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Majority Rules!

Majority Rules - Really!      Gerry O'Shea

In the presidential election in 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote but he lost the election. We had a similar story in 2016 when Hillary Clinton polled close to three million more votes than Donald Trump and again came in second. The Gore and Clinton defeats had enormous consequences for the country. Think the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the current daily chaos in the White House.

Why not simply have a majority rule system, the candidate who gets the highest number of votes wins, which is what most people understand by democracy?

In the late 18th century as America was asserting its freedom from Great Britain, the Declaration of Independence stated that "all men are created equal," but  the revolutionary leaders didn't really mean these words in their clear meaning because, to begin with, non-whites and women were not included.

In addition, the American revolutionaries also gave considerable credibility to a common prejudice of the European aristocracy, namely that while the common people could be relied on to fight bravely in their many wars, they believed that the ordinary folk lacked the intelligence and breeding to elect good rulers.

To guard against the imagined excesses of the rabble making mistakes and electing radical leaders, James Madison and company built a system of checks and balances with two main protections for the status quo in America. First they introduced the Electoral College to act as a kind of screen of the popular results in presidential elections, and then they initiated a second chamber, the senate, where the smallest states have the same representation as California or New York. Today, for example, twelve states with 4% of the total population of the United States account for 24 - almost 25% - of the 100 votes in the senate.

Democracy was circumscribed for the benefit of those writing the rules - a statement that still prevails today. Consider the following examples which demonstrate that the wishes of the people often don't carry much weight in Washington.

All polls show that a big majority of Americans want restrictions on ownership of firearms, including a requirement that citizens should have to get a police permit, similar to a driver's license, before being allowed to own a gun. However, the National Rifle Association, a very rich and powerful lobbying group, opposes any such restriction, and nearly all Republicans - and a few Democrats too - get a big campaign check from the NRA which ensures that any progressive proposal for new legislation in this important area is stymied from the beginning.

 Despite the popular outcry for change in the laws governing firearms possession after every school shooting, there has been no meaningful legislation in this area for many years and zero prospect for a new proposal by this congress.

Another example of Washington's unresponsiveness to an issue where a broad consensus for change exists among the American people concerns access to adequate healthcare. It is shameful that the United States, alone among Western democracies, doesn't provide this basic benefit for millions of its citizens.

The most recent push for health-care reform happened in 2010 when the Affordable Care Act was proposed. Initially it included a "public option" whereby ordinary Americans could purchase their insurance directly from the government at a considerably lower price than private insurance companies were charging for similar policies.

Needless to say, the private insurance companies viewed this new law as cutting into their profits and they lobbied very forcefully against it. In the Senate, Joseph Lieberman, an independent senator from Connecticut who usually supported the Democrats, provided the vital vote that killed the bill in that chamber.

 There are dozens of insurance companies in Connecticut and they donated big bucks for the Lieberman campaigns over many years. That is the shameful way that the "public option", which would have been so beneficial for millions of Americans, was defeated.

The Affordable Care Act ended the ability by insurance companies to refuse coverage for pre-existing medical conditions. Polls show that more than three quarters of Americans support the current law guaranteeing coverage for pre-existing conditions. Still, Republicans, prompted by their big money supporters, are promising to ditch it when they get a chance.

 It is significant that for every $100 spent lobbying in favor of progressive legislative changes that benefit the poor and working class, about $600 is spent to move the economic  needle even more in favor of those who are already affluent. Money talks every day in Washington on most issues with a far more powerful voice than the opinions of the majority of  people.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at


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