There have been a couple of recent events that are, although seemingly unrelated, both centered upon the sort of government we operate under and the inconsistent views (often based in misunderstanding and misinterpretation) some hold our form of democracy to be. First, we are not a pure democracy, but rather a representative democracy - entirely at the federal level and mostly at the state and local levels as well. We elect representatives who then make our decisions for us. It is impractical, probably impossible, for a nation of this size to make every decision via a popular vote. We elect those who we feel best represent our views and (ideally) entrust them to carry out the action we elected them to carry out. It is still the will of the people, but in a more manageable (again, ideally) form. Our views are communicated to our representatives in a number of ways, and the First Amendment guarantees our ability to do so… and then there is the ballot box.
But in some states a form of direct democracy exists. In California we have the initiative, the referendum and the recall. These are vehicles that allow the people to directly dictate law and public policy. But there is a catch: the laws must still adhere to both the state and federal constitutions. And constitutionality is determined not by the executive or legislative branches of government, but by an independent judiciary. It is part of the system of checks and balances that our founders so cleverly set in place to keep the majority from oppressing minority views, groups and positions. If the majority were to exercise its will by a simple vote, then all sorts of civil liberties that we take for granted might never have come to be. Indeed, if the will of the majority were always allowed to prevail, we would be living in a much different country than we do today.
Those two events? The overturning of California’s Proposition 8 and the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the massacre at the World Trade Center. The word “massacre” was chosen carefully, it represents the depravity of those who perpetrated it and the senseless loss of so many innocent lives. I want to be clear that my stance regarding those who planned and executed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is nothing short of disgust. But what could a planned mosque near the site and Prop. 8 possibly have to do with one another? Both hinge on the constitution. The United States Constitution guarantees, above all else, freedom - freedom for all and freedom from oppression. It is not a perfect system, but over time it has proven to prevail even when majority opinion would have us do otherwise. In the case of the mosque, the gut reaction is to penalize an entire religion for the acts of a few extremists operating under its name. All groups have extremists and some perpetrate heinous crimes, but to oppress the entire lot is not only unconstitutional, it is anti-American. I know this is an unpopular position when it comes to Islam, but it is true nonetheless. The proposed mosque near Ground Zero is a bad idea, unwise and even insensitive, but it cannot and should not be determined by the masses simply because it is the majority view.
California’s Prop. 8 is another even more clear-cut case of the majority limiting the rights of a singled-out minority. This time it happens to be the gay community, but it could just as easily be women, an ethnic group or lefties. And whether the court is correct in ruling against the proposition is not the point; the court is performing its role as an independent check on the majority’s right to impose its will on a minority. The case will now proceed to the US Supreme Court where the ultimate adjudication will take place – hopefully. It is quite possible that the court will side step the controversy by making a very narrow ruling that will not settle the matter. Regardless, the will of the people in this “democracy” is not now nor has it ever been the final word. Our founders were wise beyond the world as they knew it; they were acutely aware that tyranny could come from the masses just as easily as it can from an autocracy. These two issues demonstrate that our system of checks and balances is not designed to quench the thirst of the majority, but to protect the rights of all – even if exercising those rights violates common sensitivity or the majority's idea of morality. It might not be a perfect system, but so far it has mitigated a host of injustices ranging from women’s suffrage to civil rights to the rights of the disabled. The lesson here is to be careful which causes are championed under the guise of “the will of the people.” Next time the minority might include you.