The Absence Of A True Political Majority

A basic concept of democracy is “majority rules.” We accept that whoever gets the most votes in an election wins. (Except, strangely, in elections for President.) It seems only fair.

It is difficult to define the word majority so it retains real meaning. A majority is arbitrary and fluid. A winning coalition in one election may flop in the next. And elected legislative majorities are in fact elected by what turns out to be a minority of the people.

These conditions, while contributing to the incoherence and illogic of political life, provide hope and opportunity for politically committed individuals. When most don’t take part in public life– as depressing as that may be– the contributions of those who do take part are multiplied.

No election ever involves everyone. People under 18 years old can’t vote. Many states impose restrictions on the rights of those convicted of crimes. While these limitations on who may vote may have public support, this does not change the fact that we dilute the concept of the majority by disenfranchising some people before elections are even held.

Many choose not to vote. Presidential elections draw only between 50 and 60 percent of those over 18. Midterm elections for the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S Senate often draw just one-third of possible voters. In odd-year elections, important municipal offices in large cities are sometimes determined with turnouts of 20 percent or less.

Almost all elections are won by candidates winning just a fraction of the eligible population. These candidates cannot claim they are backed by a majority of all people or even of all potentially eligible voters.

This absence of a majority can also be said to apply to successful “mass” political and social movements. Turnout in the four elections won by Franklin Roosevelt was generally around 60 percent of eligible voters. Almost all black voters in the South were excluded from the ballot. Many of those who voted did not vote for Roosevelt.

The New Deal changed American life and Roosevelt was a highly successful politician, but the New Deal was not something a majority of people had a role in bringing about even at the relatively passive level of casting a ballot.

In the Civil Rights movement, which is seen as a mass movement, most people did nothing. Most blacks didn’t work for Civil Rights. Most whites did nothing to either promote or prevent integration. But because enough blacks and some whites were willing to work for a more just society significant gains were made. The gains did not require anywhere close to a majority of people to act.

In recent years, the Republican Party held the House and Senate by slender majorities. (A legislative chamber is a place where majority is a meaningful and quantifiable concept.) By remaining highly disciplined this slight legislative majority was effective in passing its agenda. As a result, the ideologically committed core of conservative voters— a minority— that elected these legislators had an impact beyond its numbers.

The lessons are clear. You can a make a difference beyond being just one person. While it is discouraging in many ways, your vote counts for more when few are voting.

You can organize and motivate friends and acquaintances, write a letter to the editor, volunteer and donate to political campaigns or run for office yourself. You can occupy the space left by the only true majority: Those who do little or nothing. A person committed to his or her beliefs should take advantage of the situation. Work hard and be part of the willful minority that prevails

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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