“Majority Rule” in Politics.

Billmon is raising a set of interesting questions about morality, politics, and majority rule–and in a way, this is the question that has been raised about the seeming unwillingness of Sander to concede the race for weeks on.  In the end, it comes down to a seemingly simple question:  who gave the majority the right to rule and when does that right expire?

The short answer is that no one did and the majority does not have a “right” to rule, beyond the tacit acceptance by the winners and losers alike.  This has not always been the case:  during the Feudal Ages, the usual operating procedure was for a “legislative body,” typically made of nobles sitting as equals, to operate by unanimity.  How the Polish Sejm operated as late as early 18th century was, in fact, typical of the politics in Feudal Europe.  Of course, the politics at the table was not the only form of politics:  the alternative was to take to the sword point and the lance tips, if the disagreements were not resolved at the table.  During the age of Feudalism, of course, warfare became brutally expensive:  an army of knights was not only difficult and costly to maintain given the economy of the era, they were notoriously ineffective at attacking fortified castles, where a few dozen men could hold off even an army of thousands.  The losers at the table could always resort to resistance and defiance by force and cajoling the supposed victors to pay the due cost in arms and blood to bring them to submit.  Often, this was not worth it:  except for the very trivial matters or with very weak opposition, it was not worthwhile to force a decision upon anyone that they did not want.

What changed the situation towards incrementally less unanimous decision was the spread of “liberties” and rights.  Many possible decisions that could be subject to politics were no longer deemed licit to be debated politically, which, in turn, lessened the stakes of what was being subject to politics.  The losers rarely lost so badly that they were willing to resist forcefully.  The winners, furthermore, became sufficiently gracious that the losers had a stake in maintaining amicable relationship with them in the long term, even at cost of accepting short term losses.  Mayhew’s description of Congress in his 1974 masterpiece applies, in a sense, to the evolution of politics away from the Feudal era:  politics became so “universalistic” in the rewards that offers so that even the losers are happy to go along, even while losing.

This, of course, is one reason why dictatorships often become illiberal democracies even if they do successfully “democratize.”  The most strident enemies of authoritarians are not “the people” (assuming “the people” even exists anywhere.), but the best organized and the most numerous social grouping, even if it only constituted a minority of the whole–say, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.  They want to seize the power so that they can use it exclusively for their agenda at the expense of everyone because they feel that they can, if the politics were decided by elections.  This reflects, in turn, a more nuanced and cynical view of electoral politics that often escapes the citizens of established democracies:  elections are won by the better organized, not “the people.”  The prospect of being forced to submit to the tyranny of this “majority” (that is not really a majority in most cases), in turn, energizes the resistance of many in favor of authoritarians, as we witness in Syria today, for example.  The bottom line is that, without credible guarantees for the losers so that they would not rise up in arms, majority rule cannot work in the long or even medium term.  This is not exactly alien to American history:  between December, 1860 and April, 1861, Southerners decided that there was nothing that the North could guarantee that they could trust, and decided to take to the arms, after all, even if they could not contest politics at the ballot box.  Taking them back, in turn, involved giving them a great deal of guarantees that lasted for more than a century after the South was militarily defeated.

What does this mean in context of politics today?  There are two separate games at work:  Sanders and his fans lost the primaries at the ballot box, but they are still holding out–in a sense, the latter is more important than the former, for there is no guarantee that they came out just to see Sanders elected (which makes mockery of how it was Obama who was special in 2008–he wasn’t!)  And more importantly, do the conventional Democrats even want to make any concessions, since it does not appear, for now, that they need the Sanders voters much?  On the legislative front, what can the Congressional majority, whether Democrats or Republicans, offer as guarantees to keep disruptions of legislative business from becoming the norm in the future?  For the time being, the Democrats engaging in the sit-in seem to have realized the error of their ways and decided to call it quits…but it is not as if their refusal to carry it to the conclusion will prevent it in the future, even if it might take decades.  The notion that filibusters in the Senate can be stopped by adopting rules via majority rule came up in 1970s in course of the filibuster reform that made cloture invokable with 60 rather than 67 votes, or perhaps even 1950s, if the stories about Richard Nixon entertaining the possibility of rules changes are true.  The compromise of 1978 did temporarily put to sleep the idea of rules change, but it did not last forever.

Without taboos (that keep certain topics from being politicized, by force of morality) and guarantees (to keep even the losers happy enough to not to stir up trouble), the seeming majority rule in the House cannot be sustained.  For all the citations of Federalist #10 in defense of institutionalism, James Madison did not trust institutions that much:  he did, after all, say the following:

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

“Virtue” comes in form of credible commitments to maintain the guarantees, both in terms of rewards and compensation for the losers and the commitments to keep inconvenient issues off the table.  Without this credibility, majority rule is dead, for it is so easy for even a small minority to disrupt the proceedings legally.  While the majority may be able to suppress this minority disruption by force, such resort to force ultimately eliminates any reason that the minority would put up with the facade of “democracy”


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