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Same-Sex Marriage and the Political Process

photograph of Capitol building, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial

On July 19th in a bipartisan vote the House of Representatives voted to affirm the legal right to same-sex marriage – the bill now goes on to the Senate. Currently same-sex marriage rights rest on a 2015 Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges. However, with looming concerns that the same constitutional logic the Supreme Court used to overrule Roe v. Wade could apply to Obergefell, the House acted pre-emptively to secure same-sex marriage against the Court overruling its prior opinion.

There is a certain irony in this course of action, as it has historically been a function of the judiciary to secure rights against legislation. Additionally, the House bill is not simply Obergefell by other means, for Obergefell establishes a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, where the House bill, if approved by the Senate, only establishes it as statutory law subject to change with the biennial shift in Congress.

Same-sex marriage is a politically popular issue, so optimistically this can be viewed as the House successfully enacting the will of the people. But there lurks a question:

What matters should be subject to the whims of political process at all? Which matters should be addressed by the legislature and which matters should be best addressed by courts?

All things being equal, the legislature is where the action should happen concerning U.S. law. It is, in theory anyway, the most democratic institution and the most accountable to the people (although see Prindle Post author Alexander Spencer’s discussion of the flaws of American democracy). In his dissent on Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice John Roberts stressed that the question of same-sex marriage should be resolved through “democratic process.” The late Justice Antonin Scalia, with characteristic understatement, claimed the decision “robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.”

The spirit of Scalia’s critique is that courts should stay in their lane, keep their hands off the political process, and not legislate from the bench. Whether same-sex marriage is a right should be up to the American people via their representatives, and not the Supreme Court – to do otherwise in Scalia’s framing is undemocratic.

The opposing ethical concern, however, is that it makes minority rights conditional on majority approval. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill, for example, was quite wary of the “tyranny of the majority.” As he notes,

The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the ‘self-government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest…the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power.

Mill’s analysis directly challenges Scalia’s reflections on self-governance. If the representatives of the majority voted to strip same-sex marriage rights from same-sex couples, this would not be self-governance by same-sex couples but governance of the majority over the objections of same-sex couples.

Some of this tension is incumbent on the nature of democracy – majoritarian policy will almost definitionally be enacted over the objections of a minority.

But in cases where majority decisions are oppressive, exploitative, or otherwise fail to treat the minority as full and equal humans, safeguards may need to be placed on majority rule.

This line of thinking highlights the fact that it is not an unalloyed good to defer to democratic processes.

Mill’s concerns about the tyranny of the majority speaks to a long-standing challenge of democracy: how to ensure majority rule with adequate protection of minority rights. Famously, in Federalist Paper No. 78, Alexander Hamilton identified the courts as a key safeguard against legislative overreach.

There is no simple list of minority rights, and there is room for disagreement over what rights are implied by the Constitution and what rights are reasonable to recognize more generally. (It should be noted that the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution explicitly states that the rights listed in the Constitution “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” although no Supreme Court ruling has ever upheld a right purely on Ninth Amendment grounds.) There is also room to doubt that the Supreme Court can be the neutral bulwark the Founders envisioned. Americans increasingly view the Court as an extension of partisan politics, and there is evidence that the contemporary Court is especially ideological.

The current bill, The Respect for Marriage Act, should be nothing but reassuring for supporters of same-sex marriage. It already has some bipartisan support in the Senate, although it remains unclear if it would pass a possible filibuster. Moreover, Obergefell yet stands, and so far only Justice Clarence Thomas has made explicit his desire to overrule it. Even this however speaks to a shifting calculus in how the Court views its obligations to protect minority rights from the vicissitudes of majority will.

