FERGUSON: Protest walkouts are worthy of protection

April 23, 2011

Margaret FergusonThe Democrats in the General Assembly, frustrated by minority status and feeling locked out of the agenda-setting process, took the unusual step of fleeing the state this year, denying the House a quorum and thereby causing a temporary stalemate. House leaders, understandably frustrated by the absence of their colleagues, are likely to try to institute policies that will prevent the minority from staging a similar walkout in the future.

This would be a shortsighted choice that would ultimately be bad for the democratic process.

It is undeniably true that elections have consequences and it is natural for the majority to be frustrated by the minority’s disengaging. The Republicans, having decidedly won the elections, do have a substantial claim upon setting the General Assembly’s agenda.

However, majority rule is not the only consideration. No one set of actors, not even the majority, has a right to entirely dominate the agenda. The minority retains some right to be heard.

American elections, even decisive ones, do not produce a mandate for a particular policy initiative. In November’s election, what the voters clearly said was that they were unhappy with the state of affairs. It is a stretch to say this is an endorsement of all the policy initiatives of the winning party.

Such a policy endorsement would require that candidates for office in districts all over the state actually campaigned about a particular policy and, further, that members of the Republican Party did so consistently across the state.

American campaigns generally, and state legislative races in particular, do not work that way. They are instead a series of races focused upon local issues (if issues come into play at all). A claim of a policy mandate is therefore suspicious at best.

Next, even if the majority could lay claim to a policy mandate, that doesn’t give the majority the power to dictate major changes in policy without a substantial opportunity for public discourse. The democratic process demands that all players engage in a good-faith negotiating process. The minority has to have an opportunity to express its concerns and perhaps generate some concessions that might ultimately improve the policy under consideration.

Pushing legislation through without due attention to the concerns of the minority is unnecessarily combative and often results in poorly-thought-out policy. Discourse is necessary for good decision-making.

Critics of the Democrats will rightly point out that they gave up their opportunity to engage in that discourse by leaving town. Democrats, for their part, asserted that this extreme step was necessary to slow the drive toward what they perceived as an “extreme” policy change about which they would have essentially no say.

In the case of “right to work” laws, I think they have a point. Had the Democrats remained, the policy would likely have passed, despite the fact that no relevant public discourse of any real consequence had taken place.

Minority party members do have a responsibility to attempt to engage constructively rather than fleeing and this will almost always be possible. If the minority party were to engage in this tactic repeatedly, it (and they) would lose all legitimacy in the eyes of the public (and in the eyes of observers such as I).

As long as it is employed as a sort of safety-valve release, however, this tactic should be protected as a legitimate tool of the minority. Removing this possibility from future minority parties (whoever they may be) would unfairly hamstring the minority and give them no voice in the face of an unyielding majority.

In an ideal world, the majority and the minority will engage in a constructive back-and-forth negotiation in the course of crafting good public policy. The minority must accept that they do not have the predominant claim on the agenda. But the majority must also recognize that its majority status doesn’t confer dictatorial control over the agenda.•


Margaret Ferguson is an associate professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI with expertise in state politics. Views expressed here are the writer’s. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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