Why Getting the Most Votes MattersHistorians in the News
tags: democracy, Electoral College, Federalist Papers, Political theory
Of course, everyone is a fan of majority rule until they realize they can win without it. In the last 20 years, Republicans have been gifted the White House while losing the popular vote twice, and it came distressingly close to happening for a third time this year. So it’s no surprise that in that period, the commitment of Republicans to majority rule, along with other democratic norms, has plummeted. A report by an international team of political scientists found a steep drop in Republican support for things like free and fair elections, and the respectful treatment of political opponents. The party’s rhetoric “is closer to authoritarian parties” in Eastern Europe, the report found.
For modern Republicans, democracy has become a foreign language. “We’re not a democracy,” Senator Mike Lee of Utah tweeted in October, in what has become a disturbingly common refrain among conservatives. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Notice how, in Mr. Lee’s telling, “democracy” morphs into “rank democracy.” What does he mean by “rank democracy”? Presumably, what James Madison referred to as direct or “pure” democracy, the form of self-rule in which people vote directly on the laws that govern them. But there is no such thing as “rank democracy” when it comes to elections. The term is nothing more than a modern Republican euphemism for majority rule.
Speaking of the founders, Republicans love to invoke them in support of their stiff-arming of democracy. Perhaps they forgot what those founders actually said.
“The fundamental maxim of republican government,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 22, “requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.”
James Madison, who is often cited for his warnings about the threats of popular majorities, changed his tune after spending several decades watching the American system of government he designed play out in practice. “No government of human device and human administration can be perfect,” Madison wrote in 1834. But republican government is “the best of all governments, because the least imperfect,” and “the vital principle of republican government is … the will of the majority.”
Thomas Jefferson, in his first Inaugural Address, said the “sacred principle” is that “the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail.” In the same breath he emphasized that political minorities also have rights that require protection. Those protections exist in the design of our government and in the guarantees of the Constitution, as applied by the courts. The point is that minorities can be protected at the same time that majorities elect leaders to represent us in the first place.