What Arguments for the Electoral College Really Show

image of disconnected US states

It is a widely accepted democratic principle that all votes should carry equal power (“One Person, One Vote”). That this is (at least generally) a good principle is less controversial than any attempt to explain why it’s a good principle. If Jeff Bezos proposed that rich people should be able to vote ten million times while everyone else should only be allowed to vote once, everyone would agree this is a bad idea. We might cite different explanations of why it’s a bad idea. We might worry about the well-being of the non-rich people, since politicians would have less reason to care about them. It might seem unfair or disrespectful to everyone else to privilege rich people in this way without a good reason. We might worry that it would make us unfree: if the government can (to some extent) boss people around, and rich people can control the government without our input, it would be like rich people were bossing us around, like they were dictators over the rest of us. We might cite more than one of these explanations, or some other one. The point is that everyone agrees that One Person, One Vote is usually a pretty good principle to follow.

But both the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College violate One Person, One Vote. This is because they give disproportionate power to voters in low-population states. Since all states have two senators regardless of population, California and Wyoming have equal representation in the Senate even though California has about 66 times as many people. Because Senate representation affects Electoral College representation, the Electoral College is similarly biased: compared to Wyoming, California has only about 18 times the electors despite, again, having 66 times the population. Because low-population states tend to be rural, and rural voters tend to be conservative, this biases both the Senate and White House in favor of Republicans: Republicans have controlled the presidency for twelve of the past twenty years despite only winning the popular vote once in that time. Since federal judges are chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the courts also favor Republicans. But keep in mind: the main point here is not about whether it’s good or bad for Republicans to be in charge. It’s instead that our departure from One Person, One Vote really is seriously affecting the government. If we gave Jeff Bezos two votes, that would be bad, but it probably wouldn’t really change anything: his extra vote probably wouldn’t make any difference. But the Senate and Electoral College do make a difference. People who want Republicans to win can still agree that they don’t want them to win like this, by violating One Person, One Vote. And people who want Democrats to win can agree that these institutions would be problematic even if they favored Democrats instead.

Some people want to change the Senate and Electoral College. For instance, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would functionally eliminate the Electoral College, and granting statehood to Washington, D.C. would create new Democratic-leaning Senate seats, making the body more representative. But defenders of the status quo suggest we should keep the institutions as they are to prevent American politics being dominated by the residents of populous, urban areas at the cost of rural voters. Joe Seyton at Reason writes that “By preventing the majority from getting its way all the time, the Electoral College ensures… those in high-population states with large cities aren’t the only ones who have a say.” David Harsanyi, also for Reason, says:

“because of our childish propensity to use the word ‘fair,’ I understand that the Electoral College must seem like a relic that undercuts the sacramental notion of ‘one man, one vote’… [But] the Electoral College impels presidents and their political parties to consider all Americans in rhetoric and action. By allowing two senators for both Wyoming… and California… we create more national cohesion. We protect large swaths of the nation from being bullied. We incentivize Washington, D.C.—both the president and the Senate—to craft policy that meets the needs of Colorado as well as New York.”

Tara Ross, in a video for PragerU, says that the Electoral College encourages developing platforms which appeal to the entire country: “If winning were only about getting the most votes, a candidate might concentrate all of his efforts in the biggest cities, or the biggest states. Why would that candidate care about what people in West Virginia, or Iowa, or Montana think?” And Jeff Greenfield, at Politico, writes that the Senate “protects minority interests from majority rule,” something “liberals weren’t always so fearful of.”

According to this argument, the Senate and Electoral College help address an issue related to what the political philosopher Thomas Christiano calls “the problem of persistent minorities.” If a stable bloc emerges which can win elections without needing to compete for members of a certain group, that certain group risks having its voice drowned out. This might seem unfair even when the majority makes otherwise fine decisions. If you and your two friends watch a movie every Saturday, voting on which movie to watch seems fair when a consensus can’t be reached. But if your friends like the same movies as one another, but different movies from you, and they outvote you every single time, that seems less fair. Of course, rural Republicans wouldn’t be permanently locked out of governance without the Senate or Electoral College, and so wouldn’t exactly be persistent minorities. Instead, the Republican party would change its platform to bring new voters into a coalition with these rural voters (and other Republicans) so the party could remain competitive. But the need to attract these new voters means that the rural voters’ interests would receive less priority.

