Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Tyranny of the Majority

By Philip Bump

In the two most frequently and passionately debated political issues of the past few weeks -- the rejection of California's Proposition 8 and the planned mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan -- there is a common thread: claims by those in disagreement that those decisions are counter to the will of the people.

Such claims are understandable. Proposition 8, after all, was passed by a majority of those Californians who voted, and polling consistently demonstrates that, outside of Manhattan, the Cordoba House project is highly unpopular.

But what is without merit is the assumption that such popular support is the same as being right.

It should be taken as a point of fact that a majority opinion is not always correct. There have often been moments in our history in which the will of a majority was necessarily set aside for the long-term benefit of the nation and its inhabitants.

The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was one such moment. Brown v. Board of Education was another. In each case, the civil rights of a minority were upheld in the face of a tyrannical majority.

And contrary to claims that such actions undermined our system of governance, each is a reflection of how the American government is intended to run. Indeed, the system of checks and balances the country's founders enshrined in the Constitution were established specifically to protect against the tyranny of the majority.

It wasn't the people's legislative branch that enacted the Emancipation Proclamation -- it was signed unilaterally by Abraham Lincoln. (The legislature tried majority decision-making on the issue of slavery, and scores were killed in the violent events known as Bleeding Kansas.) Likewise, Brown v. Board of Education was an act of the Supreme Court, abolishing segregated education. (If Sarah Palin were alive at the time, one wonders if she would have said it was "frustrating" to see "that third branch of government undoing the will of the people," as she did following the Prop 8 repeal.)

The Congress may directly represent the people, but proper government of the country necessarily extends beyond those 535 individuals and the majority of their constituents.  Americans have always tried to undermine the opposition by claiming popular support. In the struggle for racial equality, it was common to declare the precedence of states' rights over federal action -- a strategy intended to constrict the applicable majority for decision-making. In the late 1960s, President Richard Nixon introduced a difficult to identify Silent Majority, who provided the president with political cover in the years preceding his 1972 re-election.

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