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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: The tyranny of the minority

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: June 5, 2022, 6:02am

We will be told between now and November, persistently and passionately, that elections have consequences. That voting matters. That this is the most important election of our lives.

There might be some truth to that — if America were a democracy, or even the representative democracy it claims to be.

No, this isn’t about Donald Trump attempting to subvert an election. Nor is it about Republicans engaging in voter suppression or trying to rig the process. In Georgia, for example, new laws allow partisan politicians to replace county election boards.

Instead, this is about school shootings. And climate change. And abortion.

Because there are flaws with America’s version of democracy. Goodness knows, there are flaws, and they existed before current debates about voting rights and disproved accusations of a “stolen” election. Any nation, after all, where the murder of schoolchildren in their classroom can fail to generate a quick and powerful legislative response has room for improvement.

Our constitution, you see, not only gives power to minority voices, it enables minority rule. And when the minority party has little interest in governing and plenty of interest in cultivating and nurturing culture wars, that becomes a flaw.

That is at the heart of our failure to deal with the deeply offensive level of gun violence in this country. If the murder of 20 students at Sandy Hook can fail to spur action, the killing of 19 children in Uvalde, Texas, is unlikely to generate more than thoughts and prayers and hand-wringing.

A majority of Americans support the strengthening of laws governing the sale of firearms. They support background checks for all gun purchases, the banning of high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons, and a 30-day waiting period for all gun sales. They rightly recognize that something must be done, that such measures can be accomplished without violating the Second Amendment and that a civilized nation engages in action rather than rhetoric following the murder of schoolchildren.

But the United States is not governed by the majority; it is governed by an oppressive minority that wields power not commensurate with its numbers. In other words, the U.S. Senate doesn’t care what the people want.

Currently, there are 50 Republicans in the Senate, along with 48 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats. Using the 2020 U.S. Census and splitting the population of the six states that have senators from both parties, Senate Republicans represent 43.5 percent of the population. They have not represented a majority since 1996.

But with a filibuster rule requiring 60-member approval to pass legislation, those 43.5 percent hold sway. This isn’t a representative democracy; it’s a hostage situation.

And so we have three Supreme Court justices appointed by a one-term president who twice lost the popular vote and twice was impeached. And we have a Senate that ignores climate change. And we have a Senate that refuses to enact meaningful gun control — despite the desires of the public.

And that doesn’t even include the skewing of the Electoral College, which opens the prospect to the least-popular candidate winning the presidency. That has happened twice in the past five elections.

As Kenneth Owen, a University of Illinois professor, wrote for The Atlantic: “Minority rule is fast becoming the defining feature of the American republic. … When parties commit themselves to minority rule, the backlash can be severe. … History suggests that Republicans would then pay — dearly — for their years of minority rule.”

Which might or might not be a long-term problem for Republicans. But it’s clearly a problem for the rest of us. Republicans wear inaction as a badge of honor, and schoolchildren get murdered because of it.

Intransigence in defense of your definition of liberty is, indeed, a vice. And it is enabled by a system that allows for the tyranny of the minority.