Defenders of the status quo therefore endorse what I’ll call the Minoritarian Principle:

While One Person, One Vote might be good most of the time, we should sometimes depart from it by giving disproportionate power to votes from members of minority groups when this is necessary to protect their sufficiently important interests.

Majoritarianism is rule by the majority, so naturally, minoritarianism is rule by a minority. I’ve called the principle the Minoritarian Principle because it means that a minority of voters can sometimes get their way.

But we can now see the fatal flaw in the pro-status quo argument: no justification is given for applying the Minoritarian Principle only to rural voters. The interests of many different minority groups are threatened in the U.S., and prioritizing rural voters often means deprioritizing members of these other groups. For instance, since rural voters tend to be white, privileging their votes disadvantages people of color. David Leonhardt calculates that the Senate awards .35 seats per million white voters, but only .26 per million Black voters, .25 per million Asian voters, and .19 per million Hispanic voters. Meanwhile, Andrew Gelman and Piere Antoine-Kremp estimate that “whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos, and 57 percent more power than those who fall into the ‘other’ category.” This creates exactly the situation defenders of the status quo worry about: Republican politicians can often win elections with minimal support from racial minorities, as when Trump was elected despite getting only eight percent support among Black voters. An unusually candid statement of the racial implications of the status quo came in an interview with Maine’s former Republican governor Paul LePage. He began defending the Electoral College by saying it increases the power of small states like his, but quickly shifted to defending it on the grounds that it increases the power of white people.

Unless the interests of rural voters are at greater risk than the interests of racial minorities, favoring the former at the expense of the latter is unwarranted. But if anything, the interests of people of color are at greater risk. So the Minoritarian Principle really seems to support something like the opposite of the current system. Perhaps the votes of people of color could literally just count for more. Perhaps we could create special Senate seats to be selected by minority voters, mirroring New Zealand’s Māori electorates. Christiano considers “requiring that candidates for elective office receive quotas of votes” from different demographic groups. Many countries currently employ “reserved positions,” where offices or seats must be held by members of certain demographic groups. “Consociationalistsystems built around group power sharing of the sort found in Belgium, Switzerland, or (historically) the Netherlands might provide another source of ideas.

I’m not saying we should implement one of these alternative proposals. There are good reasons to favor One Person, One Vote, too, and maybe those should win. And implementing the alternative proposals is politically impossible anyway. This is the point instead: If we favor One Person, One Vote across the board, obviously we should oppose the Senate and Electoral College. But if, like their defenders, we instead accept the Minoritarian Principle, we should still oppose the Senate and Electoral College. These institutions have effects — like decreasing the power of people of color — which are the opposite of those a reasonable application of the Minoritarian Principle would aim for. So reforming or eliminating these institutions would also be an improvement by the lights of the Minoritarian Principle. So when defenders of the institutions invoke the Minoritarian Principle, this winds up being a red herring. Whether we accept the principle or not, we should oppose the Senate and Electoral College.

Under Discussion: Are Liberalism and Democracy Fundamentally at Odds?

photograph of wooden pins representing peoplewith majority in support and a handful opposed

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Democracy’s Demands.

“Liberal democracy” is a phrase so commonly trotted out in discussions of types of modern political regime that one could be forgiven for thinking that its components — liberalism and democracy — fit together hand in glove. Yet this is far from true. The U.S. Constitution represents an uneasy compromise between liberalism and democracy, and many of the thorniest political problems the U.S. has faced derive from the fundamental tension between them.

Liberalism is a political philosophy that makes the individual and her freedom the locus of value. According to liberalism, the basis of the state’s right to use coercive power is that such power is necessary to secure the freedom of the individual against the depredations of others, including the state itself. By contrast, the practice of democracy is undergirded by an ethical commitment to the principle of majority rule — the idea that the basis of the state’s moral right to use coercive power is the mandate of the majority of the people.

