The Fear of Majority Rule

By Gus Tyler

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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Is the fabled American democracy paving the way for an American tyranny? Simply to ask the question seems downright foolish. At least it does to most of us. But to the Founding Fathers, who composed the Constitution, it was a real question. They were concerned about what they called “the tyranny of the majority.”

In James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10, he spells out the threat. If a governing majority were composed of a coalition of different elements, there would be little to fear because it would be many-minded and internally divided. But if a governing majority were composed of a homogenous mass where its basic commitments were uniform, there was the real danger that it would show little tolerance for any who disagreed.

Madison believed that it was easier for such a tyranny to evolve in a small nation than in a large one —- such as a union of many states into a nation with a variety of economic, ethnic, political differences. Indeed, Madison wrote his paper to persuade the colonies, especially New York, that the promotion and preservation of liberty would come more easily as part of a multihued society than it would in smaller states where such diversity was lacking.

But the founding fathers were not satisfied with this diversity of cultures as a guarantee that our democracy would not evolve into a tyranny. They took two other steps to avoid the tyranny of the majority. They wanted a separation of the powers of government — with an independent legislature, executive and judiciary — to set up a system of checks and balances. And mindful of many historic situations where the church took over the state and vice versa, they called for a tall wall to separate church from state.

However, these poignant points were all made at a time before the development of the modern political party system. Although there were political parties in the earliest days, such as Democrat-Republicans (Jefferson) and Federalist (Hamilton), and later Democrats and Republicans, these parties were loose coalitions and internally divided.

The Republican Party, for instance, counted among its prominent personalities an Abraham Lincoln, a Theodore Roosevelt, a Robert LaFollette and a Jacob Javits who were red-hot liberals, and the Democratic Party had its racist, reactionary Dixie wing. Since then, the number of prominent liberals in the Republican Party and the number of racist reactionaries in the Democratic Party can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

This change in the nature of our two great political parties has revived the danger of a tyranny of a majority. Right now, the GOP controls all three branches of government, thereby wiping out the whole system of checks and balances based on the separation of the three branches of government. While the Supreme Court is not totally in the grip of the GOP –– since it is divided, four to four, with one swing vote –– it is expected that in the next four years, Bush will try to pack the court with his kind of people.

Democrats have, up to now, been blocking Bush’s nominations of lower court judges by use of the filibuster. The GOP is now trying to change Senate rules to outlaw the filibuster.

As to the separation of church and state, the GOP has been vigorously pursuing strategies to break down this historic wall. First, in an unprecedented move, the GOP has appealed openly to churches to distribute GOP campaign literature. More important, however, is its attempt to change a doctrine of some churches that abortion is sinful into a law that would repeal Roe v Wade and make abortion illegal. This is the equivalent of Israel passing a law making the eating of nonkosher foods a crime.

In short, under Bush the separation of departments and the separation of church and state are being negated to usher in the long-feared “tyranny of the majority.”

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