Taking stock of the power of the people
By Rob Baker
Born out of the Founders’ fear of majority tyranny and their mistrust of average voters, separation of powers and checks and balances were conceived as ways to temper democracy by making it difficult for government to act.

This is because the Framers believed the primary purpose of government was to protect individual liberty, which they viewed as the right to be left alone by government. The only sure way separation of powers was designed to be overcome is with a “Madisonian Majority” - a two-thirds vote in Congress to override a presidential veto. In short, unless a large percentage of people (specifically, 67 percent) wanted the government to act, the Framers believed it should not act.

This conflict between democracy and separation of powers is not well understood; many Americans often complain about government’s unresponsiveness on key issues without realizing that this frustrating inaction is by design.

Early on, political parties emerged as a way to unify executive and legislative power, thereby subverting the Constitutional framework, and making it easier for a simple majority to use government to address the people’s common concerns. Recently, though, with the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, increasing advantages of big money in campaigns, and the continued Constitutionally authorized requirement that each state has two U.S. senators regardless of population, parties have sometimes been able to unify government in a way that allows a minority to undermine the Madisonian Majority safeguard. Republican control in the last two years is an example.

Consider four policy priorities for many Americans, along with their prospects for government action: 1) stricter gun control; 2) a single-payer health insurance system; 3) stricter regulation of pollutants; and 4) a $10-per-hour minimum wage. Recent polls indicate large majorities of voters favor these policies 70-plus percent in each case. This level of popular support exceeds the 67 percent Constitutional threshold needed for government action. Yet, for two years we’ve had a president elected with a minority of votes (Constitutional, of course) together with a Congress led by a party that has taken advantage of unequal representation in the U.S. Senate (again, Constitutionally sanctioned), and gerrymandered House districts, who created a unified partisan bulwark against government action favored by super-majorities of Americans. Consequently, rather than majority tyranny, Americans have been subjected to minority rule; ironically, Madison’s fears have been turned upside down.

Reforms like reducing gerrymandering and directly electing the president would make minority rule less likely, but are difficult to achieve. The ultimate check against this kind of situation has always been the people’s vote.

Yet, even though turnout in the recent midterms was higher than we’ve seen in 40 years, the full potential of this majestic power of the people remains untapped. Minority rule has certainly been weakened, but remains dominant. Will these extraordinary times continue to bring about changes in our collective voting behavior, or will the recent election results have a demoralizing effect? The strength of our democracy hangs in the balance.

Rob Baker, Ph.D., teaches political science at Wittenberg University in Springfield.