Too many people confuse majority rule as a crude form of democracy. Others believe majorities must remain in check to preserve democracy. In reality democracy involves neither majority nor minority rule. This is the seventh part of the Democracy Paradox, a comprehensive work of political theory.
Majority Rule in Democracy
Democracy is neither majoritarian nor minoritarian. Majority rule has come to symbolize democratic governance, because theorists and practitioners have adopted a procedural view of democracy. Elections have long served as the barometer of democracy. Fareed Zakaria’s critique of illiberal democracy centered around American democracy promotion efforts where competitive elections mattered more than other liberal values such as human rights.
A purely majoritarian interpretation of democracy brings about an obvious paradox. Majoritarianism gives the majority control over more than policy. It confers control over political procedures as well. Indeed, they have the power to limit or restrict the electorate for future elections. Moreover, history has shown this is a real possibility. The American South found ways to limit their electorate after reconstruction to keep African Americans out of political participation. For example, South Carolina saw voter participation in Presidential elections decline from a peak of 182,683 in 1876 to just 50,812 in 1900. A closer analysis shows a steady decline in every election in between. Voter participation declined 72% in twenty-four years as the South imposed new laws to reduce political participation.
Joseph Schumpeter understood the implications of his radically procedural definition of democracy. He writes, “The salient point is that, given appropriate views on those and similar subjects, disqualifications on grounds of economic status, religion and sex will enter into the same class with disqualifications which we all of us consider compatible with democracy.” He goes even further in a footnote where he admits, “Thus the United States excludes Orientals and Germany excludes Jews from citizenship; in the southern part of the United States Negroes are also often deprived of the vote.” Schumpeter recognized a purely majoritarian view of democracy permits an electorate to restrict the vote but rather than recognize this as a critique of majoritarianism, he accepted this as a necessary consequence.
Many will find it difficult to look beyond the racism, sexism, and anti-semitism that Schumpeter permits in his account of democracy. No serious theorist today regards any regime democratic who restricts the electorate on the basis of race, religion, or gender. Indeed, universal suffrage of adults is a widely accepted precondition for democracy with few exceptions and even those are contested. My purpose is not to challenge the importance of universal suffrage, but rather to defend it and explain the logical inconsistency in Schumpeter’s approach. So, I ask the reader to set aside the reasons why majorities restrict electorates for a moment and consider the concept in the abstract for a moment.
The Paradox of Majoritarianism
Imagine a political body with an electorate of a million. After a close election, the winners disenfranchise their opponents from participation in future elections. The opposition complains but as students of Schumpeter, they recognize their exclusion is perfectly “compatible with democracy.” After four years, another election is held. The previous winners split into two nearly evenly divided parties. The new winners take power and again disenfranchise their opponents. The electorate has been reduced to just a quarter of its original size. Election after election, the winners continue to reduce the electorate until just two people remain. It’s easy to imagine these final two voters as a dictator and their successor or a Sith Lord and their apprentice.
Some will complain the thought experiment I offer is absurd. Indeed, it is. My point is to bring to light the absurdity of the purely procedural definition of democracy. The problem is democracy is better understood as an idea than as an actual political process or regime. Political scientists may protest at this characterization, but democracy has always posed challenges for classification. Scholars find it difficult to draw a firm line between democracy and authoritarianism. Freedom House, for example, offers a trifold classification of countries they describe a free, partially free, and not free. Most scholars consider free countries as democracies and not free countries as authoritarian regimes, but partially free countries pose a challenge. Many of these regimes fit into Levitsky and Way’s description of competitive authoritarianism, but even this line is difficult to demarcate.
Democracy as Idea, Process, and Regime
Whenever scholars define democracy as a regime, they establish characteristics and preconditions. It reminds me of biologists before the discovery of genetics. The difference between a rabbit and a snake is obvious, but it becomes a challenge to determine when the characteristics of a snake change enough to warrant a new species. Moreover, some species like whales and dolphins challenged our natural preconceptions of mammals for centuries. Biologists no longer look to characteristics or behaviors to classify organisms. They examine their essence through genetics.
Theorists have the luxury to think of democracy as an idea. Political scientists look to understand or even improve governance. They must consider democracy in practice. Theorists, on the other hand, must consider democracy as it ought to be. The two approaches will naturally intersect. Theorists must reflect on democratic experiences and practices, while political scientists use theory to understand democratic practices. Nonetheless, democracy as an idea allows theorists to reflect on ideals. In contrast, democracy as a process involves rules and democracy as a regime involves characteristics. Moreover, the practitioners of democracy may rely on a democratic ideology composed of political principles.
The difference between ideals and principles is not always obvious. Principles often rely on abstract ideals to develop. But principles draw a firm line where ideals cannot. Ideals recognize contradictions and challenges may arise in their implementation. They forgive inconsistencies. Principles require commitments. They do not allow for contradictions so they must resolve their differences into a coherent ideology. Principles become rules for their practitioners, while ideals remain goals. Indeed, ideals have an elusive quality with an expectation that they can never become fully adopted.
Democracy in Theory and Practice
I define democracy as an inclusive political process. Inclusiveness is an ideal because it has a nebulous quality. Practitioners may work toward the ideal by asking, “Can the process become more inclusive?” Rarely is the challenge fully met. Principles, on the other hand, draw lines in the sand such as universal suffrage to allow for greater inclusivity. Principles rely on ideals for their development, but ideals remain harder to achieve. Ideals go beyond principles. Universal suffrage does not guarantee inclusive governance. It does not even guarantee universal participation. Democratic ideals challenge our expectations of democracy to go further. Ideals challenge us to become more democratic.
