The Problem of Minority Party Rule
By Michael Kleen
June 13, 2010
After each presidential election, partisans and pundits alike are quick to declare an electoral mandate for the winning candidate. In 2004, incumbent President George W. Bush himself told reporters, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it… When you win, there is… a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view.” Echoing those sentiments, Vaughn Ververs at CBS News called Barack Obama’s 2008 victory “a sweeping mandate for Obama’s campaign mantra of change.”
But does the winning candidate really have “a mandate” or “political capital” gained from having been chosen by a majority of the electorate? The data suggests otherwise, and the implications for this more accurate picture—that of a highly partisan minority imposing its will on the electorate—are troubling at best. This reality upends the traditional problem of representative government (tyranny of the majority) and calls into question the legitimacy of an activist, centralized state in a democratic republic.
Statistically speaking, the use of the popular vote to measure a candidate’s support is deceptive at best. For while George W. Bush won 50.7 percent of the popular vote in 2004, and Barack Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote in 2008, these percentages represent the support for the winning candidate only among those who voted. In 2004, only 60.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. In 2008, between 61.7 and 63 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot. That means, in reality, George W. Bush only won 30.8 percent (compared to Obama’s 33.3 percent) of the total number of eligible voters.
In democratic elections, only the voices of the voters who bother to show up at the polls are said to matter, and so a victorious candidate representing a politically active minority can claim to have a mandate over the entire country. The other 66-70 percent of the electorate (not to mention non-citizens and individuals under the age of 18) is expected to fall into line with the victor.
Since the 1700s, political philosophers have struggled with the problem of majority rule. “What right do the hundred who want a master have to vote on behalf of the ten who do not?” Rousseau once asked, but in reality we are presented with the absurdity of a situation where a large segment of the population, through their own silence, puts themselves willingly at the mercy of minority rule. It is a rule in which minority interests claim a mandate to exercise their power over the majority, whether the majority agrees with those interests or not.
At a speech in Montgomery, Alabama in 1841, John C. Calhoun (no stranger to the oppression of others) explained how powerful moneyed interests in the North used the concept of the “public good” to enrich themselves at the expense of the rural minority in the South. When majority acts in the “public good,” he argued, the majority “become unequal in their action, operating to the benefit of one part or class, to the injury of another part or class.” This inequality, he remarked in a Senate speech on August 24, 1841, “is neither more nor less than a state of hostility between the oppressor and the oppressed—war waged not by armies but by laws.”
In his theoretical example, a majority simply outvotes a minority to levy a tax, which is perceived as equal, but is, in fact, appropriated toward the interests of the majority, since they decide where the tax is to be spent. But in our example—in electoral politics in the real world—the “majority” who wins the popular vote is actually a minority in relation to the electorate as a whole, and so their appropriation of the resources of the entire nation is even more unbalanced.
Given this state of things, it is unreasonable to trust that any party in control of the Federal government is going to look out for the general welfare of the whole. If 51 percent of the electorate cannot be trusted with unlimited power over the other 49, we certainly cannot trust 49 percent of the electorate with unlimited power over the other 51. No political party has a legitimate claim for a “mandate” come Election Day, and since no party can be trusted to act with impartiality, no party should have the power to use the Federal government to “spend its political capital.”
Since we must operate in the real world, as opposed to the theoretical world, and since the interests of all are at stake, not just those who vote, this problem is not one that can be ignored. I believe the only solution to minority-party control of the Federal government is to dismantle it in favor of decentralized, local governance. While the paradoxes of democracy will always remain at the local level, the danger of one faction becoming powerful enough to impose its will on the country as a whole would be greatly reduced, and the motivation for an endless war between political parties for the reigns of Federal power would be removed. That, in the end, would be change we can believe in.