The Myth of Majority Rule

Under representative democracy, or rule by elected guardians, collective decisions are binary: we vote or we don’t, we vote for or against someone or something, we win or we lose. While nothing in the theory of representation, let alone democracy, requires this binary method, the adversarial mindset it creates (heartily endorsed by guardians and others who yearn for quick decisions) has made one-time, majority-rule ballots the sine qua non of democracy. We’ve been trained from childhood to see all conflicts as contests and because under guardianism the reins of power are destined always to be held by a few, we choose (to invert James Madison’s famous dictum) “to indulge our fears rather than our hopes” and stake everything on these periodic bouts of ballot roulette.

In fact, history and psychology give us three compelling reasons to think that voting as a one-time, win-lose, majority-rule contest between two predetermined choices is probably the worst possible way to make communal decisions.

First, binary voting creates winners and losers, and nobody likes to lose. As Stanford professor Harold Leavitt reminds us, “When a decision is forced quickly and when the method of deciding is by vote, what is left for the minority except psychologically to reject the decision.”23 Leavitt goes on to point out that even losers who try hard to comply with an adverse decision are resentful about it and feel “challenged to prove that the majority decision is wrong.” At best, such resentment breeds passive resistance, promotes scofflaws, and perfects the art of secret evasion. At worst, it invites open defiance–even violence and rebellion. None of this promotes good citizenship, let alone good government or economic fairness and efficiency.

To make things worse, as losers act out their resentment, the worried winners pass even more restrictive and punitive measures to reinforce their position. This spiral is one reason many laws enacted through representation, and elections for seats in guardian legislatures, are so hotly contested. Although many bills are the result of diligent compromise, and some sail through with virtual unanimity, most end up promoting one interest over another: the quid pro quo with opponents, if there is one, comes on other issues and other bills. This leaves dissenters no place to go but the streets, or back to their headquarters, coffee houses, mountain hideouts, or armories to plan obstruction, retribution, or expensive and divisive campaigns to regain legislative control. In guardian politics, we don’t just get mad: we get even.

Second, since one-time binary ballots limit choices, they also limit solutions. Who says that the only choice voters should have–whether through representation or direct participation–is to accept or reject one candidate or one plan? The tacit assumption behind this method is that the item (person or proposition) on the ballot represents the best of all reasonable alternatives; that those alternatives have been examined to the satisfaction of those who must live them; and that the whole issue can be reduced to a single yes-or-no decision. If the vote is by representatives, it also assumes those guardians understand and respect the preferences of the demos and that all the talents and ideas available within that demos have been tapped to explore solutions–a nice idea, but one seldom tried, let alone mandated. (Those staples of “participatory” politics, public hearings and town-hall meetings, are often stage-managed by partisans and are aimed more at advocacy of entrenched positions than open-minded deliberation.)

While some of the talents, experience, and wisdom of the demos is reflected in the elected representative body, the candidates who fill those offices are, by virtue of their willingness to act as guardians, always undemocratic at heart. They “serve” because they want to govern others while reserving the right to govern themselves. Over the long haul, this attitude pervades the way they think and operate. At best, they become ciphers for pet ideologies, or mouthpieces for special interests and preferred groups. At worst, their actions and choices become increasingly elitist, if not aristocratic and autocratic, and reflect guardian, not citizen, values and interests. In fact as well as principle, such guardians live literally in a world of their own, governed by their own rules and their own standards of behavior.

Third, forcing majority (even super-majority) rule onto a minority or group of minorities is no substitute for building a genuine consensus within the demos. Again Leavitt reminds us that, “A good deal of research evidence shows that decisions are carried into action most effectively when they are group-consensus decisions, when all members of a group can somehow settle by their own efforts on a choice with which they all agree.”24

Achieving consensus is not as easy as ramming through a one-time, win-lose, bare-majority victory, especially when voters in a given election are often a small fraction of the total demos. Society has been conditioned to view most conflicts as contests, and children, as well as adults, have little training, and few role models, for the consensus-making process. And consensus-building is a laborious process. It requires active listening as well as advocacy. It requires broad, creative input; give-and-take among alternatives; and acknowledgment that other viewpoints aren’t necessarily evil simply because they are different. It requires institutional and individual patience. True consensus can’t be forced or finessed through trickery and guile–another reason guardians and activists hate it. After all, these people want voters to endorse their candidate and their plans. They want to get on with the business of ruling and see no reason to delay or dilute their victory by accommodating different views. The last thing they want is for the demos itself to set the agenda and terms of debate, to weigh alternatives, and to construct its own solution. Even worse, from the guardian’s perspective, consensus-building reduces the alienation upon which the power of faction thrives. Consensus-building draws people together and reminds them that guardians, perhaps, aren’t as necessary as they claim.

Perhaps the best–and best-tested–example of mandated consensus-building is found in the modern jury system. For centuries in the West, we’ve required consensual jury decisions for serious crimes, such as capital offenses, and it is important to understand why this venerable rule has survived so long.

In essence, consensus requires that all involved have a reasonable chance to air their views and that deliberation continue until a single opinion–a general will–emerges. In judicial trials, this almost always leads to a better interpretation of legal evidence, a discounting of lawyerly tricks, and fairer verdicts. Also, being judged by one’s peers promotes better acceptance of the verdict by both litigants and the population–an important consideration when an acquitted person returns to society, or a convicted person is forcibly removed from it. Finally, a judicial system that is perceived to be fair, as well as just, will be trusted and used by more people than one that rewards skullduggery and guardian influence. This last point should not be taken lightly, because confidence in a judicial system, like any belief, is constantly tested against experience. Trust is easy to lose and hard to regain. While guardian judges may sometimes perform the jury’s function, their decisions are often perceived as too legalistic, swayed too easily by technicalities or the temptations of judicial activism, and averse to common sense. We may disagree with its verdict, but even a biased jury somehow seems fairer than a biased judge.

In short, majority rule is only one way of making collective decisions–whether by guardians or by the demos itself; and if widespread acceptance and voluntary commitment to those decisions is important, it runs a poor second to consensus.

  1. 23. Leavitt, Harold J. Management Psychology. Third Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1975. 216.
  2. 24. Ibid.

Back to Top