We all benefit from the minority’s ability to stifle the will of the majority. We don’t all get what we want all the time, and that’s the point, but we all benefit from the constitution’s restrictions on the majority. An unchecked majority can be just as threatening to liberty and justice as a dictator or tyrannical oligarchy. Unfortunately partisan leanings keep most people from understanding this subtle but essential point. Recognizing the necessity of a minority check on the majority’s power might help bridge the distance between America’s two polarized parties.
Democrats oppose the minority’s check on power at the national level while appeal for judicial intervention at the state level when Republicans use their majority in state legislatures to pass voter ID laws, redraw congressional districts, and pass laws that restrict abortion and same sex marriage. Republicans oppose judicial intervention into these matters and deride judicial review for its anti-democratic dimensions.
At the national level, where Democrats enjoy a majority in the Senate and control of the White House, the Republicans only control the House of Representatives. The Republicans are able to leverage their control of the House to keep Democratic policies from being enacted. It may seem counterintuitive for the House to act as a blockade to legislation but the ability to do so is the foundation for the system of checks and balances the Constitution provides.
Whether one supports the ability of the minority to protect itself against the will of the majority depends on whether one is in the majority or not. But the issue is too important to allow self-interest to overwhelm sound judgment. A pure democracy can no more guarantee rights than a monarchy. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay defended the constitution’s ability to place a check on the will of the majority as its primary advantage over a pure democracy. This was an argument inherited by, and elaborated upon, John C. Calhoun.
Calhoun represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, served as Secretary of State under John Tyler, Secretary of War under James Monroe, and Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Calhoun was also a political philosopher whose posthumously published books share a great deal with, and improve upon, the published works by those whom we typically think of as the great political thinkers in American history.
Calhoun argued that a constitutional government is the only form of government that could prevent despotism; even a democracy could turn despotic. “[T]he Government of the uncontrolled numerical majority, is but the absolute and despotic form of popular governments.” Because democracy cannot prevent the majority from trampling the minority, a negative on the power of the majority is needed. It is this negative power that defines a constitutional government. “The power of preventing or arresting the action of the government,--be it called by what term it may,--veto, interposition, nullification, check, or balance of power,--which, in fact, forms the constitution.” If the minority were not given a check on the power of the majority there would be nothing the majority could not do.
One could imagine Calhoun coming to the defense of the Republicans in the Senate who now use the filibuster beyond its original intention. Calhoun, as he did in his speeches and writings, might employ examples from Poland and the Roman Republic to bolster his argument of the feasibility and desirability of a minority veto. Conversely, one might imagine Abraham Lincoln opposing this use of the filibuster as he made clear in his First Inaugural Address that the minority does not have the right to rule for doing so would be despotic. Furthermore, if the minority were given veto power over every decision made by the majority the nation would collapse into anarchy given the shear impossibility of being able to gain unanimous support for a measure to pass.
Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum one has benefitted from both the majority's right to rule and the minority's ability to protect itself against majority tyranny. What the nation needs is a debate independent of current policy debates about what the role of the majority and the minority ought to be in our system of government. As it stands now, the discussion over whether there ought to be judicial review, a filibuster, or whether a state can refuse to implement a national law is too clouded by the policy implications. We are at a point where we must restate what republican principles are and how our nation ought to uphold them.