Tyranny of the minority

Excellent, succinct post by G. Elliot Morris about the fundamentally undemocratic (and, yes, unrepublican) nature of American political institutions.

Tyranny of the Minority

Despite what the founders intended, the Supreme Court is now fully able to be controlled by a significant minority of the country’s voters. Of course, it is not a popularly-elected branch of government, but there are costs associated with minoritarian rule that transcend the original intent of the founders.

[Excerpted from the post at Moriss’s blog]


3 thoughts on “Tyranny of the minority

  1. Someone, perhaps Jacob T Levy, made the point that institutions that sometimes frustrate pure majority will can be justified if they knock the leaders down a peg or two. They can’t boast of having an unambiguous mandate and should instead be chastened by the fact they won with fewer votes than their opponents. (Reminded me of the Romans having a slave ride beside the conquering general to remind him that he was still a mortal). However, Levy notes, minority rule in the US doesn’t seem to have have this effect. Dubya in 2001-04 and Trump since 2016 have acted as if they won huge popular majorities and don’t need to compromise on their policies.

  2. Here is the Levy article I was thinking of -https://www.niskanencenter.org/democracy-for-republicans/, thanks to https://worldisnotenough.org/2020/06/11/no-more-bleeding-hearts/:
    “… Taken all together, really-existing American limits on fairly representative and competitive democracy are laughably unrelated to the principled justifications intellectuals offer for some or another corrective to untrammeled majoritarianism. The interlocking and mutually-reinforcing system of state and federal constraints on democracy across branches doesn’t select for more-competent voters, or promote more liberty-respecting outcomes, or create a countermajoritarian political culture. The package of existing limits on majority political rule don’t generate markets or liberty or limits on politics; it just generates minority political rule….
    … I can imagine a defense of the Electoral College that makes a virtue out of its occasionally nonmajoritarian outcomes. Those outcomes could teach us not to fetishize the results of an election, not to equate a procedural victory with the unified popular will, still less with moral truth. Teaching people not to overinflate how much an electoral victory morally means would be productive and valuable, and the victors could govern in an appropriately chastened way, understanding the element of chance in their victory. I’m fond of quoting the philosopher Bernard Williams’ dictum about the importance but difficulty of remembering that a victory in politics“does not in itself announce that the other party was morally wrong or, indeed, wrong at all. What it immediately announces is that they have lost.” The occasional popular-Electoral mismatch could drive this lesson home and remind everyone not to treat victory as implying vox populi as in turn implying vox dei.
    But this is nothing like what actually happens. Post-2016 Trump and post-2000 Bush instead governed with an almost fanatical determination to pretend that their victories did represent a unified national will. Trump’s brand of politics in particular leaves no room for that modest sense that victory was just something that happened to happen. He instead throws himself into the attitude that winning proves he was right about everything, that it provides a universal absolution for any previous wrongs, that it means he was chosen by The People, his critics are enemies of The People, his opponents are actually traitors. And his supporters embrace all of this. If a countermajoritarian or semimajoritarian institution like the Electoral College yields political winners who pretend to have supermajoritarian legitimacy rather than winners with a chastened sense of political contingency, then it’s not serving any useful purpose of checking majority power or passion. It’s just giving a minority the power of a majority, and encouraging the minority to keep re-engineering the rules to immunize itself from political challenge….”

    • Most arguments against “tyranny of the majority”
      (a) have a lot more moral force if they are really talking about untrammelled power of a plurality that may fall well short of 50%. (Eg, voters can, given the right electoral systems, ensure that no 50% true majority exists, but by definition there will always be a plurality, so a system that always or almost always gives a plurality undivided power deprives voters of this choice: the “Unless you want to hand absolute power to Michael Foot, you’ve consented to hand absolute power to Margaret Thatcher” problem”).
      (b) seem to assume, rather lazily, that a minority is always intensely concerned while a majority is always apathetic and easily distracted. Now, Mancur Olsen had a good point that smaller groups may, paradoxically, be better at marshalling their troops than larger groups, because it’s easier for them to name and shame free-riders; so the widget producers have a strong incentive to lobby legislators to keep the widgets subsidy on which their livelihoods depend, whereas consumers have no incentive to lobby Parliament or Congress to abolish the subsidy so they save fifty cents a year on widgets.
      But this isn’t always the case. If and once an issue crosses the threshold that spurs people to act, nothing says they will let it drop just because they are a large group. Indeed, awareness that “you are not alone, you’re one of many and together we are powerful” may spur them to act (eg, #MeToo’s name and methods were based on precisely this strategy).
      And the saliency of the issue doesn’t have to be equally intense for the majority as it is for the minority to spur them to act; it just has to cross the threshold. So, eg, it’s true that gun-owners in the USA are… very attached to their guns. But the fear of school shootings, whether or not it reaches the “pry it from my cold dead hands” level, is still strong enough to mobilise gun-control supporters.
      Many defenders of the US Senate and Electoral College seem to assume that every election is Bush v Gore, or at least Kennedy v Nixon, and that the losing side will say “Meh, fair enough”. (And I think we can all agree that the Bush/ Gore differences turned out to be far more politically salient in hindsight than people realised in October 2000). But if elections become “Flight 93” for the Right or “The Handmaid’s Tale is just around the corner” for the Left, the losing side are much less likely to accept “Oh, well, you got more votes but you lost”.
      In conclusion: there’s only one thing more destabilizing to a republic than a large, intensely aggrieved but politically unrepresented minority… and that’s a than a large, intensely aggrieved but politically unrepresented majority.

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