Wednesday, January 02, 2013

On Tyranny of the Minority

David Atkins over at Digby's blog has had enough of lunatic Republicans gumming up the machinery of government:

If we want a future in which we do more than simply determine which hostages to save and which ones to shoot, the American People will need to figure out how to make these and other reforms to our broken political system that disempowers rational majorities in favor of extremist ideological minorities with nothing to lose.

 I sympathize with the sentiment; one of the most frustrating things about the past 4 years has been the Senate Republicans' ability to stymie almost every progressive/liberal policy initiative the President has put forward (and those have been few enough as it is) despite always being in the minority.  It seems to be the rule that when a Democrat is in the White House the Senate requires 60 votes to pass anything; when a Republican is President it only requires 50 (with the VP providing the tiebreaker).  That simply doesn't seem right.  Similarly the Senate filibuster rules currently allow any Senator to declare a filibuster and it magically occurs without anyone having to take to the Senate floor and say a single word; it is simply accepted that they have done so implicitly, and absent a successful cloture vote (60 votes, again) the "filibuster" succeeds in blocking passage of the measure under consideration.

So Atkins (and he is hardly alone) suggests that we need to dump the filibuster or at least return it to its original procedure, with Senators forced to maintain a quorum in the Senate and the filibusterer(s) to hold the floor physically by speaking at great length.  He also suggests other reforms such as eliminating the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, instituting proportional representation in the Senate, and a number of campaign finance changes.

My problem with some of these suggestions is that we are proposing tinkering with the fundamental structure of the government in ways that should give us pause.  It is true that there is a "tyranny of the minority" situation in which we find ourselves and it is very frustrating.  But that was the express intent of the Founders when they wrote the Constitution.  From Federalist #10:

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.
 The Founders were far more concerned with the prospect of a tyranny of the majority running roughshod over the rights of minorities (and I think they were right to do so).  It may be (or at least seem to us) that our proposals are in the best interests of society as a whole, and the objections and obstructionism of the minority irrational and counterproductive; but that should not mean that we should then explicitly disempower that minority and force our programs through.  Because next time around it may be the irrational and counterproductive who find themselves in the majority, and we would dearly regret our inability to prevent their proposals from going forward.

No comments: