Hovering on the edge of my consciousness, there was a buzz about Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang in some way voicing support for “permanent Democratic majorities everywhere.” While every candidate and political activists sure dreams of sweeping the entire nation, this phrasing sounds a little sinister.
Now, I’m going to stick in here a caveat that I’m not quoting Candidate Yang himself and I don’t know what he actually said. Without naming names, I think we can stipulate that there is a good chunk of the Democratic Party that believes that the march of progress has bowled over Conservatives/Republicans and that a Progressive/Democratic/Socialistic ascendancy is inevitable.
I think they’re wrong. I think they are wrong a number of accounts, each with their own reasons. I think they’re wrong in their math and I think they’re wrong on moral/ethical grounds, but I’ll wait and dwell on this in a future article. My real criticism here is I think that the very concept of wiping out your political opponent is antithetical to modern Democracy – at least where that phrase has meaning.
My impression of history when it comes to democracy (especially in republican forms of government) is just that, an impression. I don’t claim this backed up by fact or research. Generalizing about democracy is further flummoxed by data from most European democracies. A multi-party, parliamentary system won’t behave in the same way as a two-party system. Further, the single-party systems that are tightly controlled may have, on paper, a viable opposition but with the vote manipulated for the sole purpose of giving the ruling party legitimacy. Filtering out all the exceptions, what remains as examples* of functioning “two party” democracies is hard to quantify. Once you’ve identified such an animal, however, I’d say that it functions striving to remain in rough equilibrium.
For slow societal change, this means a gradual shift in the demographics and principles of the parties. When the party holding temporary majority abandons a constituency to take on a new issue, it is natural for that constituency to drift to the other party. Over the long term, this could result in a near reversal of supported policy. For example, post-Civil War, the Republicans were the party of black Americans with the Democrats offering a thinly veiled, de-facto return to slavery. Fast forward 100 years and you find an extraordinarily high correlation between black identity and voting Democrat while the Republicans becoming associated with the more traditional South. Why? Because the issue of slavery, once the defining issue of American politics, simply disappeared. Nobody** in the 1970s supported slavery and the two-party system morphed so as to bring itself back into balance.
More rapid societal change can manifest itself with the formation of “third” parties and the eventual replacement of the minority part with a new, more viable alternative. Again, the potent issue of slavery sidelined the American Whig party and put the Republican party, a mere 6 years after its founding, into the majority all across the government. Instructive in this case is that the Democrats, with their “permanent majority,” were no longer able to hold that majority together. Lincoln won the electoral college to become President, but had a mere 40% of the popular vote.
The historical lesson might suggest that I should simply laugh at the hubris of a party that claims to have a permanent majority and I would, but for my counter examples above. Russia’s Communists, Germany’s National Socialists, and countless banana republic dictatorships demonstrate how a fleeting majority can be turned into long-term, one-party rule by applying some judicious oppression. Even our own “positive” example, above, was far from it. By the time the Republicans took over the government, the issue of slavery, succession, and federal/state balance of power had grown so contentious that the solution came, not through persuasive politics and voting contests, but through a massive, bloody 4-year civil war.
Ironically, the example of slavery suggests that the fastest way to put an end to a decisive majority may be to use that majority to enforce a “voter mandate.” It was the clear electoral majority voting to preserve slavery in the face of a passionate opposition that caused the Democratic Party to splinter and the Republicans to take control of the levers of governance. That, in turn, led to a perceived inability to pursue any solution within the framework of a political system, which led to open warfare.
It further hurts the moral basis behind a quest for permanent majority that part of its achievement involves politically changing the electoral game to your advantage. This involves tried-and-true methods such as control State legislatures in redistricting years through fidgeting with voter eligibility laws through wholesale restructuring of election processes (e.g. eliminate the electoral college, changing U.S. Senate structure). In our example, it involved designating “free” and “slave” States to engineer particular national outcomes. These methods make each election feel all that more apocalyptic as losing perhaps even one time might cripple your ability to ever win again going forward.
Yet, it is possible to make massive cultural change through consensus. Social Security, Medicaid, and, yes, even the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s received broad support across the political spectrum. Buy-in from the opponents of new policy, even if it a begrudging buy-in, will temper the feeling that the new is being forced upon an unwitting and unwilling populace. The current fashion for declaring that one’s own party represents the “common sense” opinion of the vast majority of people in spite of clear and vigorous opposition seems to simply be a way of perverting the tradition of consensus (assuming such really did exist as tradition). If electoral victory means ramming, along party lines, your favored policy through over the objections of the minority, this is a recipe for amplifying the nation’s political divide. If it is truly possible to make that electoral victory “permanent,” this leads to a best-case scenario of a descent into tyranny-of-the-majority. The worst-case scenario is too terrible to contemplate.
*Using Wikipedia as a guide, they propose that Great Britain and its former colonies are generally two-party governments although many have viable third parties. Latin America has, for the most part, adopted a U.S.-like political system. South Korea, while not really a two-party government, is often described as behaving like one.
**Well, never say never. While one must admit there were always be some segment of the population who hang onto fringe views, I’d say is fair to discount such ideology when talking politics and elections.