The democratic nature of elections is naturally supposed to reflect majority rule. The three American Presidential elections where the electoral college failed to reflect the popular vote (1876, 2000 and 2016) are considered undemocratic because the outcome was not based on the principle of majority rule. Because it is incomprehensible for a minority to make final decisions, the principle of majority rule has become synonymous with democracy. Minority rule has become equated with oligarchy, aristocracy or even plutocracy.

Robert Dahl defends majority rule as a necessary component of democracy. There is a conflict in his writing because he recognizes polyarchies depend on some limitations to majority rule to allow for essential other democratic elements like freedom of speech and association. He acknowledges there is a paradox where the principle of majority rule can go too far so it begins to erase other necessary elements of the democratic process. But his idea of polyarchy hints at a mental compromise where he wants to go farther but realizes its impossibility. He continues to hint at a model that becomes more democratic than his conception of polyarchy. Of course, polyarchy is already intended to reflect a system of government that has incorporated democratic values far beyond the absolute minimum threshold. It seems Dahl wants democracy to fully incorporate majority rule. He gives four arguments in support of its value for democracy.

  1. Fulfills Self-Determination
  2. Reasonable Process
  3. Wisdom of the Crowd
  4. Maximizes Utility

In the next few pages of Democracy and its Critics, Dahl makes his own critique of majority rule. In doing so many of his arguments in favor of majority rule are substantially weakened. But his strongest argument remains a discussion of democracy in the real world. This leaves the reader to believe majority reflects democracy better in theory than reality. Indeed, Dahl goes so far as to explicitly say so. The strength of the theoretical argument goes back to his first argument that it maximizes self-determination.

Dahl continues to see self-determination linked to the will of the majority. The Social Contract theorists, Locke and Rousseau, accepted a role for majority rule but never as extensive as many imagine. Locke is largely immune to this criticism because his contribution has been synonymous with liberalism and its emphasis on human rights. But Rousseau is largely depicted as the defender of a tyrannical majority even one so pervasive as to devolve into totalitarianism. But it is their emphasis on the unanimity necessary for the formation of the law that puzzles Dahl.

The concept of self-determination or self-governance is a complex political process. It cannot be resolved by a vote nor can the majority simply impose their will and call it self-determination. Minorities must believe their views, interests and perspectives are considered before they will embrace a political arrangement. Sometimes the minorities are ethnic, racial or religious, but they can also simply represent different political perspectives. Every community has a political divide. Aristotle believed income or wealth was the primary divide of the polis. There is some truth here. This theme has continued to reverberate throughout time especially as the lower classes have become incorporated into the political process.

Proponents of majority rule believe democracy gives the political opposition hope. This contrasts with other political systems where there is no path to governance. Of course, there is little chance for governance without a chance to build a larger political coalition. Aristotle believed a middle-class was critical for political stability. They either supported the rich to establish an oligarchy or supported the poor to establish a democracy. In the same way, theorists believe critical swing voters shift the balance of political power between different parties.

Still, the swing voter depends on the balance between two parties. The end of Apartheid brought about democratization in South Africa. But national politics have remained in the control of the African National Congress (ANC). They have won six consecutive national elections and only in this past election fell below 60% of the vote (Economist, May 17, 2019). While local elections have begun to diminish the scope of the ANC, the nation has effectively been a single party-political system. The Indian National Congress held the same dominance in India for the first few decades after independence. It took the near collapse of their constitution under Indira Gandhi’s abuse of executive power before the country gave political leadership to a new political party. There is never a guarantee that political power will transfer between parties. The majority has a natural advantage to hold onto power. Indeed, constitutions are designed to reduce the advantages of majorities. Term limits are a common feature within Presidential systems. Without them political power is rarely transferred to new leadership. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has extended his Presidency into a fourth term through revisions to the constitution.

Moreover, the political opposition is rarely unified. Dissatisfaction of the governing majority arises for a variety of reasons. A new governing majority requires a new coalition. Generally, this requires a compromise from the former opposition and a portion of the old governing majority. But the opposition is naturally heterogenous. It does not naturally converge into a single party to challenge the incumbents. Some of the opposition will simply remain in the opposition. Others will find their views become so dissipated within the new coalition it will produce dissatisfaction.

Majority rule gives no assurances many opinions or concerns will be heard. Instead, large segments of the population are alienated from the political process. Self-governance requires the incorporation of these different views and perspectives into policy formation. Otherwise the governance of the majority is not much different from an authoritarian rule. This fear is compounded when the majority is actively hostile toward ethnic, racial or religious minorities. The right to vote is meaningless if there is no hope for representation.

The impact of majority rule is compounded through single member districts. An alternative solution is proportional representation where small percentages capture representation in an assembly. Nonetheless, there is always a necessary threshold for representation. Some voters will not receive representation in Parliament because their parties do not meet the critical threshold. In the 2018 Brazilian election, five political parties failed to win representation in the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate. Moreover, coalition governments naturally exclude significant parts of Parliament. Voters may have representation in Parliament, but their representatives are powerless. It is true some coalitions expand larger than a bare majority. Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman and Timothy Power provided a recent look at Presidential systems with coalition governments. They recognize it is common to form super-coalitions to make constitutional reforms. But the influence of a minor party within a coalition is based on their comparative leverage. A small party may obtain a minor Cabinet post or a budgetary concession but fail to influence larger political policy. Even significant coalition members compromise their positions in ways that may lose their ability to truly represent their base.

Majority rule plays a significant role in all political systems commonly called democratic. But it is important to recognize it is designed to accentuate the leverage of political majorities. I am not going so far to call majority rule undemocratic, but there must be mechanisms designed to incorporate the political opposition into the political system. It is not enough to say the majority will make the decisions. This can easily fail to symbolize self-governance and transform into the governance of the majority and the oppression of minorities.

Hungary gives a small glimpse into the undemocratic potential of majority rule on a political system. In 2010, Viktor Orbán and the Fidez Party won a supermajority in the Hungarian Parliament. They won a commanding 52.73% of the vote while the Socialists came in a distant second with just 19.3% of the vote. Because Hungary uses a combination of single member districts and proportional voting, governing parties would capture large majorities with victories in the winner take all electoral districts. Fidesz swept these elections. Their supermajority allowed them to rewrite the constitution without any input from the opposition. They redrew the electoral map and reshaped election law, so they held onto their supermajority in 2014 despite falling to 44.87% of the vote. Their margin remained large, but the gap was now 19 points. Normally this decline would result in a loss of a few seats in Parliament, but the rules were changed to advantage the ruling party.

Unlimited power in the hands of the majority does not lead to better democratic outcomes. It permits the majority to rewrite electoral rules to corrupt democracy, undo its foundations and forego its principles. Dahl resolves this paradox with conditional boundaries. The violation of these conditions is simply not democratic. But this is unsatisfying and lazy. Majority rule cannot symbolize democracy until it no longer acts democratically. This is nonsense. But it demonstrates how little is understood of the philosophical foundations of democracy.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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