The tyranny of the minority

There should be lit­tle doubt in anyone’s mind that the Congress and our polit­i­cal sys­tem are in the throes of some pret­ty awful dis­abil­i­ties right now.

A new book The Tyranny of the Minority by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (avail­able at the Clark County Public Library) pro­vides good his­tor­i­cal insight as to how we have arrived at this point, as well as poten­tial solu­tions to the dilemma.

At the begin­ning of the book, the authors describe four fac­tors which define a true demo­c­rat (the term used here to describe some­one ded­i­cat­ed to true democ­ra­cy, not as a mem­ber of a polit­i­cal party).

Those four fac­tors are:

  • They expel anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic extrem­ists from their own ranks even at the risk of antag­o­niz­ing their own party.
  • They sev­er all ties – pub­lic and pri­vate – with allied groups that engage in anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic behavior.
  • They unam­bigu­ous­ly con­demn polit­i­cal vio­lence and oth­er anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic behav­ior, even that com­mit­ted by allies or ide­o­log­i­cal­ly prox­i­mate groups.
  • They join forces with rival pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties to iso­late and defeat anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic extremists.

Reading just these four fac­tors should illu­mi­nate the prob­lem fac­ing America today as a size­able pro­por­tion of the Republican par­ty rou­tine­ly vio­lates some or all of these principles.

Consider how many Republicans con­sis­tent­ly refuse to acknowl­edge that the 2020 elec­tion was fair and that President Biden is the right­ful office­hold­er.  Those same Republicans con­tin­ue to eulo­gize for­mer President Trump while refus­ing to acknowl­edge any com­plic­i­ty on his part in the January 6 attempt to over­throw a valid election.

And these prin­ci­ples illus­trate the ref­er­ence to minor­i­ty since those who vio­late them are def­i­nite­ly a minor­i­ty por­tion of our elect­ed officials.

The American polit­i­cal process if rife with oppor­tu­ni­ties for minori­ties to upset the legit­i­mate oper­a­tion of democ­ra­cy.  And our Constitution is large­ly respon­si­ble for allow­ing this to happen. 

Consider, for exam­ple, the uneven rep­re­sen­ta­tion built into the U.S. Senate.  The founders set up this unique bicam­er­al sys­tem as a com­pro­mise to the demands of the then-thir­teen states who feared that the small­er states would be over­whelmed by strict pop­u­la­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tion pro­posed for the House of Representatives. 

The sys­tem was skewed then and is even more so now.  As an exam­ple of this unfair rep­re­sen­ta­tion, two sen­a­tors serve each state. So, in California each sen­a­tor rep­re­sents 19.6 mil­lion peo­ple, but in Wyoming each rep­re­sents only 290,000 peo­ple and in Vermont 323,000. So the res­i­dents of Wyoming are get­ting rep­re­sen­ta­tion which is 68 times greater than California and Vermont 60 times greater.

To com­pound the dis­par­i­ties in our demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem, the elec­toral col­lege allows one to achieve the pres­i­den­cy even though he may receive a minor­i­ty of the pop­u­lar vote (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, 2016).

Since 1800 there have been over 700 attempts to either mod­i­fy or do away with the elec­toral col­lege so there has, for a very long time, been a recog­ni­tion of this basi­cal­ly non-demo­c­ra­t­ic institution.

Levitsky and Ziblatt take note sev­er­al fac­tors which make America what they describe as a “unique­ly counter-majori­tar­i­an democ­ra­cy at the dawn of the 21st century.”

  • America is the only pres­i­den­tial democ­ra­cy in the world in which the pres­i­dent is elect­ed via an elec­toral col­lege rather than direct­ly by the voters.
  • America is one of the few remain­ing democ­ra­cies that retains a bicam­er­al leg­is­la­ture with a pow­er­ful upper cham­ber.  Only Argentina and Brazil are worse with severe­ly malap­por­tioned upper chambers.
  • America is the world’s only democ­ra­cy with both a strong, malap­por­tioned sen­ate and a leg­isla­tive minor­i­ty veto (the fil­i­buster, which inci­den­tal­ly can only be over­come with a 35 vote).
  • America is one of only five estab­lished democ­ra­cies in which the pres­i­den­cy can be attained with a minor­i­ty of the pop­u­lar vote (via the Electoral College).
  • America is the only democ­ra­cy in the world with life­time tenure for supreme court jus­tices; all oth­ers have either term lim­its, manda­to­ry retire­ment age, or both.
  • The U.S. Constitution is, among democ­ra­cies, the hard­est in the world to change, requir­ing approval of 23 of both hous­es plus 34 of the states.

It is obvi­ous that the founders were not per­fect, nor was the doc­u­ment they con­struct­ed.  Most of them even knew it at the time and wrote about it.  The fact that our con­sti­tu­tion has been amend­ed 27 times is tes­ta­ment to its imper­fec­tion.  The fact that there have been more than 11,000 attempts to amend it attests to the dif­fi­cul­ty of doing so, as does the fact that the 19th Amendment was passed by a sin­gle vote in the Tennessee legislature.

Democracy is hard.  Ours is one of the longest-lived in the world.  It is also one that is excru­ci­at­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to adjust to the chang­ing vagaries of the times. And it works best when gov­erned by majori­ties with­out the restraint of non-demo­c­ra­t­ic extrem­ist minorities.

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