WE OFTEN DESCRIBE OUR DEMOCRACY AS A SYSTEM OF “majority rule.” When we hold elections to decide who will represent us in government, the choice of the largest number of voters is the winner. When those representatives debate issues in the student council or the state legislature or the national Congress, a similar vote determines the will of the majority.
Deciding by numbers is a practical way of handling differences. In a dictatorship, differences don’t matter; only one person’s opinion counts. At the other end of the spectrum, consensus means that every decision requires the agreement of everyone. This process works well in small groups, but on the state and federal level, it would make government move even more slowly than it does now. Majority rule lets a decision-making body get on with its business as soon as more than half of the participants are satisfied.
Our Constitution has established safeguards to ensure that majority rule doesn’t take away the rights of minorities. The 14th Amendment (1868) guarantees to all Americans “the equal protection of the laws.” This means that even though the majority shapes our laws by electing the lawmakers, the government must apply those laws to all people equally.
In theory, every citizen has a voice at the ballot box. But the principle of majority rule means that some voices don’t get heard. At various times in our history, lack of minority representation in government has allowed the majority to abuse minority rights:
- In 1834, the Charlestown, Mass., town council included no Catholics. When the local Catholic Church applied for burial privileges—the same right that everyone else in town had—the elected council was able simply to refuse.
- Following the emancipation of the slaves—and passage of the 14th Amendment—many all-white local and state governments enacted laws that restricted the rights of the black minority.
- During World War II, Japanese-American citizens found their rights ignored because of the fears of the majority.
- In the 1990s, some towns and states passed measures legalizing discrimination against gays and lesbians.