Majority Rules

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(Host) Commentator David Moats reflects on the political tension that exists between the American icon of the rugged individualist and the democratic concept of majority rule.

(Moats) I was having a conversation the other day with a film-maker who was making a documentary called “Democracy in America,” and he was interested in the question of whether majority rule is the iron-clad law of democracy.

Majority rule is one of the first things we learn about democracy. We learn it in the schoolyard when we’re choosing teams and deciding the rules of our games. In politics we become annoyed when our leaders ignore us. We hate it when they’re out of touch, when they’re serving special interests, when they become an elite. We expect our leaders to be regular people and to form a bond with us: to eat cheeseburgers, like Bill Clinton; to eat jellybeans, like Ronald Reagan. It’s a democracy, after all. They’re supposed to do what we say.

But there’s another side to majority rule. If we become annoyed when our leaders ignore us, we become just as annoyed when they surrender their judgment to us. We hate it when politicians follow the polls. But what are they doing when they’re following the polls but paying attention to what we want? Following the polls means figuring out what we think and then responding. What’s the matter with that? If the majority is supposed to rule, why shouldn’t we create a super-calibrated polling mechanism that can tell our leaders what we want to the minutest percentage point so they can carry out our wishes?

We know there’s something wrong with that. To understand what’s wrong with it, all we have to do is ask ourselves how we decide what we think is right. Do we take a poll? Do we follow popular opinion? Or do we do ourselves the credit of applying our beliefs and our judgment and making up our mind. Isn’t there in the back of our minds the picture of the hero, the one who will stand up against the crowd on behalf of what is right? Doesn’t Jimmy Stewart have a role to play somewhere?

In fact, our system of government is built on the assumption that the majority is sometimes wrong. That’s why we have a Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is a minority that’s called on from time to time to remind the majority it is violating our basic principles, reminding the nation, for example, that racial segregation is wrong. Would we ever have made progress on any of the important human rights questions – questions of race and gender equality – if we had allowed the majority to prevail? The majority in the South elected George Wallace and allowed a reign of terror that included publicly sanctioned lynchings.

In Vermont, legislators who approved the civil unions law two years ago heard people tell them they hadn’t listened to the people. What they listened to was the Supreme Court, the constitution and their consciences. Some of them were voted out of office, which is how democracy works. That doesn’t mean they did the wrong thing. Most of them believe they did the right thing. Sometimes the right thing means you have to go against the crowd. I think most of us want leaders who have the courage and the convictions to think for themselves and do what they think is right. And sometimes that’s what we get.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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