Tyranny of the Majority

Let’s talk about majority/minority dynamics.

There are only two political parties in the United States.

Well, that’s not exactly true; there are a multitude of political parties in the US, but really, there are only two you vote for. The stereotypical response to alternative parties amounts to “yes, that smaller party better represents my views than the big two, but only the big two can win.” Because of this, national elections in the US can be boiled down to “which mainstream candidate is the least bad?” This means that someone who votes for a party does not necessarily agree with every aspect of that party’s official platform. Take the Republicans, for example; there is a significant Libertarian presence in the Republican party. Since the Republicans are seen as the “small government” people (when compared to the Democrats), Libertarians will often cast their votes for the Republican candidate. (This is somewhat odd, given that the facts reveal that the Republicans’ policies do not match up with their alleged support for “small government” principles. Better PR, I guess.) The end result of this is that there isn’t a single national office held by a member of the Libertarian party. Why? Because voting for a third-party candidate in a national election is throwing your vote away. (It doesn’t have to be, but in today’s electoral climate, it is.)

These third parties persist because they’re staffed by dedicated people who truly believe in their causes, but they don’t actually ever win major races. In the face of this daunting reality, what happens the voters who passionately support these third parties? There are three possibilities:

1) They vote for the third-party candidate, who loses.
2) They vote for whichever of the two primary parties more closely reflect their values.
3) They don’t vote.

In none of these three scenarios will our third-party supporter end up truly satisfied. This is essentially a no-win situation; our hypothetical voter can attempt some form of disappointment mitigation in the case of option two, but even if the Democrat/Republican they vote for wins, the candidate they wanted to win has still lost. This voter is essentially disenfranchised by virtue of belonging to a minority party. The United States is laden with these sorts of disillusioned voters, many of whom elect to take the third option and abstain from voting.

What can be done about the political landscape in the US to change this problem? I don’t have a definitive answer, but the first step is to unite. The political environment is in a rut, and there is no way to substantially alter the course of that environment without gathering together with like-minded individuals.

Now, a hypothetical: Imagine that you live in a democratic society where 80% of the population reliably votes for a single political party in every election, but you oppose the policies advocated by the majority. Knowing that casting your vote for a minority party would be ultimately fruitless (because the majority party is guaranteed to get its way with or without your input), would you even register to vote?


Even if you did, how could you hope to effect any change on the political process? Your only legitimate option would be to appeal to the majority party to change its platform, and the majority is under no obligation to comply with your requests. See injustice in the world? You have to ask (beg?) the dominant party to listen to you if you want any official intervention, and you’d better be able to couch your request in terms of the party’s moral sensibilities. Doesn’t sound terribly inviting, does it?

Does this idea frustrate you? Congratulations, you have some faint idea of what it’s like to be a minority.

In order to appear exclusionary toward a minority group, the majority does not need to have a desire to marginalize or exclude minority members; it does not take an act of explicit policy to create an unwelcoming atmosphere—mere inaction alone will accomplish this. Thus is the power of the status quo. To overcome this hurdle, it is not sufficient to tolerate members of that minority. Including these people takes active effort on the part of the majority. If a majority group wants minority participation in their group, they are going to have to work to get it. One cannot simply declare by fiat that their group is welcoming to minority members and make it so. This does not work. If the Republicans suddenly decided that they wanted the votes of the Green party supporters, it would take more than a few platitudes to get them. Furthermore, merely having minority members present does not constitute including minority members—this does not demonstrate that your party is welcoming to minority voices.

(Edit: There is also a clear difference between “we want to include you so that we look diverse” and “we want to include you because we actually care about what you have to say. This difference is not lost on minority members, who will rightly perceive the former as insulting.)

I’ve seen the term “echo chamber” pop up repeatedly in the last few days, but I have great difficulty accepting it being used in reference to minority groups. In a laissez-faire social space, only the majority opinions will be heard because they will be the loudest. In this way, a “level playing field,” wherein no speech is given preference, is perhaps the furthest thing one can find from encouraging an inclusive environment for minority voices. Any pursuit of equality in this fashion is ultimately self-defeating. When the majority does not take pains to welcome of minority opinions, those opinions are lost in the din of apparent consensus. (This leads to groupthink.)

Faced with such a situation, what choice does the minority have to be heard but to establish a mechanism to increase the impact of their voice?

Naive supporters of equality have offered a proposed solution to this in the form of maintaining open forums in accordance with a fetishistic adherence to “free speech,” but this advice is deeply misguided; rather than ameliorating the problem, this can only serve to exacerbate it. To do this would be to introduce majority voices into the minority group when the exact opposite is necessary! To insure accurate representation of all interests, minority voices must be amplified to be heard by the crowd.

