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Majorities May Have to Suffice

September 30th, 2021 by dk

I’m not a big fan of majorities. I typically don’t trust them. I believe they have shown they can’t be trusted. I’ve always stayed away from the clapper on the bell curve. Groupthink is anything but.

Outliers often have more interesting ideas. They always have better stories. Maybe it’s because I’m a lifelong Cubs fan, but I’ve always found losers easier to care about, figuring the winners have shown they can fend for themselves.

Our Founding Fathers feared “the tyranny of the majority”. They devoted themselves to a document that articulated their vision. If life is an exercise of Rock-Paper-Scissors, they changed the rules. Paper always wins.

Our constitutional republic uses majorities sparingly and carefully. We, the self-governed, consent to be guided by those same founding principles, not by the will of the majority. History has shown majorities incapable of sustaining any long-term project — like bringing forth a new nation. Engaging the minority has been our “secret sauce,” making us resilient and respected.

A quick story tells the tale. My college roommate’s first solo assignment as a college professor was to lead some students on a weeklong educational tour. One morning they had a choice. They could hike up the hillside or down to the river. They voted. It was close. “Majority rules!” the winners declared.

“Yes, that’s how democracy works,” their teacher intoned. “Now let’s move on from democracy to civilization.” He kept both sides engaged. They soon found a compromise that worked for nearly everyone. My roommate’s career as an educator was underway.

Supermajorities are sprinkled across our governing systems. Compromise serves us well. The Electoral College and the Senate’s filibuster have roots in racism, but they were born in a day when racists were needed to get anything done. We rely on our judicial system to say when those expediencies reach their end.

Sometimes majorities must rule, just to get us through a tight spot. Civil War victory required no supermajority. (Maybe it should have. We continue fighting over similar issues.) The through-line has always been good will and common cause between all sides. Without that, governance devolves into gamesmanship, spectacle and obstruction.

We may soon have no choice but to blow up our whole system and start over. The French have done this several times. Other democracies have endured complete makeovers. We’ve been spared that so far.

Good will can no longer be assumed. Republicans in Salem have foiled the supermajority quorum requirement seven times in the last three years. Republicans in Washington intend to let the federal government grind to a halt altogether.

The minority cynically courts a crisis: “Last one out: turn off the lights and throw away the pizza boxes.” Maybe the darkness will enlighten. We may have to change the rules for a while, eliminating supermajorities altogether until we can call a Constitutional Convention to draft a document that inspires everyone again.

No quorum-busting walk-outs by either side. No nihilistic obstructionism allowed. We may be forced to resort to pure democracy — majority rules! — only until we can find our way back to civilization.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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