20 February 2007

Majority rule is not democracy

In a recent Globe article discussing a debate at McGill University between Canadian and American supreme court justices, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is reported as saying, "What democracy means is that the majority rules. If you don't believe that you don't believe in democracy."

Justice Scalia's dogmatic assurance notwithstanding, his definition of democracy is seriously flawed. Democracy means, literally, the people rule. All the people. Not just white people, or male people, or heterosexual people, but all the people equally. Majority rule, on the other hand, is no more than a method to facilitate decision-making.

When all citizens do not agree on a question, as is usually the case, majority rule allows them to reach a consensus. Ideally, issues should be resolved proportionate to the support various views hold among the citizenry. For example, if on a particular issue, 60% of the people support Approach A and 40 % support Approach B, the democratic resolution would be an approach including 60% A and 40% B. Of course many issues must be resolved either one way or the other, in which case the resolution would have to be either 100% A or 100% B. But even here, the minority must be fully heard and its views incorporated as much as is reasonably possible.

Majority rule never justifies depriving any person of his or her equality in fully participating as a citizen. When it does it becomes a tyranny of the majority, a serious corruption of democracy. If American supreme court justices don't recognize this, the rights of American minorities remain at risk.

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