and group interests rather than any coherent image of the polity as a whole. The common good is rarely a matter of serious concern, the term being more often used as frosting to cover a cake comprised of more local and selfish concerns.
In what sense does a majority of such voters “rule”? There is no coherent outlook, and the majority may shift from one day to the next on important issues, depending on how they are framed, the deals cut, and the emotions of the moment. Ignorant people compare this to mob rule, but anyone who has ever experienced a mob realizes it has far more intensely focused intentions, even if fleeting, than a democratic “majority” of the moment.
Many political scientists argue majority rule is a cover for other kinds of rule by elites. The majority does not so much rule as provide legitimacy to those who do. In saying this they are partly right but, as we shall eventually see, mostly misleading. The majority does not rule, but in a genuine democracy no one else does either. “Rule” is the wrong term, implying a coherent point of decision making reflecting deliberate plans and motivating values. Kings rule, dictators rule, aristocrats rule over non-aristocrats. All are identified by hierarchies of specific interests and attitudes. Such is not the case in democracies.
So what does happen? This brings us to the second way in which “majority rule” is a misleading standard for describing a democracy.
Legitimacy and rules
In the following discussion I will stick to the reasoning of our Founders, but similar arguments can be traced as far back as Aristotle and have often been exemplified in many small scale democratic bodies such as classic New England town meetings.
From the Declaration of Independence to the adoption of the Constitution, the Founders emphasized that legitimate government depended on the consent of the governed. Their argument runs up against an obvious problem. People disagree. It is intrinsic to our nature to have different and sometimes conflicting views. As debates over the constitution and the Bible abundantly illustrate, people even disagree as to what printed words really mean. Unanimity among a large number of people is rare. Yet reasonable people acknowledge the need for at least some common rules applicable to all, rules that by their nature some will contest.
If we step back we see there are two stages to the problem of consenting to rules, and one is more easily solved than the other. First, we need specific rules which all agree are necessary but will never win unanimity as to their details. If this were all there were to the issue, the matter of consent would be insoluble. However, when we deliberate as to what procedural rules we will follow to arrive at specific rules, that is, rules for making rules, our task is easier.
Because these rules are removed from actual concrete issues over which people disagree, they need address only two values. First, all concerned need to think of them as fair. At some point everyone affected by them must be able to have equal weight in their determination, otherwise those who always have a lesser say can legitimately argue the rules are unfair and therefore illegitimate. Since we do not know what future issues will arise, and everyone affected by these future rules needs to have equal influence at some point, the principle of equal voting rights emerges as the only guideline all reasonable people will accept.
Second, the more important the issue the more important it is that the rules approximate consensus. That is, I can readily support majority decision rules as fair when day-to-day issues are addressed because such rules need to be made and requiring more than a majority can lead to blackmail by a minority. As James Madison pointed out, a minority veto is minority rule by blackmail and extortion. We see it in America today, particularly in the Senate. Madison cautioned a minority veto would destroy the country, and I think he was right. It is happening around us today.
But when truly vital issues arise my fear of being in a minority lead me to support super-majorities to get things done. Doing otherwise would be foolish. But again, that raises the countervailing threat of blackmail by a minority.
In addition, our Founders were well aware that neither voters nor legislators were always rational nor did they always have the common good in mind. People are people. To legitimate disagreements we need to add the certainty that some will be corrupt. So how, then, can we give everyone an equal voice at some crucial point and still prevent a temporary corrupt or manipulated majority from oppressing the minority?
A brilliant solution
The constitutional solution was brilliant. Two representative chambers were created with their members elected by different means for different terms, and both had to agree in order to get anything done. But in both cases majorities were all that was needed for most purposes. The application of the principle was not perfect- states had different populations and initially voters elected legislatures in the states that then elected the Senators. But the principle was clear and Madison in particular emphasized it.
