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?

No?

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.

Why the “Moral Objection” Fails

This notion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare) as a violation of a person’s religious liberty persists because it sounds like a convincing argument. It isn’t, of course, or the law wouldn’t have been ruled constitutional by the (majority Catholic) US Supreme Court. There are two main reasons why this argument does not hold water:

  1. It is a red herring.
  2. It is not sound policy.

It is a red herring because it mischaracterizes the way the law works. That the Supreme Court has ruled that the law is constitutional in its entirety (including this contraception mandate) should be sufficient to illustrate why this objection is irrelevant, but I’ll elaborate further for the sake of being comprehensive.

The religious “moral objection” issue seeks to erroneously portray the law (savvy readers might recognize this terminology as indicative of a straw man) by claiming that the law requires employers to provide contraception for their employees. This is false. So what does this law do? It does three things:

  1. It mandates that people carry health insurance.
  2. It mandates that employers of a certain size (50+ employees) offer health insurance.
  3. It regulates the insurance industry.

At the abstract level, that’s “all” it does.

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Situational Values (a.k.a. Religion)

At the risk of further abusing a decayed and desiccated equestrian cadaver, I’ve had it up to here (crap—you can’t see my gestures through text. Bah, just imagine it) with the “contraceptive coverage violates my religious liberties” argument. Here’s the latest one, courtesy of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s twitter feed:

The Obamacare HHS mandate takes effect today that requires Americans to violate their religious beliefs to implement the president’s health care law. The mandate compels religious employers to pay for and refer women for abortion-causing drugs, birth control, contraception and sterilizations.”

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the absurdity of the notion of an “abortion-causing drug” and—oh nevermind, let’s not. This one’s so stupid, it needs its own paragraph. What is an abortion?

a·bor·tion   /əˈbɔrʃən/
noun
1. Also called voluntary abortion. the removal of an embryo or fetus from the uterus in order to end a pregnancy.
2. any of various surgical methods for terminating a pregnancy, especially during the first six months.

And contraception?

con·tra·cep·tion   /ˌkɒntrəˈsɛpʃən/
noun
the deliberate prevention of conception or impregnation by any of various drugs, techniques, or devices; birth control.

Abortion is an intervention, either surgical or medical (85% and 15%, respectively, per the CDC), to terminate a pregnancy. Contraception, by definition, cannot be abortion because abortion can only occur after impregnation. An abortion can be done, realistically, at any point in a woman’s pregnancy, all the way up to the final (ninth-ish) month of pregnancy, although third trimester abortions are exceedingly rare (91% occur in the first trimester, and most of that remaining 9% in the second). Contrast this with the notion of “abortion-causing drugs,” by which the author is presumably referring to ella, a “Plan C” pill that a woman can take up to five days after sex to prevent pregnancy (it also triggered a good deal of outrage in the wingnut lobby). It should be obvious—but apparently it isn’t—that swallowing a pill is radically different from undergoing an invasive surgical procedure. One cannot merely swallow a pill six months into her pregnancy and consider the whole ordeal over. The implication that these drugs are fundamentally equivalent to a surgical procedure is at best a gross misrepresentation of the facts (and is more likely a deliberate distortion intended to compel people with more emotion than sense to yell vociferously). Comparing abortion to contraception serves only to demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in rational discussion. It is a red herring, meant only for deception.

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Respect my Freedom to Boss You Around!

I’m really sick of believers insisting that their right to religious freedom allows them to force their doctrines on everyone else. Believers: Stop it! What, you don’t think this happens? How about this crap as an example?

Some schools have decided not to allow girls to be offered the vaccine, which protects against a virus spread through intimate contact which causes cervical cancer. They have cited ‘strict Christian principles’ and that the girls ‘do not practise sex outside marriage’ and so do not need the vaccine.”

This is the sort of child abuse that Richard Dawkins rails against—the presumption that the children of religious parents will just magically share their religious beliefs. “Mommy and daddy are idiot literalists, so I’m an idiot literalist too! Yay!” No. This paradigm isn’t even remotely acceptable. For one, parents don’t always send their kids to religious schools because they’re explicitly religious; sometimes, parents do so because the schools have a better reputation than public schools, and neither the parents nor the children actually practice the school’s preferred religion. All of that aside, do you know how successful “Don’t have sex!” sex education is for kids? It completely isn’t.