If you are in the 20% minority political party, the politicians of the majority party are free to brush off your every word unless your voice is given extra weight. The majority party does not need your vote, and a majority politician who devotes time to your causes may very well find themselves faced with a primary challenger in the form of someone who will simply toe the party line. If you are the minority voice, you cannot rely on the goodwill of the majority to be heard—you need a platform. If the majority wants to include minority voices, it bears an obligation to give the minority that platform. If it will not provide that platform, the minority is left with no choice but to build it themselves.

I’d really like to get that platform going now.


3 responses to “Tyranny of the Majority

  1. Here in Finland we have a multi party coalition government at the moment. There are three major parties and a bunch of smaller ones. The set up is a strange one even for us, as it has united into the same government such parties as the Swedish Peoples Party, Christian Democrats and Socialist Coalition. Those are all minority parties, but even the big ones are a surprizing union of the National Coalition (wich is a member of the conservative party group in the EU but actually drives for very liberal market values), the Green Party and Social Democrats. The opposition are formed by two parties very much representing the rural parts of the land the Center Party (wich is actually quite far away from the center, as it is a member of the EU liberal parties coalition, but stands for very conservative values in reality) and the rapidly grown The Finns Party, wich is a hazy collection of your general malcontents and down right fascists. In addition to these there are several minor parties but as they did not make it to the parliament, their influence is very small indeed.

    All this to work, it requires quite a lot of compromises and consensus. The big parties tend to rule the govenrment, but they are unable to run amok. Rather it seems that the different parties adopt each others ideals at least for their public imagery. The National Coalition has tried to create an image for being a party for the common working man, wich is a bit of an ordeal since they mainly represent corporations needs in the parliament. Almost every party (exept the “Finns”) has adopted some form being green. No party (not even the ones on our extreme right) is against our social security system, or the “wellfare state” created by the socialist parties, they just argue over how to fund it. And so on…

    The existance and ability to act politically by the smaller parties is guaranteed in our constitution by the monetary support a political party of at least 5000 members will get from the collected taxes. The financial support is in correlation to the membership account of the party. That way no party is dependant on any big corporations or lobbyists, but their success is dependant on how much support they can gather from the people. Not as money, but for representing ideas people relate to.

    It seems to me as an outsider, that in the US you have two parties representing the two major industrial branches of corporations. The Republicans seem to be supported by the energy industry and the Democrats by the chemical industry. I might be wrong, but as I said that is what it looks like. But what is democracy, if the elections are determined by who will have most money to advertize their candidates?

    I think the ideal of democracy is not supposed to be the tyranny of the majority over minorities, but to educate the majority to have such high ethics that they understand when the benefit of the minority is actually a benefit of the majority.

  2. Thank you for sharing. It’s very interesting to me to see how other countries manage democracy. I have my share of envy for parliamentary countries, even if they’re still not without flaws, but I suppose no system is perfect.

    It’s remarkable how ubiquitous the strategy of “support corporate interests, market yourself as the people’s party” seems to be. You’re right to suggest that the Republicans and the Democrats have similarities in this way, but I don’t think it would be right to imply that they’re equally egregious in how they approach their finances. The Democrats tend to get a higher frequency of individual contributions while the Republicans tend to get fewer contributors, but their contributions tend to come from the wealthier donors. (The differences are quite stark here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/campaign-finance/) I’m also not sure it’s right to suggest that the chemical companies are pandered to more by the Democrats, given that the Republicans have opposed efforts to promote access to so-called “generic” drugs, but it definitely seems fair to say that the Democrats do have an active interest in securing their support.

    Yes, corporate interests play a powerful role in both parties due to the primacy of campaign contributions, and it sounds like your approach of public financing is less likely to result in corruption shenanigans. For a political party to receive public money in the US, they have to have received between 5 and 25% of the public vote in the previous election cycle, which strikes me as a bit absurd. (“If you get a lot of votes without first receiving public money, we’ll give you public money! If you don’t have the cash to fund your own campaign without it, tough luck!“) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_election_campaign_fund_checkoff

    I think the ideal of democracy is not supposed to be the tyranny of the majority over minorities, but to educate the majority to have such high ethics that they understand when the benefit of the minority is actually a benefit of the majority

    I could not agree more.

  3. We have two major parties here in the United Kingdom and some smaller ones too. There is Labour who are left and the Conservatives who are right. We currently have the Conservatives in power though they need the smaller Liberal Democrats for a parliamentary majority. We have elections every five years and it tends to be one party in power for a long time followed by the other for an equally long time. The Conservatives had an unbroken eighteen year rule, then followed by Labour with an unbroken thirteen year rule. Unlike in America, our Prime Ministers can rule for as many terms as they want now. We have had one ruling for eleven years and another for ten years, though historically, they tend to rule for less. We also have an unelected second chamber, a monarchy, and a state religion – all which are completely unnecessary in a liberal democracy. But we also have a very strong sense of history too, which explains this. We also had the largest empire the world has ever known but mercifully we no longer have that anymore, though many wish we did

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