Friday, March 18, 2005

More on the Senate and Democracy

A few people have taken exception to my previous post on the Senate (see, for instance, the comment by my good friend Stephen Caliendo), so I thought I'd say just a bit more.

Part of the disagreement over the Senate is based on terminology. 'Democracy' is simply too vague a term to use in referring to specific aspects of a political system. Arguments over whether or not an institutional arrangement is 'democratic' are based on particular conceptions of 'democracy.' Thus, when supporters of the Senate insist that 'democracy' and 'majority rule' aren't synonymous, there's validity to the claim but only to a point. Of course they aren't perfectly synonymous, but under majoritarian conceptions of democracy, they're closely linked. Under pluralist conceptions, the two are less clearly related.

But even pluralist models, some allowance for majority rule is necessary. As a result, something can't be called democratic if it didn't allow for majority rule at some point in the process. Hertzberg's column, I thought, showed how the Senate might very well be operating under minority rule (and not simply because of the filibuster, though that too makes minority rule highly likely).

If majority rule is a necessary condition of democracy, then we have to acknowledge that the protection of minority rights is a check AGAINST democracy (as the Framers knew and repeatedly asserted). Don't get me wrong, protection of minority rights is a good thing, especially when the minority is relatively powerless in society. It's good because democracy can (at least theoretically) bring about bad results. But, just as democratic results aren't always good, not all good things deserve the label "democratic."

The Supreme Court - as Caliendo well knows - isn't democratic either. Sometimes they advance good causes nonetheless (e.g., Brown v. Board). More often in our history, however, they've hindered progress. Today, they may be imbued with pluralistic spirit enough to not trample on minority rights. But, we're only one more Scalia away from being on thin ice in that regard.

The minority in "minority rights" is another issue to address. When we use that term, we normally mean groups of people who are in danger of being oppressed. But all the Senate does is protect small states. As Robert Dahl points out in How Democratic is the American Constitution?, why should small states be protected? First, why do STATES, as opposed to PEOPLE, even deserve protection? Second, are small states so systematically oppressed that they need protection?

Anyway, the filibuster protects numerical minorities in the Senate, which may not be aligned with small states as Hertzberg's numbers for the current Senate indicate. Again, that might be a nice check against numerical majorities, but it's not democratic. And it might contribute to minority tyranny, as it did for years in stopping civil rights.

We'll never strike the perfect balance between majority rule and minority rights. But what arrangement gets us closest? I doubt it's the Senate, though I'm fully prepared to be proven wrong. In the meantime, I'd rather cast my lot with a parliamentary system under proportional representation (but that's a discussion for another time).

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