HETRICK: Singing the oft-unpopular praises of minority rule

March 12, 2011

When I was a child, I often heard from teachers, friends and classmates that “majority rules.”

In my Omaha, Neb., elementary school, all the students got to vote on which animal we’d prefer as our mascot. Would we be the Boyd Beavers or the Boyd Buffalos? (The beavers won.)

At recess in Fort Wayne a few years later, majority rule determined whether we played kickball or box ball.

And in student council, majority rule determined who got elected and who served as officers.

“Majority rules” was pounded into our brains. It was the root of all democracy, Mom and apple pie, God bless America.

But in the real world, it doesn’t always work that way. In some cases, that’s frustrating. In other cases, it’s a blessing in disguise. And when it comes to individual liberties, we’re among the most fortunate citizens on Earth that our government guarantees that the majority will not always prevail.

In the real world of American government, “majority rules” disappears in the face of such notions as rank, seniority and arcane legislative rules—as well as such planned constitutional measures as checks and balances and guarantees of individual liberties.

Consequently, in many cases, minority rules or individuals rule.

The “minority-rules” spotlight is shining on the state of Illinois these days. That’s where Democratic state senators from Wisconsin and Democratic state representatives from Indiana are camped out in motels. Neither group of legislators holds a majority in its respective legislative body, but both can deny their Republican colleagues a quorum and stop the movement of legislation—especially bills the Democrats don’t like. So they walked out.

This isn’t a new technique, of course. And it’s not limited to Democrats. An Illinois state representative from the Whig party once jumped out of a statehouse window in an attempt to deny Democrats a quorum on a banking bill. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

Minority rules.

Thanks to rank, seniority and other legislative rules, even minorities of one—especially those in leadership roles—can kill legislation that the majority of citizens support.

An example: Opinion polls routinely show that nearly three-fourths of Indiana citizens support a statewide law protecting workers in all workplaces from secondhand smoke. But for years, House and Senate leaders kept such bills off the legislative calendar. In other years, they assigned the bills to committees where the chairs killed the legislation through deliberate inaction, watered-down amendments or by running out the clock.

Minority rules.

In the U.S. Senate, minority rule is a way of life.

Individual senators can put a hold on presidential nominations for various judicial and administrative offices. To be sure, this keeps people of certain disliked ideologies out of powerful positions. It also can slow the wheels of government or clog the work of the courts. Members of both major parties are guilty as charged.

Minority rules.

Perhaps the best-known example of minority control is the U.S Senate filibuster. Rendered famously on film by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a single senator may talk a bill to its demise. And unless a super-majority of 60 senators votes to end the filibuster, it’s often fruitless to even bring the measure forward—no matter how many Americans support the legislation.

Minority rules.

The most powerful example of minority rule is—or at least always should be—you. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, no majority of Americans and no American government may take away your right to speak freely, to worship freely, to freely assemble, to bear arms, to receive a fair trial, and all the other protections against the tyranny of the majority or the governments that represent them.

Sometimes—as when protestors mar the funerals of fallen soldiers, or when doom-and-gloom preachers rail in the town square, or when religious symbols are banned from public buildings, or when pornographers peddle their filth, or when pedophiles walk near our parks, or when atheists post their billboards, or when protestors block our sidewalks, or when crazy people buy guns, or when bad guys get off on technicalities, or when public-school students are denied the chance to say a prayer at graduation—the majority may say, “Hey wait a minute! This is a democracy. Read the Constitution. Majority rules. We don’t like that stuff.”

And in such cases, under our form of democracy, the majority would be dead wrong. When it comes to civil liberties, you rule.

Our Founding Fathers intentionally built a system of checks, balances and individual protections for a reason. They wanted to make it difficult for any one person or faction of people to change those things that make us strong.

Under our system—including the provisions that allow filibusters, quorum-killing walkouts, legislative leadership discretion, advice and consent on appointments, and the power of individuals over the power of government—the status quo often wins out over the pendulum’s to and fro.

Minority rules. And amen to that.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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