V.1: Majority Rule and Minority Oppression

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Majority Rule and Minority Oppression

How can government allow majority rule and, at the same time, prevent minority oppression?

Democracy means majority rule, but throughout history, majorities have been guilty of minority oppression. James Madison searched for a solution to this problem for America during the years before he and others wrote the U.S. Constitution. In his studies, he came across the writings of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume wrote that a large nation could avoid this problem because it would scatter the people far from each other. So it would be difficult for enough people with a similar prejudice to gather together in order to oppress a minority.

From her beginning, America had one of the largest land-holdings of any country on earth, stretching from Maine to Georgia and from the east coast to the Mississippi River. So Madison believed that Hume had provided his answer. Madison argued this way:

If, then, there must be different interests and parties in society, and a majority, when united by a common interest or passion, cannot be restrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found in a republican government where the majority must ultimately decide, but that of giving such an extent to its sphere that no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit? (Madison 1787, 3.149)

So, minority oppression under majority rule is less likely in a large nation. But in Madison’s day, there was no telephone system or internet. Today, our ability to communicate over vast distances reduces the effective size of the nation. In other words, even if people with a common prejudice live far from each other, modern technology allows them to easily unite against a minority.

But having multiple political parties can also help prevent minority oppression.

As Madison argued:

… If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority that is, of the society itself [a king, for example]; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable…. (Madison 1787-1788, 51)

Multiple parties can work just like distance to divide an oppressive majority. But unfortunately, this solution breaks down when the nation’s power is divided between only two parties, because at any given time, one of those parties is the majority. In fact, America eventually split in her Civil War mostly along the lines of two parties. And those same two parties still align against each other today in our modern political battles. Those two parties are the Democrat Party, which sided with the Confederate South in the Civil War and the Republican Party, which sided with the Union North.

The U.S. Constitution removed the court system from majority rule so that it could help prevent minority oppression.

Supreme Court Justices are not elected by a majority. However, they are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, all of whom always belong to one majority-elected party or another. So court appointments tend to be political and therefore subject to the majority.

So do you think Madison’s vision for minority protection panned out as he hoped? Would it work better if there were three major parties rather than two? If so, how could we create a third major party? No third party has ever been able to gain traction because voters are afraid to take their vote away from their preferred major party, that is, Democrat or Republican.

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Madison, James. 1787. To Thomas Jefferson from James Madison, 24 October 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0274. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 12, 7 August 1787 – 31 March 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 270–286.]

Madison, James. 1787-1788. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers.

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