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Thursday, June 5, 2008

On Majority Rule

Many people assert that America is a country of majority rules. We are in agreement with Senator James A. Reed from Missouri when he spoke in 1926. The following are excerpts from that speech:

“I am getting a little tired of hearing about the sacred rights of the majority; that this is a country ruled by the majority; and that the majority has the right to have its way. This is not a country ruled by the majority. This is not a country of majority rule. The Constitution of the United States was written, in large part, to prevent majority rule. The Declaration of Independence was an announcement that there are limitations upon majority rule.

The fact that a majority of 1 or 10 vote for a bill in the Senate is not a certification that the action is right. The majority has been wrong oftener than it has been right in all the course of time. The majority crucified Jesus Christ. The majority burned the Christians at the stake. The majority drove the Jews into exile and the ghetto. The majority established slavery. The majority set up innumerable gibbets. The majority chained to stakes and surrounded with circles of flame martyrs through all the ages of the world's history. The majority in China believe in a doctrine and follow a code of ethics different from ours. Either they are wrong or we are wrong. The majority in India follow a different code of ethics and have a different set of ideas than we, and they far out number us. Either they are wrong or we are wrong.

Majority rule without any limitation or curb upon the particular set of fools who happen to be placed for the moment in charge of the machinery of a government! The majority grinned and jeered when Columbus said the world was round. The majority threw him into a dungeon for having discovered a new world. The majority said that Galileo must recant or that Galileo must go to prison. The majority cut off the ears of John Pym because he dared advocate the liberty of the press. The majority to the South of the Mason and Dixon line established the horrible thing called slavery, and the majority north of it did likewise, and only turned reformer when slavery ceased to be profitable to them.

Notes on James Alexander Reed:
James Alexander Reed (1861 - 1944), was born in Ohio; but after a brief sojourn in Iowa, settled in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1880s. At the turn of the Century, he was the Prosecuting Attorney in Kansas City, where he obtained 285 convictions in the 287 cases that he tried. From 1911 until his retirement in 1929, he served as a Democratic Senator from Missouri.

Furthermore, James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 51: "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure."

It has often been debated that we should do away with the Electoral College and, most recently in our election, that debate has surfaced again. Mr. Rick Garlikov writes in his essay The Need for Formal and Informal Mechanisms to Prevent "Tyranny of the Majority" in Any Democratic Government, “The Electoral College, though different now from the way it was originally established, still operates intentionally in opposition to majority rule in this same way. In a system of electing the President by mere simple majority, a candidate or party could win by appealing to 51% of the voters united by some particular characteristic. And while Madison was correct that it is not easy in a free society to find 51% with an overriding affiliation to some philosophy or set of ideological policies that affect favorably all the various aspects of their lives, still it can happen. It happens, so far in America as of this writing, with some regard to race, with some regard to religious affiliation, and with some regard to gender. It happens also, though in alternating cycles, with regard to what are currently deemed generally "conservative" versus "liberal" values. It also can happen with regard to demographics along age lines or along urban/rural lines. By requiring a candidate to get at least some widespread support across a set of divergent groups, and not just simple majority support, the electoral college serves as a partial safeguard against those who might be able to find and win over a majority group based on some simple or single characteristic. It is not foolproof as a safeguard in this way, but it is important, and sometimes formidable.

When my younger daughter was in sixth grade, she attended a new middle school that opened its first year with just two of the three grades it would subsequently have. It began with sixth and seventh grades and would from then on, have sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. They held a student council officer election in the spring of the school year for student government positions the following year. For some reason, there were far more seventh graders than sixth graders that year, and because they voted for "their own", the seventh graders won all the officer positions. The sixth graders felt that was unfair but were told that was just how democracy worked. Well, it is not how American "democracy" (or at least American government) works, nor how it is supposed to work, regardless of the misconception. Had there been a mechanism, something like the electoral college system, whereby sixth and seventh grades were represented in a more equal way to make up for their unequal population numbers -- a way that required the assent of some implicit coalition of both groups -- either there would have been some sixth graders elected to the student council offices or at least some seventh graders might have been elected who were more acceptable to the sixth grade class. Potential seventh grade officers would at least have had to court some part of the sixth grade vote instead of being able to ignore it altogether. That is the purpose, or at least a feature, of devices such as a bicameral legislature or an electoral college.

Mr. Garlikov goes on to say:

Effective, heeded representation will happen naturally in those bodies comprised of sensitive, compassionate, and honorable members with discerning judgment who care about the needs of all people. There are not likely to be such bodies. Therefore mechanisms are necessary to prevent 51% of people from controlling 100% of the decisions in a democracy simply by having majority rule that allows them to win every vote without having ever to take into account the needs of the 49%. When those needs are intolerably and unreasonably ignored and thwarted, there is a tyranny of the majority. (used by permission of Rick Garlikov when we wrote our Letter to the Editor,The Evening Sun, Hanover, PA with sincere thanks to Mr. Garlikov)

We must get away from this idea that the majority rules. America was never intended to be a country of rule by the majority and many obstacles were put in place to prevent majority rule. We must protect the individual, the minority. It is what our great country is all about.

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Thanks for your comments! Jan and Stu