A Journal for Western Man



Tyranny of the Majority?

Brian Johnston

Issue LVI- May 8, 2006



            I have seen quite a few of my fellow students around campus wearing a College Republicans shirt that on the back lists the top ten reasons to be a Republican. The number one reason is, “Because W is back by popular demand.” With President Bush winning a close yet decisive reelection in November 2004, the people of the United States made the right choice in selecting Bush over Kerry.

            However, these shirts represent what I perceive to be a serious problem with the conservative movement today. In the wake of Bush’s reelection and the Republicans retaining both houses of Congress, many in the conservative movement praised the people for making the right decisions and emphasizing the need to rely on them to guide our decision-making. Many also trumpeted the need to rely on the sovereignty of the people when discussing judicial activism.

            Sure, it is easy to praise the people for making the right choice when they side with us. But can the majority always be trusted to make the right decisions. The answer is a resounding “no.” For example, I did not hear many conservatives praising the people for making the right choice in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton won two landslide victories in spite of his immoral conduct, weak foreign policy, and big-government social policy. For every Bill Frist or Rick Santorum, we also elect a Ted Kennedy or Charles Schumer.

            One of the main arguments supporting traditional marriage is that the people want it. For example, traditional marriage state constitutional amendments went 13 for 13 when placed before the voters in 2004. But this is not always a reliable method for deciding on key issues. Recent polls have shown that 59% of the people are against laws such as those recently passed in South Dakota that all but outlaw abortion, while 74% of voters in Michigan support raising the minimum wage.

            In a democracy like ours, it is inevitable that majority approval is how we elect officials and decide on many social policies, and this is by no means a bad thing. The problem is that too many people in America today are either too busy, too apathetic, or frankly too lazy to think logically of the consequences of what they are doing. For example, many people see a minimum wage increase as a way to make more money, but these people do not think about how in the long run in will cause higher unemployment and higher prices for consumers.

            While limited government is the key characteristic of our democracy, too much power given to the people can be just as dangerous. While writing and defending the U.S. Constitution, the Framers often expressed concern about majority rule. In Federalist 10, James Madison writes, “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government… enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” In Federalist 51, Madison says, “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part… If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”

            Since our democracy is based on majority rule, it seems as if there is nothing we can do but accept the consequences when the people choose poorly. And for the most part, politicians cannot be trusted to go against public opinion out of fear of not being reelected. That is why it is so important for conservatives to get out there and persuade our fellow citizens of why we believe what we do. As an active conservative, I write letters to the editor of my local newspaper, but there are many other ways to make our voices heard. Coming out in favor of policies that the majority of people are against will often lead to criticism, but it is important work, especially for students at Hillsdale who receive such a unique educational experience.

            Sometimes, when deciding on an issue or a candidate, the people will make the right choice. Sometimes they will not. In either case, conservatives need to be prepared to persuade and explain to the public why their policies are the best for the nation and the world. It is extremely dangerous for conservatives to assume that the people will decide correctly on their own, or that something is acceptable just because 51% of Americans say it is. In the end, it is not important that the people get what they want, but that they get what is just.

Brian Johnston is a student at Hillsdale College and a contributor to The Rational Argumentator.  

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