The Voice of the Minority

Sixty-four North American jurisdictions are in election mode. Canadians go to the polls in three days in search for a prime minister. American citizens vote in three months' time for a president. Both elections have much in common. Both incumbents are neck in neck in the polls with their opponents. Mr Martin and Mr Harper each have 30% support. Mr Bush and Mr Kerry have a bit under half each.

Much has been written about political systems where two major parties dominate, with the other parties standing on the sidelines, serving special interests, and never becoming influential in the way government operates. They fight in each election not for victory, but for mere survival. 5% of the votes is the difference between a great election outcome or political extinction.

In the best of scenarios, people would like their votes to count. They would like their voices to be heard as clearly as those of their next door neighbours and compatriots on the other coast. People love winners, and people love power. They would like everyone to believe what they believe in. They would do anything to live in a world that they want.

The problem is, of course, that there are millions of other voters, each with her own opinion that is arguably just as valid. There are no wrong opinions, per se. Certainly, everyone is entitled to one's own.

The job of the government, however, is to impose a way of living on its citizens so that the country it governs can function faithfully to its vision. In a totalitarian regime, this vision may be from a small group of powerful individuals with ideas vastly different from its voters. The tool such government uses to prevent a popular coup is force.

In a democracy, the government is elected by the majority. Therefore, the way of life that the government will choose to provide to its citizens is determined by the majority of its constituents. Because the majority is empowered through government, society tends to be more stable. After all, the ultimate power of democracy is that the majority overrules the minority. That is how laws are passed and enforced. If the majority of the people in the country refuse to obey the laws, a democratic government theoretically becomes powerless and is due for replacement.

This works well for a society where the majority is benevolent. However, democracies have gone wrong before. The most famous case was Hitler's capture of the German electorate. He was given a mandate by the majority, which eventually led to horrific consequences to the Jewish minority in the country.

But who is looking out for the minority in a democracy?

In a sense, everyone is a minority. People are differentiated exactly by their beliefs and visions. In a political system where there are two dominant parties, a voter is forced to choose between power and individualities. Voting for the dominant parties requires one to adjust one's beliefs in such a way that non-majority beliefs are discarded, and remotely similar thoughts are awkwardly merged together to a single narrowly defined policy. Life's decisions become a choice between blinding white and daunting black, with strands of greyness in between.

It is irrational to conclude that a free-market businessman who would not mind a tax cut is doubtlessly anti-abortion, pro-gun, in favour of the death penalty, and promotes the interests of Israel. On the other side of the coin, an environmental activist does not necessarily agree with same-sex marriages, universal public healthcare, and rise of minimum wage. However, dual majority politics tags a set to an element of the set. One either accepts this alphabet soup of ideals because one likes the letters A and C, or rejects it completely in favour of coloured Cheerios. Alphabet cereal is just not an option.

One may yet choose the grey, but knowingly voting for a party whose victory is mathematically improbable is as good as a protest vote against the majority. Granted, this is better than a non-vote for the majority, but in the end, the views of this minority becomes no more important in the everyday government. It is also notable that this third party is most likely to be a majority of the minority, and hence no more representative of the overall minority population.

To trust the majority to respect the beliefs of the minority is a paradoxical proposition. What makes a group a minority is not a simple matter of auxiliary beliefs. Rather often, the minority is in opposition of the majority. If elected, the Conservative party and the Republican party cannot be relied upon to defend gay rights, just as the Liberal party or the Democratic party cannot promise to financially relieve overtaxed individuals.

Democracy may be the best system we currently have, but it is not perfect. We must still rely on the good judgement of the majority to make sure that the society remains peaceful and co-operative. There is, however, one strong incentive for the majority to act in good faith: as society evolves and population redistributes itself, any majority can find itself to be a minority in a short amount of time. The desire to be treated fairly as a future minority is a strong argument for the current majority to behave.

Friday June 25, 2004