Principles of Democracy: Majority Rule and Minority Rights
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e all know that in any election, from school board elections to national elections, the winner is determined by who receives the greatest number of votes. Whoever receives the most votes is the winner. The principle of majority rule is ingrained in all democracies.
According to Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary, “government by the people” is “a style of government in which the supreme authority is put in the people and exercised by them directly or via their elected agents… a state of society characterized by nominal equality of rights and privileges.” When we say “government by the people,” we usually imply majority control. This concept serves various purposes, the most significant of which is to offer a clear procedure for making decisions: a topic or problem is decided by a majority of 50 percent plus one. Naturally, if a vote is close, those who “lost” the election may believe that the result is unjust. The notion of majority rule, on the other hand, assures that decisions may be made and minorities cannot.
Civics Lesson: Robert’s Rules of Order
The American parliamentary procedural manual Robert’s Rules of Order is the most commonly utilized in the country. It is the parliamentary authority for meetings of organizations ranging from church groups to Congress. Henry Martyn Robert, a U.S. Army commander, originally released the manual in 1876, adapting the House of Representatives’ rules and customs to the needs of groups outside the house. The latest edition (the 11th) was published in 2011 after major modifications in 1915 and 1970.
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In a democracy, however, we must nevertheless ensure that minority rights are respected. Otherwise, in the words of the book’s author, Alexis de Tocqueville: Majority rule presented a conundrum to the founders of America precisely because although majority rule was needed for the government to function and the principle of minority rule interfered with democracy, the majority in power could oppress a minority as easily as a king or dictator could. James Madison once wrote, “It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”
What it all comes down to is that democracy requires minority rights as much as it does majority rule. As understood today, that means the minority’s rights must be protected, no matter how alienated they are from the majority of society. If that doesn’t happen, the majority’s rights become meaningless.
Political philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in his essay On Liberty, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.” This principle is typically exercised in the form of mutual agreements about respect for individual rights.
Free, fair, and regular elections, as well as the separation of powers between legislative branches and the notion of checks and balances, are all important safeguards for minorities. The majority’s ability to wield ultimate power and oppress the minority is hampered as a result.
To apply majority rule with minority rights, various practical concerns must be addressed. These include a shared understanding of how majorities are created, the boundaries of debate and speech, and how members of the community can submit motions or laws. Finally, there must be consensus on how minorities may be guaranteed political and social representation within the democratic framework.
Many democracies have given diverse answers to these problems. In the United States, however, we follow Robert’s Rules.