The End of Majority Rule

The End of Majority Rule

WRITING CONTEST FINALIST: When a political system is in gridlock, ordinary citizens suffer the consequences.


Texan Senator Ted Cruz argues against the proposed ban on guns like the Remington 750, a popular hunting rifle, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun control reform. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

What happens to a democracy when the voice of the majority is no longer heard? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is unfolding before our eyes. Tools enabling the elite to block legislative actions backed by the American people has all-but-paralyzed Congress. This, coupled with a dangerous proliferation of inflexible ideologues within our governing body, has made for a dysfunctional political system—for decisions that in no way reflect the desires of the people. And, of course, what many politicians seem to forget—an impossible luxury for ordinary citizens—is that when a political system is in gridlock, ordinary citizens suffer the consequences.

In many cases, filibustering has been used to bring democracy to a standstill. It is to this tactic of delaying and obstructing legislative action—by indefinitely prolonged speech-making, for instance—that we owe at least partial thanks for the Senate’s recent rejection of Obama’s amendments to the gun control bill, supported by 90 percent of Americans. Background checks for gun-owners were supported, also, by 74 percent of gun owners in the NRA, and by 55 Senators—55 to 45. Why did the amendment backed by a majority of Senators not get passed? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the hard decision to opt for the 60-votes to end filibuster rule known as invoking cloture, rather than accept the majority vote threshold for this amendment, because if all that was needed was majority vote, it is likely that other radical amendments backed by gun control advocates would have also been passed. The gun advocate-backed amendments would have negated any possible advancements towards stricter gun control, so perhaps this route really was the lesser of two evils. In any event, in an effort to avoid filibustering, the majority vote was not enough, and the gun control amendments our country so sorely needs were blocked by the Senate. And so it seems, in this instance, at least, that the extreme ideologies of an uncompromising minority were allowed to prevail against the interests of the majority of this country’s citizens.

Of course, it was not just rigid ideology that prevented some of the political elite from acting in the best interest of the people. Many of the Senators who hindered the gun control amendments did not do so because of their passionate belief in the right to bear arms, but because they had something to gain from their states’ gun advocates. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” said the writer Upton Sinclair—and there’s a lot of hard truth to that statement. Corrupt lobbying, the exchange of “political gifts,” and other forms of veiled bribery in the upper echelons of government have all contributed to the felt unbalance and helplessness we—the governed—experience today; they are tools for putting disproportionate power and influence into the hands of an elite minority and distorting our democratic system founded on the rule of the majority.

It wasn’t always this way in our country. There was a time when politicians of opposite parties worked hard to find compromises that generally reflected the needs and desires of America at-large. In September 1982, for instance, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act was signed into law, thanks to the rigorous efforts of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a liberal Democrat, and President Reagan, a Republican, to find a ratio of spending cuts to tax increases that was acceptable to both parties. We have cooperated with each other for the greater good in the past, and we can do it again. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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