Democracy: Too Much of a Good Thing?

The cure for democracy, more democracy? I don’t know, really. Although, I am a democracy freak by instinct, I must admit that my better judgment has always tempered that enthusiasm.Tuesday’s events demonstrated how capricious the majoritarian will can be. On the one hand a majority of Americans entrusted its most powerful office to Barack Obama, a self-identified member of a historically oppressed minority. On the other hand, a majority of Californians voting on Proposition 8 (prohibition of same-sex marriage) decided to adopt an expressly discriminatory policy against a discrete and insular minority that is powerless to overcome that policy with numbers of its own. Two other states passed similar measures.

Gay folks in those states won’t be able to marry anymore, but I’m guessing they can’t opt out of paying taxes that keep the marriage bureau — or whatever the relevant state machinery — operational.

This is the danger of majority-rule. To avoid becoming tyrannical, democracy must be checked by a strong principle of individual liberties. This is why the federal constitution (like a number of state constitutions) has a bill of rights.

Of course, most constitutions get their legitimacy from the ratification of a supermajority, and it’s tempting to propose that California adopt a policy requiring a supermajority to amend its constitution.

But consider this: if you are in a sufficiently tiny minority whose interest-overlap with the majority’s interests is sufficiently tiny, you can be tyrannized by the “sovereignty” exercised by even more people, and have that tyranny be considered even more “legitimate” and have an even harder time overcoming that tyranny.

Speaking of too much of a good thing: it’s not just the “small-d” democrat in me that’s a little spooked. By electoral orientation, I am also a “big-D” Democrat. But I’m a little worried about single party control in washington. Unlike some Democrats, I sighed a sigh of relief that we didn’t get a filibuster-proof senate. The filibuster, like judicial review and the bill of rights, is part of the system of checks against ordinary majoritarian misrule. I understand that this protective device has been abused by each party in recent years. But the gridlock that such abuse creates is a far lesser evil than having one party in charge with insurmountable power.

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