"Rendering the Majority Unable": Comparative Politics, Social Inequality, and the United States' Institutional Structure of Political Suboptimality

By Aleman, David Mena | World Affairs, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

"Rendering the Majority Unable": Comparative Politics, Social Inequality, and the United States' Institutional Structure of Political Suboptimality


Aleman, David Mena, World Affairs


The Founding Fathers conceived formed counter-majoritarian restrictions aimed specifically to "render the majority unable": to prevent the majority from trampling on minorities in the U.S. democratic system. This article contends that several such formed restrictions actually fail to protect contemporary minorities as the founders imagined they would. Indeed, counter-majority restrictions embedded in the Electoral College, the Senate, and the judicial review may actually prohibit such protection. Using a comparative politics approach, this article builds on theoretical arguments and data that evaluate democratic functionality and fairness based on level of social equality provisions as well as optimality of voter participation. I find that certain counter-majoritarian procedures are empirically linked, to higher inequality levels across twenty-one advanced democracies. This political suboptimality is reflected in a significant correlation between higher Gini coefficients and majoritarian systems (with the United States in first place) in the sample and also between lower scores and consensus democracies. I argue that comparative analysis shows that some criticisms hitherto only leveled at the United States are present in an entire family of systems--the majoritarian ones--which begs significant critical questioning of the impact of institutional design on the effectiveness of social policies and inclusive democratic procedures.

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In light of James Madison's ([1787] 2001) concern that minorities must be protected in functional democracies, the Founding Fathers built guardianship rules into the very base of the U.S. political system. They conceived several formal counter-majoritarian restrictions aimed specifically to prevent the majority from trampling on minorities or, to use Madison's {Federalist X, para. 5) phrase, render the majority "unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression." This article identifies and evaluates several of these restrictions, including disproportional allocation of votes in the Electoral College, disproportional representation in the Senate, and certain elements of the judicial review as well as other vetoes. In doing so, it becomes clear that these restrictions may not provide the protection for minorities in a contemporary democratic system that the Founding Fathers appeared to hope they would. This, I claim, not only renders parts of the way U.S. federalist presidentialism works as unfair, it also renders it wildly inefficient in some important respects.

This view seems to have largely escaped wide and nuanced debate within key areas of U.S. political systems analysis in the last decade or so--a point reinforced by an approach in some of the literature that appears to be rather complacent concerning the "distinguished" advances in standards of living, equality, extended participation and voice, or welfare provision that "America can boast" (Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy 2004; see also Kousser and Ranney 2011; Ranney 1999). A few scholars have nevertheless recognized the potential myopia associated with such views of U.S. politics and institutions by highlighting the isolated context in which U.S. political systems analysis is often conducted (see, for example, Dahl 1989, 2002; Lijphart 1984, 1999; Stepan and Linz 2011). Arguments for examining and evaluating the performance of U.S. institutional structures from a cross-national comparative perspective tend to follow--and the empirical findings in these works similarly tend to cast U.S. democratic performance in a light that suggests any complacency is, at best, misplaced. However, while the call for more comparative perspectives in political systems analysis and beyond is certainly stronger now than when Robert Dahl published Democracy and Its Critics in 1989, it remains less resounding than its findings indicate it should be. For this reason, this article brings together and builds on several core arguments applying comparative perspectives to the U. …

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