Democracy and Majority Rule


President Barack Obama narrowly defeated Gov. Mitt Romney in the popular vote 51 percent to 48 percent. In the all-important Electoral College, the difference was larger, with Obama winning 303 electoral votes and Romney 206. Let’s not think so much about the election’s outcome but instead ask: What’s so good about democracy and majority rule?

How many decisions in our day-to-day lives would we like to be made through majority rule or the democratic process? How about the decision to watch a football game or “Law and Order”? What about whether to purchase a Chevrolet Volt or a Toyota Prius? Would you like the decision of whether to have turkey or ham for Thanksgiving dinner to be made through the democratic process? Were such decisions made in the political arena, most of us would deem it tyranny.

Democracy and majority rule give an aura of legitimacy and decency to acts that would otherwise be deemed tyranny. Most people would agree that having our decisions on what television shows to watch, what kind of car we’ll purchase and what we’ll eat for Thanksgiving dinner made through the democratic process is tyranny. Why isn’t it also tyranny for the political process to determine decisions such as how much should be put aside out of our paycheck for retirement; whether we purchase health insurance or not; what type of light bulbs we use; or whether we purchase 32- or 16-ounce soda containers?

The founders of our nation held a deep abhorrence for democracy and majority rule. The word democracy appears in neither of our founding documents: our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison wrote, “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

John Adams predicted, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Edmund Randolph said, “… that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”

Chief Justice John Marshall observed, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”

In a word or two, the founders knew that a democracy would lead to the same kind of tyranny the colonies suffered under King George III. Our founders intended for us to have a republican form of limited government where political decision-making is kept to the minimum.

Alert to the dangers of majoritarian tyranny, our Constitution’s framers inserted several anti-majority rules. One such rule is that election of the president is not decided by a majority vote but instead by the Electoral College. Nine states have more than 50 percent of the U.S. population. If a simple majority were the rule, conceivably these nine states could determine the presidency. Fortunately, they can’t because they have only 225 Electoral College votes when 270 of the 538 total are needed. Were it not for the Electoral College, presidential candidates could safely ignore less populous states.

Two houses of Congress pose another obstacle to majority rule. Fifty-one senators can block the designs of 435 representatives and 49 senators. The Constitution gives the president a veto that weakens the power of 535 members of both houses of Congress. It takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto. To change the Constitution requires not a majority but a two-thirds vote of both Houses to propose an amendment, and to be enacted requires ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

Today’s Americans think Congress has the constitutional authority to do anything upon which they can get a majority vote. We think whether a measure is a good idea or a bad idea should determine its passage as opposed to whether that measure lies within the enumerated powers granted Congress by the Constitution. Unfortunately, for the future of our nation, Congress has successfully exploited American constitutional ignorance or contempt.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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