Majority rules, right? It’s the fundamental principle of democratic systems. We all know that, don’t we? Well, not quite. Majority rules is simply the rule that is made valid by lots of exceptions. And so it should be.

‘Majority rule’ taken literally is a recipe for personal and social disaster. This is abundantly clear when it comes to populism, discussed yesterday, but it is equally true in simpler forms of representative democracy.

Few parties — and face it in most jurisdictions, parties are here to stay — ever command majority support. There is simply too wide a range of opinions for any one party to obtain 50% of the electorate’s approval. In Canada, like most western democracies, a political party has only received over half the votes in a four general elections (since the first appearance of third parties in 1917) and even then it was just barely over 50%. Nonetheless we have mostly had majority governments — that is parliamentary majorities made up of parties who received from 38% or more of the popular vote (generally around 42% is sufficient to win a solid majority). The situation is similar in England which has a strong history of multi-party competitions. Europe, of course, has mostly adopted proportional representation so outright majorities are rare though not unknown.

Only in the USA which seldom has a viable third party do parties win elections with regular majorities. But even then it is not a sure thing. George Bush won the presidency with fewer votes than Al Gore and typically Republicans win more congressional and Senate seats with fewer votes than those obtained by Democrats. There are lots of reasons for that — small states with two Senators for example or blatant gerrymandering of House seats.

So, okay, majorities don’t quite mean what you think they mean.

But in a lot of cases we don’t trust majorities at all. For example we don’t generally allow constitutions to be changed by simple majorities. In the USA for example an amendment has to be ratified by three quarters of the states to pass. In Canada we are a little less rigorous, requiring 70% of the provinces representing more than 50% of the population — a kind of double majority — for some changes and unanimous approval for others. In many other jurisdictions — municipal and First Nations — double majorities are also the rule for significant changes to land tenure or financial systems.

We also build in all sorts of safety systems to make sure majorities can’t override fundamental individual or minority rights. These are often ensconced in constitutions with all kinds of political and legal protections.

What it really comes down to is this: democracies are not simply a crude mechanism to express the shifting opinions of the majority of its citizens at a particular moment of time. They are complex systems of political institutions, legal safeguards and cultural mechanisms to ensure a level of stability, protection against tyranny and requirements that change can only occur through sustained and thoughtful argument and struggle.

All of which create their own rigidities and problems for attaining social justice.

But that’s ten minutes.


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