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“Constitutions are checks upon the hasty action of the majority. They are the self-imposed restraints of a whole people upon a majority of them to secure sober action and a respect for the rights of the minority, and of the individual.”
William Howard Taft wrote that in 1911 to impress upon the people of Arizona that their constitution should reflect the undeniable fact that “the unabridged expression of the majority… converted hastily into law or action would sometimes make a government tyrannical and cruel.”
How many times, after the Senate’s recent gun control vote, did you hear politicians and commentators regurgitate the statistic that ‘90% of the American People’ supported an expansion of background checks or some other gun control measure? Gun control advocates from the President on down to Piers Morgan were incensed by the fact that they couldn’t turn 90% into 60 votes. The Left went on and on about how the Senate, and, by implication, the political process had failed the 90%. They wanted, no – they demanded an explanation. Well, here it is: The Constitution!
What too many people seem to have forgotten is that the Constitution was supposed to keep majorities at bay. It was designed to protect a minority of voters from having to live under the thumb of a political majority. In what is perhaps the heyday of government overreach, the Constitution is still fighting for us, serving one of its most important purposes – protecting the liberty of the few against the tyranny of the many.
Here’s the deal: The government gets its power from the people. But, the majority is its biggest enabler. The Founders knew this, and dedicated their brilliance to designing a government that would counteract the evils of majoritarian rule. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison said this:
“Complaints are everywhere heard… that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
Why shouldn’t the majority always get what they want? Well, there are a ton of reasons; but, in the interest of brevity, we’ll stick with two. First, the minority matters. Remember in high school when all the “cool” kids sat at that long table in the center of the lunchroom, and the “nerds” were over at the small table in the corner? If the lunchroom was a polity, how often do you think the “cool” table would ever vote with the interests of the “nerd” table in mind? Exactly. Second, what may sound like a good idea in the heat of the moment may not actually be one after you’ve cooled off. In fact, shortly after the Senate’s gun control vote, polls showed that public support for a new gun control bill had dropped to 49%. In other words, the public’s post-Sandy Hook outrage dissipated, and by the time the Senate got around to voting, that 90% that everyone kept talking about was no longer.
The point is that our Constitution was built to protect individual rights from whatever democratic majority may come about at a given time. The fact that 90% of the public may support a particular piece of legislation at a given point in time doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea, or that the 10% should be forced to yield the wishes of the greater number.
Some people on the left called the Republican filibuster of the gun control bills “shameful.” For me, it was a welcome reminder that the most beautiful document sitting in the National Archives – our Constitution – still works.