Most people will have sex before they die. Most people will either sleep with more than one person or sleep with someone who has slept with more than one person. (Feel free to disagree if you’re in some weird situation where most of the people you know deviate from this statistic.) What does this mean? It means that denying a vaccine because “true” Christians don’t have sex with anyone at all ever except for their spouse is completely, hopelessly wrong.

In sum, this boils down to the school announcing, “We’re adopting a hostile stance to our students to actively punish any girl who has sex for violating the brand of Christianity that we’re trying to impose on her.”

The UK isn’t alone in this, of course. I wrote previously about Catholic resistance to birth control coverage even for non-Catholics. This hasn’t gone away. These Christians still want to impose their absurd stance of contraception as an immorality on everyone else. When government agencies have illegally endorsed Christianity by giving preferential treatment to Christian services or hosting Christian iconography and secular organizations have lobbied to have these violations of everyone else’s religious freedom, the Christian persecution complex has kicked into high gear. They should be free, those who object to secular governance say, to have their religion displayed in public spaces, without even the slightest consideration of what effect this will have. The message implicit in these sorts of government-sponsored religious displays is that the US government endorses that religion above others (hint: it doesn’t and may not). More globally, however, the message is loud and clear: “My religion is superior, and you should obey it.

“Religious freedom” does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that you are permitted to force me to abide your dogmas. In case you were wondering why I get angry about the pervasive infection of politics by religion, all of this (and more!) is why. You should probably be angry too.

The Necessity of Secular Governance

I disagree with you. So does most of the world. I can make these claims without knowing any of your actual beliefs because it is almost entirely certain that you and I disagree about at least one thing (probably many more than one). How comfortable are you with the idea of my creating laws that mandate behavior in accordance with my arbitrary whims? In terms of religion, how comfortable would you be with the suggestion that prayer in public should be made illegal?* I assume you feel some discomfort at this—at the very least, the idea should unnerve you. Intertwining religion and government is a universally bad idea. If government has the power to mandate prayer, it has the power to prohibit it. When a government takes a stance to promote one person’s religious practice, it is acting against the religious liberty of everyone else.

Many believers think this is a good thing. I do not because I have no interest in living in a theocracy. Theocracies are inherently discriminatory and oppressive, and anyone who attempts to introduce theocratic legislation into a secular government clearly has no interest in democratic principles. Case in point:

“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” [Louisiana Representative Valarie Hodges] said Monday. “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”

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The War over Wages

Anyone who’s ever held a minimum wage job (which is a lot of people) knows that it’s impossible to support a family solely on $7.25 per hour. With an average monthly rent of somewhere around $700, you would have to devote nearly one hundred hours of work each month solely to keeping a roof over your head. Given that a number of these jobs are often available only part-time, the financial plausibility of it becomes ever more remote. In an economy that makes it so hard for individuals at the lower end of the economic scale to meet their basic needs, any argument like “take personal responsibility for your financial situation” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rings woefully hollow.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. The United States has not always had a minimum wage, so it’s important not to take it for granted. Furthermore, the minimum wage has not always been as high as $7.25 an hour (the amount that Congress only slated it to become in 2007). I trust that this fact is obvious enough to be self-evident, but what might be surprising is that the first minimum wage was a mere $0.25 per hour. Compared to today’s minimum wage, this seems laughably—perhaps even impossibly—low.

Except for one thing: it’s not. We don’t have to go back very far to see a similar rate. In today’s money, 25 cents in 1938 would have been equal to almost $4 an hour—not so drastically far away from what the minimum wage was before being raised in 2007.

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Papal Peccancy

For an organization that claims to be the only true representative of goodness on the face of the planet, the Catholic church sure does a really great job of being horrible. Sadly, it’s getting to the point where I feel like any further writing about the Catholic church would just be an exercise in futility, but the Vatican makes it so easy to get upset! You might expect an institution that offers itself as a significant force for good to make an honest attempt at doing good, but this apparently is not on the official agenda. What can I possibly say against the Catholic church that it isn’t already saying against itself? Well, I suppose there are a few things.

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