Of course, democracy happens in the real world. It is not a phantom nor some rare phenomenon. Real people work to bring democracy to life through the design and reform of their political systems. Democracy does have relevance as a process and even as a regime. Moreover, political scientists, politicians, and activists all recognize the futility in expectations for democratic governance in practice to reflect democratic ideals in theory. Ideals have a natural fluidity where laws require rigidity. Indeed, democracies depend on the rigidity of law to establish clear rules. Too often a fluid application of law is a sign of clientelism or patrimonialism rather than a stronger commitment to democracy.
Majority Rule in Democratic Governance
Majority rule is a common tool used in democratic governance. Indeed, most find it a challenge to regard any political outcome as democratic unless it reflects majority opinion or acceptance. Nonetheless, it is important to distinguish between majority rule as a tool used in democracies from an ideal of democracy. Majority rule is inclusive of those represented in the majority, but excludes those outside of it. Elections bring to power majority coalitions within the political society, but they also keep losing coalitions from power. Many view proportional representation as a more inclusive electoral process. Indeed, it does allow for a more diverse range of representation. Still, it does not remove the fundamental polarization between the government and the opposition. Majority rule remains a central tool for most legislative assemblies regardless of how it selects its representatives.
Since majority rule has become a common tool for democratic decision making, many associate democracy with majoritarianism. People commonly argue any impediment to majority sentiment or opinion is undemocratic. The American constitution famously includes a series of checks and balances between different branches of government. The constitutional design purposely makes the legislative process more difficult. Francis Fukuyama, for example, refers to the United States as a vetocracy because it offers many opportunities to impede reform. The Westminster Model, in contrast, offered a streamlined political process under the principle of parliamentary supremacy. Lawrence Whitehead, however has distinguished between the ideal type of the Westminster Model from the actual practice of the Westminster System. It appears even the United Kingdom has introduced its own impediments to pure majoritarianism.
Pure Majoritarianism is Undemocratic
Pure majoritarianism is undemocratic because it excludes minority perspectives from the political process. Constitutions often require supermajorities for significant changes to law or policy including constitutional amendments as a way to encourage compromise and consent between large segments of society. Bicameral legislatures, presidential vetos and even the Senatorial filibuster all represent efforts to encourage compromise and consent in the formation of public policy. Of course, constitutional designs often empowers minorities to do more than influence public policy. Ezra Klein has referred to the American political system as undemocratic because it has become fundamentally minoritarian in practice. He advocates for a range of political reforms including the abolition of the Senatorial filibuster.
Nonetheless, Klein makes a mistake when he associates democracy with majority rule. Still, he is right when he condemns minoritarian rule. Democratic ideals challenge political majorities to include the perspectives and reasonable criticisms of political minorities. But this does not mean the empowerment of powerful political minorities to undermine the will of the majority. Klein makes a fair case when he advocates for reasonable reforms to make the political system more majoritarian. Nonetheless, reformers must recognize institutional reform is not a solution for failures in democracy. Institutional reforms work to alleviate symptoms. The disease is always more complex.
The Senate Filibuster
The filibuster is a perfect example where tools designed to obstruct majoritarianism depend on their execution. Conservatives argue the filibuster encourages compromise on major legislation, because it increases the threshold for legislation to pass the Senate. Unfortunately, the filibuster has rarely been used as a tool of compromise. Instead, southern senators used the procedural mechanism to prevent the passage of any civil rights legislation. But most legislation avoided a filibuster. Indeed, landmark legislation often commanded higher margins of support before the filibuster became a common tactic. Both Social Security and Medicare passed the Senate with supermajority support. In fact, Republicans Senators voted in favor of the 1935 Social Security legislation 16 to 5. The 1965 legislation creating Medicare won the support of 13 Republican Senators with only 17 voting against it. The higher threshold of the filibuster has empowered the opposition to obstruct reform rather than to find compromises.
The problem, of course, is not the presence of the filibuster. The Senate refrained from its overuse throughout most of its history. Indeed, the filibuster could have value as a tactic to impede overzealous political majorities who refuse to accommodate reasonable concerns from the opposition. Unfortunately, its execution has not encouraged compromise, but rather exacerbated political polarization. The parliamentary supermajority of Fidesz in Hungary has turned traditional political incentives upside down. Their unnaturally large majority allows them to lock in policies and constitutional reforms that future governments will find impossible to undo unless they obtain once in a lifetime majorities in parliament. In the meantime, Fidesz has not only rewritten the constitution, but continues to make amendments at will with repercussions far beyond their term in office.
Tyranny of the Majority, Tyranny of the Minority
Both Alexander de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill warned of the tyranny of the majority. This political phrase often refers to the rights and liberties necessary to make democracy possible. But it also refers to the political inclusion of the opposition into actual governance. Legislative representation of opposition politicians serves more than just a symbolic role or purpose. It offers a channel for the legitimate concerns and demands for reasonable accommodations for citizens outside the political majority. Constitutional designs often impose limitations on political majorities to include opposition voices into the policy process. However, the tyranny of the majority is not solved through the empowerment of a tyrannical minority. Majorities must include the opposition into the formulation of law and policy. But minorities also have an obligation to respect the will of the majority. Democracy is neither simple nor easy.
A Few Sources
Ezra Klein (2020), Why We’re Polarized
E.E. Schattschneider (1960), The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America
Joseph Schumpeter (1942), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
Laurence Whitehead (2013), “The Westminster System: “Model” or “Muddle”?” Taiwan Journal of Democracy