In a liberal democracy, then, we have two uses of state power that count as morally legitimate: to secure or enhance freedom, and to enact the will of the majority. But these two uses can sometimes point in different directions. On occasion the majority wishes to reduce freedom — usually, the freedom of a minority. For example, segregation in the U.S. South represented the will of the white majority imposing limitations upon the freedom of the African-American minority. In such circumstances, there is a clash between the idea that majority rule makes political power legitimate, and the idea that political power cannot legitimately be used to restrict freedom. The key question in such cases is whether freedom ought to triumph over majority rule or vice versa.

The Founding Fathers were liberals and democrats, which is why they created both democratic institutions and institutions to serve as bulwarks against the popular will. For example, for all practical purposes the Bill of Rights takes questions of fundamental individual liberty off the democratic agenda: there will be no vote on the right to free speech (thank God). Meanwhile, the judiciary acts as a counterweight against democratic majorities when, through their representatives, they enact legislation that undermines the rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Today, those on opposing sides of many of the most controversial issues in U.S. politics will invoke the two legitimate uses of political power to ground their positions in widely acknowledged political values. Consider two culture war issues, abortion and gay marriage. Liberals say that they find within the Constitution a guarantee of women’s freedom to choose and homosexuals’ freedom to marry. Thus, they argue that state legislatures cannot legitimately prohibit these activities, even if the majority of people in the states are against them. On the other hand, invoking the legitimacy of majority rule, conservatives urge that these issues ought to be brought up for a vote in each state. At the same time, liberals will also point to the majority of Americans who support legalized abortion in favor of their position, and conservatives will oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it impedes the free exercise of religion. It’s interesting to note that essentially the same arguments — freedom versus the will of the majority — were made by the advocates and opponents of desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, or the radical Republicans and Southern Redeemers in the 1860s and 1870s. We will probably see the same pattern repeat itself in debates over transgender rights, drug legalization, and other issues in the coming years.

As my potted history suggests, the trend over the last sixty years has been toward greater freedom and less majority rule. The courts have interpreted the Constitution as a broad guarantor of individual rights, regardless of the people’s desire to abridge those rights. But this may be changing. With the U.S. Supreme Court becoming more conservative, we may see a rollback of Constitutional guarantees of certain individual rights. The trend of finding individual rights in the Constitution, and of continually broadening the scope of federal government protection for those rights, will be reversed. In effect, the courts will throw these issues back to the voters through their representatives in state legislatures.

Is this a welcome development? On the one hand, it will mean that many states will not recognize what many believe are important individual rights, such as the right to control one’s reproductive life through the use of safe abortion. On the other hand, it will mean that people will live as the majority of their co-citizens wish them to live, at least with respect to certain important choices in their lives. Democrats (of the small ‘d’ variety) might find in this reason to celebrate.

Indeed, the slide toward illiberal democracy appears to be a world-wide phenomenon. Illiberal democrats reject the liberals’ view that securing and enhancing freedom is a legitimate use of state power. Philosophically, they recognize only the legitimacy of majority rule, and they use democratic tools, such as referenda, to legitimate policies that strip minorities, political opponents, and ordinary citizens of their civil and political freedom.

But for all that liberalism and democracy can be at odds, the fusion of the two appears to be a relatively enduring and equitable model. Individual civil rights like free speech encourage more effective democratic deliberation and encourage participation in the political process. At the same time, insofar as liberalism is embraced by the majority, it is further legitimated by that very embrace.

Still, the potential for disharmony between the fundamental tenets of liberalism and democracy means that liberal democracies are never free of deep controversies that can tear at the social fabric. As we continue through this period of both internal and external instability, that potential is more likely to come to fruition as the will of the people becomes increasingly antagonistic toward the freedom of the individual.

A National Cash Crisis in India

Two weeks ago, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, came on the evening news and made an announcement that would send shocks through the country. In the unscheduled televised address, Modi informed the public that in four hours, 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender. Two details of this startling law: first, people may deposit or change their old  ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes in banks until December 30th, the day that new ₹500 and ₹2,000 rupee notes will be issued. Second, until then, people may exchange a small sum of old cash into legal tender of smaller denominations at banks—three days ago this amount was reduced from ₹4,500 to ₹2,000.  

Continue reading “A National Cash Crisis in India”