Lately there’s been a lot of talk about vocal minorities and heeding majorities, and I’ve found it all confusing — not that I don’t know what people mean, because I do. But I haven’t been able to clear up what I think about it. For instance, are majorities always right? Are vocal minorities a bad thing? How should a town council determine what is ‘right’ in any given situation, especially when the usual criteria of what’s ‘best for the town’ seems to change depending on who you talk to? These are difficult questions, but I don’t think they’re completely unanswerable. So I decided to give it a try.
First off, are majorities always right? This one is easy — clearly they aren’t. In any community, it is possible for a large majority of the populace to strongly support a position that later turns out to be ‘wrong.’ The sweeping of evil dictators into power by popular election springs to mind as just one example. There are surely others less drastic.
And yet, it’s human nature to want to fit in, to go along with what seems to be the general concensus of public opinion. As mothers for generations have said to their kids, if all your friends were going to jump off the cliff, would you jump too? Occasionally, it seems the answer is yes.
On a more practical level, I’ve heard it said with regard to town matters that an issue’s importance can be measured by how many citizens show up at a meeting to speak for or against it. Here, there is the implicit assumption that the side with the most visibly audible proponents wins, which makes some sense under majority rule.
The political historian De Toqueville refers to the dangers of this phenomenon as “the tyranny of the majority,” and warns that it is built into American democracy, perhaps to its peril. “The moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and wisdom in a number of men united than in a single individual,” he wrote in Democracy in America, noting that “no obstacles exist” to force the majority to “heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path.” “This state of things is harmful in itself and dangerous for the future,” he concludes.
Which brings us to the vocal minority. In general, when one speaks of pandering to a vocal minority, one is making a value judgment, the assumption being that one should not heed vocal minorities, the further assumption being that they are inherently wrong. But should minority views be dismissed out of hand?
Let’s tackle the ‘vocal’ aspect first. Majorities often characterize minorities as shrill or at the very least, loud. However, when one is in the minority, it is often the case that being loud is the only way to be heard over the din. And be heard they must, in a democratic society, because if majorities can be wrong, even occasionally, then minority opionions become essential to ensure that big decisions are made with adequate information and deliberation.
In short, those who express minority views — objections, concerns, counter-arguments and alternative solutions — are a check or balance to prevent misguided or ill-informed majorities from making possibly dangerous errors of judgment. Or to put it another way, they can help make the majority’s plan better by pointing out weaknesses and flaws that the majority might have missed in their enthusiasm for said plan.
Needless to say, minorities are not always correct any more than majorities are. Sometimes, a vocal minority can be dead wrong. But from the standpoint of a well-oiled democratic process, it’s not just desirable but essential that all sides to an important question be not just heard, but taken into consideration and deliberated seriously.
The foregoing analysis begs the question of what is right and what is wrong, and to a certain extent, right and wrong seem less important in a democracy than deliberative process and collective decision-making. Besides, the question of right and wrong has no universally-applicable answer. For help with these kinds of questions, societies have generally relied on codes of ethics that promote certain values and guide conduct. Here in America, our code of ethics is largely derived from the Bible, and so we retain a certain amount of confusion since “an eye for an eye” vies in the same volume with “turn the other cheek.”
However there is one value that many Americans see as supreme, whether or not we always follow it, and that is: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Despite its religious origins, I believe that keeping this guideline in mind could make decision-making a lot easier, not just for elected leaders but for each of us as individuals. If you add to this tenet the ancient rule of physicians to “do no harm,” you have what seems to me to be a highly functional doctrine for both living and governing.
This is not to say that we will always collectively make the ‘right’ decisions or avoid all mistakes. People are only human, and we can’t expect to always be impartial and wise. But by understanding and respecting the role of the minority in public affairs, we can at least make decisions that are well-informed and take into account a broad assortment of views. By applying an ethical standard such as the golden rule, we can further ensure that our hearts are in the right place when we do make up our minds.
In the end, it’s still up to the deciders to decide, but even there, the people have their say come election day, giving us our biggest opportunity to affect public affairs — by electing leaders who we think will truly represent our highest values and interests. No matter which boat we find ourselves in, minority or majority, democracy gives us this chance to stand up and be counted.