Did you ever seek to persuade your mother to let you do something by telling her that “everyone else is doing it”? Mothers all over the world are prepared for that one! “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would that make it all right for you to leap off it as well?” Clearly, an action cannot be justified by the number of people willing to do it, nor can the validity of a belief be sustained solely because the vast majority of people subscribe to it.
Democracy, as a form of government, depends upon the concept that the numerical majority of an organized group can make decisions binding on the whole group, in other words, majority rules. Unlike many modern Americans, the Founders did not consider the concept of majority rule to be always fair, just, equitable, or, even, desirable. James Madison likened it to mob rule, saying in Federalist Paper No. 10:
“Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
Born of their fear of majoritarian tyranny, the Founders built protections against mob rule into the Constitution.[1. Walter Williams wrote about a number of these protections in the April 2009 article, “Abhorrence of Democracy and Mob Rule” in Capitalism Magazine.] For instance, the election of the president is not decided by a majority vote but, instead, by the Electoral College. Nine states have over 50 percent of the U.S. population. If a simple majority were the rule, conceivably these nine states could determine the presidency. Fortunately, they can’t because they have only 225 Electoral College votes when 270 of the 538 total are needed. Were it not for the Electoral College, that some politicians say is antiquated and would like to do away with, presidential candidates could safely ignore the less populous states.
Moreover, elections of the senators from each of the 50 states was to be accomplished by and through the vote of the state’s legislators. Senatorial candidates did not campaign or stand for election by winning the majority of the popular vote. Of course, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution changed all that, in essence, destroying one of the Founders’ protections in the process.
Part of the reason our founders created two houses of Congress was to have another obstacle to majority rule. Fifty-one senators can block the designs of 435 representatives and 49 senators. In addition, the Constitution gives the president a veto to weaken the power of 535 members of both houses of Congress, and it takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto.
“Every person, moderately acquainted with human nature, knows that public bodies, as well as individuals, are liable to the influence of sudden and violent passions, under the operation of which, the voice of reason is silenced. Instances of such influence are not so frequent, as in individuals; but its effects are extensive in proportion to the numbers that compose the public body. This fact suggests the expediency of dividing the powers of legislation between the two bodies of men, whose debates shall be separate and not dependent on each other; that, if at any time, one part should appear to be under any undue influence, either from passion, obstinacy, jealousy of particular men, attachment to a popular speaker, or other extraordinary causes, there might be a power in the legislature sufficient to check every pernicious measure. Even in a small republic, composed of men, equal in property and abilities, and all meeting for the purpose of making laws, like the old Romans in the field of Mars, a division of the body into two independent branches, would be a necessary step to prevent the disorders, which arise from the pride, irritability and stubbornness of mankind. This will ever be the case, while men possess passions, easily inflamed, which may bias their reason and lead them to erroneous conclusions.”— Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution
Finally, to change the Constitution requires not a majority but a two-thirds vote of both Houses to propose an amendment, and, to be enacted, any amendment requires ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures. The Constitution’s Article V empowers two-thirds of state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention to propose amendments that become law when ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
Clearly, the Founders did not have sufficient trust in people, neither individually nor collectively, to give America a democratic form of government. Where did that distrust come from, and was it justified, either then or today? More to come.
Additional reading, problems with Senate and Super Majorities:
“Super Majority Votes in the Senate“ by Walter J. Oleszek