Since the western political upsets of Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump as POTUS in 2016, society is still fully immersed in a heightened culture war and a quest for social, economic, and political status has left society’s ability to ‘get along’ in tatters. Whether it be the marked rise of intersectionality and identity politics, a desire to uproot economically capitalistic ideals and other fundamental institutions, quelling of religious liberty, or the rise of right-wing populism and quasi-isolationist ideals; there seem to be increasing tensions caused by factions at war over a majority of public opinion.
The willingness to override longstanding political checks and balances is becoming more and more apparent and accepted amongst the electorate. In the UK, prominent members of the populist-right like Nigel Farage, and even prominent liberal commentators such as Brendan O’Neill, frequently promote the abolition of the House of Lords with half-right claims that our political sway shouldn’t be determined or blocked by added layers of political bureaucracy.
Brexit was also an interesting development when it comes to looking at majoritarianism in action. The final tally granted victory to the Brexiteers with a slight majority of 52% to 48%. Whatever the reason being, whether it be overcome with elation or a feeling of ‘sticking it to the establishment’ a prominent attitude of ‘you lost, get over it’ began sweeping the nation. Heading over to the United States, and it’s a similar story. Nothing but cheers and roars fill the room as Democratic presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke utters “hell yeah, I’m gonna take your AR-15s” promising the use of a seemingly unconstitutional executive order in 2019. Democratic VP nominee, Kamala Harris also threatened similar uses of an executive order by declaring if congress doesn’t take action ‘within 100 days’ then she will ‘take executive action’ applauded by many on the left.
With many conservative and right-wing commentators alike denouncing these seemingly troublesome incursions on the constitution made by the democrats, now POTUS Donald J. Trump has been indulging in his fair share of executive orders – atleast 20 of which directly reversed or curtailed many of Obama’s legislative plans. Many of these decisions (at least on the face of it) seem to receive many plaudits from their respective supporters – but at what cost.
It appears that societies are progressively becoming more majoritarian in nature, with a social and political class hell-bent on creating societal factions (on either side of the political aisle) with a connection of values just tight enough to form a coalition for a majority. From a purely anecdotal perspective, societal cohesion can’t thrive with a slight majority enforcing the so-called ‘will of the people’ over the minority, and dismiss any attempt to challenge it as nothing more than an overt attempt at subverting democracy.
What this should have done by now is prompt questions regarding how we run our society; whether we are governed by absolute majority rule or opting for adequate checks and balances to ensure no one group runs roughshod over the values and principles of another. This simply hasn’t happened. We’ve called for more demolition of our power limiting institutions, without stopping to considering possibilities for reform, threatening to upset the delicate power balance of governance.
Founding Father, James Madison, predicted as much in his famous essays in The Federalist Papers. Famously, in Federalist 10, Madison expresses his concerns for minority rule.
“Our government is too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of government and that the measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an overbearing majority”.
He goes on, discussing societal “factions” and denoting that political rivalry and difference opinion is a side-effect of having liberty and that quashing liberty would be “unwise”. He argues that the only ways to achieve societal cohesion are by making everybody hold the “same opinions, same passions, and same interests” or by doing away with freedom altogether and governing by force – none of which are tenable.
It’s within this purview of limited government – that government is there almost solely to safeguard civil liberties, print money, and not much else as many libertarians proclaim – that helped inspire the checks and balances within the modern American constitutional republic style of governance.
Compared to the UK and much of Europe, Americans really don’t have to care about who’s in office. Their entire electoral system is built for gridlock. The government is deliberately fragmented into branches – those being executive, legislative, and Judicial – each with certain powers to veto or check another branch in given circumstances.
The UK is a parliamentary democracy – and with that, comes a seat-based electoral system geared for raw speed. The often scrutinised First-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is specifically designed to propel a majority party to No.10 as soon as they meet the 326 seat threshold for that given election. The constituency system also has innate tendencies to the electorate feeling somewhat disenfranchised with some MP’s snatching a seat with as low as 35% of the vote.
The majoritarian tendencies are echoed in the ongoing disputes over the House of Lords. Established in 1801 and instituted to be a crucial check on the House of Commons to prevent the threat of authoritarianism bearing down on the British people, the general public has been left disappointed and public opinion has swayed towards its abolition in its current form – with roughly two-thirds backing an elected House of Lords in some polls. Many people claim that the 800 seat sub-cabinet is just a cupboard where friends in political inner-circles and special interest groups lobby for power, thus cutting against democracy to call for its removal. Many believe that it still serves its purpose as a vital check, but usually agree on reform in one-way shape or another. Either way, allowing no check over a majority can lead to results that are being exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
We’ve seen first-hand how majoritarianism can quickly turn to authoritarianism as the The Conservative government has been wielding their latest 80 seat majority to take executive action on pandemic responses and Brexit negotiations with Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, seemingly unable to do anything. More crucially, it’s the people that are aren’t consulted. These very concerns have been echoed by senior Conservative MP, Sir Graham Brady who recently revealed his concerns about No.10‘ruling by decree’ as they take Covid-19 action with no challenge.
Heading over to the United States once again, we’re experiencing opposition to political gridlock. For example, growing anger towards the United States Filibuster by the Democratic party – dubbed by Barack Obama as a ‘Jim Crow’ relic – is one of the many assaults on the US electoral system. Waves of impeachment talks ensued before Donald Trump even took office, calls to abolish the electoral college arose with a vengeance after Hilary Clinton’s famously underwhelming 2016 performance and, most recently, the Democrats efforts to hamper President Trump’s pre-election push to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has ramped up in a fashion some are deeming borderline unconstitutional.
With Ginsburg’s unfortunate passing, another problem arises – the supreme court nominee itself. The judicial branch and nominations for the supreme court have become overtly political in recent decades – a job that’s famously supposed to be devolved of politics as Alexander Hamilton explains.
“The Judiciary on the contrary (to the executive branch) has no influence on either the sword or the purse (powers given to the executive and legislative branch, respectively). It may be said to have no force nor will, but merely judgement.”
However, the Idea of ‘court-packing’ has been gaining traction with both parties concerned that senate swings will mean parties running roughshod over other branches. Their job is to merely cast judgement and be a check on the other wings of government.
While it does stir up a debate between the interpretationists and the textualists concerning how the constitution ought to be analysed for helping to pass legislation, the political alignment of nominees shouldn’t be nearly as concerning as it is to vast swathes of the political class.
Overall, there’s a view of traditional political processes, whether they be electoral, constitutional or democratic, that they’re a blockade to getting things done. Depending on your view of what you believe, a governing body’s fundamental responsibilities, opinions will differ wildly. Where they might create a clearer, faster path to one’s idyllic society, its effects have the potential to destroy societal cohesiveness. Fundamentally, it ups the stakes of any political practice and spurs fear that being in a slight minority means having voice permanently drowned or waving goodbye to your civil rights as they are quashed before your very eyes, drives more anger and hostility at our fellow man. Ultimately, with the process perpetuated over time, society could very well be driven an eventual split and subsequent isolationism – a world where disagreeing factions can no longer remain part of the same society.
Removing political checks and balances, while potentially having the effect of giving more ‘power to the vote’ and incentivising democratic participation, could have the adverse effect of creating a pure majoritarian society. Without the requisite checks and balances in place, there is an increased risk of the system sliding towards authoritarian tendencies towards governance, sold under the guise of more democratic freedom, power and liberty.
Having freedom is essential. There are, however, consequences to the senseless destruction of carefully crafted systems of governance. Ones that affect not only the direction of a given nation but simply how we view each other as individuals.