Even the best theories require shaping when applied to the complexities of the social world. Most voters initially identified more with their states than with the proposed union. But even here the provisions met the standards of a theory of democracy requiring consent by all. Americas would not vote for a constitution that risked their state’s well-being. Wise politics always seeks to apply sound principles to what is practically possible. At the time creating the Senate killed two birds with one stone. It guarded against a too-strong House and it assuaged the fears of those who cared most for their states in any kind of union. When the Senate became popularly elected the clarity of this reasoning was strengthened, though we still face the problem that a state like Alaska or Wyoming has as much voice in the Senate as California or New York.
In addition, the president was elected by the country as a whole, a third kind of majority. Political parties did not then exist, and so the Founders designed an electoral college as an intermediary between voters and the president. Like state legislatures, it was popularly elected and a majority of its votes would select the chief executive.
If the president vetoed a bill it would take a super-majority of both houses of congress to override him. The two bodies most closely identified with the people had an absolute veto, the president a weaker one because it could be overridden. Certain other measures required super majorities, especially when amending the constitution.
Underneath the somewhat messy marriage of principle and practicality the principle remained clear. Majorities were needed to get things done, but doing so required agreement by different majorities elected by different constituencies. The ideal was consensual agreement, not majority rule. Madison and others hoped what would emerge from decision-making requiring different majorities would often approximate a consensus.
Consensus, not majority rule, was not only theoretically appropriate, it was practically unavoidable because the constitution had to be adopted by voters in any state that joined. It could never be imposed. The consensual ideal was inherent in the logic of the process. Consensus, not majority rule, is the ideal underlying the constitution.
What about Parliaments?
Parliamentary democracies do appear to be purely majoritarian. But parliaments arose out of existing traditional states where what we call executive functions were transferred from a single ruler to an elected parliament. They are democratized states rather than originating in consent.
In parliamentary democracies majority parties or coalitions of parties rule, but only so long as a majority of voters supports them. Tyranny of the majority is more possible in parliamentary systems, but on the other hand most have developed customary norms, such as England’s “unwritten constitution,” that limit this danger.
Significantly, in many such democracies powerful secessionist movements have arisen once a purely democratic political process has developed. Spain is one case where the result was significant devolution of power to lower levels of the country. England is another perhaps more spectacular example, with a vote for Scottish independence, by Scots, scheduled to take place in 2014. Earlier, democratic Czechoslovakia divided peacefully into two nations, the Czech republic and Slovakia, as had democratic Norway from Sweden. There are no equivalent peaceable separations among undemocratic states to my knowledge except when, as with the USSR, the country was disintegrating. Minorities leave and majorities do not force them to stay.
Is majority rule sufficient?
Finally, the majority rule standard leads to absurdity. A common libertarian and right-wing claim about democracy as majority rule compares it with two wolves and a sheep making decisions about dinner. Let’s look at the logic.
The logic is absurd. We can easily see this by postulating that after 49% of the people have been enslaved, a majority of the remaining citizens vote another 49% into slavery, and on and on until only two people constitute the population, whereupon nothing can happen short of unanimity. And yet the people making this argument will call what exists a democracy!
Their error comes from confusing constitutional rules with day to day rules..
Democracy is a process, not a one time event. It is an open-ended system for making decisions over time. As Robert Axelrod showed years ago, in iterated relationships among equals, cooperating pays off whereas seeking to take advantage of the others does not.
If a hypothetical majority of people votes the minority into slavery, it is acting undemocratically because it is not abiding by constitutional rules establishing equality of status over time. In other words, the simple existence of majority rule does not make a democracy, it is the existence of rules over time which give each person equal input at some level that makes a democracy.
That majorities do not rule and that most voters are deeply ignorant of more than one or two issues, and no voter can possibly be well informed on very many, raises an interesting alternative question. How can democracies function at all? Somehow democracies have survived the 20th century better than undemocratic regimes with their supposedly greater efficiency and focus. How could this be? If it were simply a case of elites in democracies being in charge, why would they be more effective than elites in undemocratic regimes? Something interesting is happening here, and my third post on understanding democracies will describe what it is.