What if the Democratic Party now has the support of the majority of American citizens? Certainly Democrats did well in the 2018 elections. More revealing than the tally of races won is the fact that Democrats received majorities of the overall votes cast for Senate candidates, for House candidates, and for gubernatorial candidates. In the House elections, Democrats captured a higher percentage of the popular vote than they have in any Congressional or presidential election in the past thirty years.
Two distinct problems follow from these achievements. First, mobilizing an electoral majority is not enough to guarantee political change, because the American political system is only in part a system of majority rule. An American majority seeking to rule faces polling arrangements that make voting difficult, whether by neglect or by design; restrictive voter registration laws; gerrymandered House districts; a Senate where one half of the country’s population gets 82 votes and the other half gets 18; and an Electoral College that has let the loser win in two of the past five presidential elections.
Establishing majority rule in the United States may seem like challenge enough. But the second problem for the new Democratic majority is that majority rule is only part of democratic politics, and it is not necessarily the most important part, nor the most difficult.
Unless it serves a more fundamental principle, majority rule is little more than an appeal to what James Madison called ‘superior force.’ It is as if two armies faced off, guessed that the more numerous side would win, and arranged peace terms without troubling themselves to fire a shot. If majority rule is at best a proxy for rule by force, then the minority — those who have less force — may have reason to anticipate that the victorious majority will be, as Madison put it, ‘overbearing.’
Many political thinkers have worried about the danger of majority tyranny, and the means of alleviating this concern — guarantees of fair procedures and minority rights, decency toward the vanquished on the part of the winners — are familiar. We tend to think less about the problems that majority rule raises for the members of the majority. Madison had little to say about this, but he was drawing on the ideas of John Locke, who said more. Locke writes that a political community acts ‘as one body’ when it acts according to ‘the will and determination of the majority’ because ‘it is necessary that the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it.’ Locke saw majority rule as a form of rule by force because he thought that human persons are, fundamentally, separate selves: equal only in their equal lack of ‘dominion’ over one another, with no meaningful bonds except those that they have chosen in the service of self-preservation.
Locke, like the American founders he influenced, had great confidence in new ideas and relatively little interest in old. But in some older cases of political participation, we can catch glimpses of a different idea of equality and of what citizens share, with different implications for how we think about democracy today. Consider the ancient Athenian assembly. Citizens voted, but a few of them also made speeches, to which the others presumably listened. Consider the early medieval monastery, at least as Saint Benedict envisioned it. When the monks gathered to advise their elected abbot, the abbot was particularly careful to listen to the younger monks, knowing that a young monk might speak as wisely as his elders. In contexts like these, the importance of having a vote is accompanied or even eclipsed by the importance of having occasions to be listened to, and correspondingly to listen, with the certainty that one’s speech and one’s listening matter. Each member of the community counts, not merely as a vote — a tally-mark — but as a distinct person with equal worth, despite visible distinctions or ranks. Locke’s idea of equal power suggests the usefulness of majority rule. But the older idea of equal worth suggests the need for mutual recognition, for occasions for listening and being listened to, and for the articulation of what people have in common.
Neither the Athenian assembly, nor the medieval monastery was a clear example of democracy, in the sense we understand it today. But they convey insights that early modern political thinkers like Locke and Madison neglected. The government that Madison and his colleagues designed feels distant and opaque because it was intended to address what Madison called the ‘aggregate interests’ of citizens who are equal only in Locke’s negative sense and who accordingly have little in common. Citizens who have only tenuous connections with one another need only a tenuous connection with the public institutions they share. Equal power — that is to say, equal protection against one another’s power — is the only equality their institutions need to provide. If democracy is to be something other than a polite tyranny, however, it needs to be based on the proposition that each member of the community has the same worth, and the expectation that citizens are capable of finding a commonality richer and deeper than a mere aggregation of interests. Democracy, in other words, depends on the common or civic dignity of citizens.
Part of the problem with the principle of majority rule is that smaller groups are able to access civic dignity in a way that large groups cannot. Membership in a voting minority does not always bring dignity. Membership in a large group, however, is always relatively undignified. As a member of a small group, I may lack power, but it is possible that I will be noticed as a speaker or appreciated as a listener. As a member of a large group, especially a group as large and forceful as a majority within the electorate of a big country, I am unlikely to find occasions for being listened to, and will certainly not be able to listen to the public speech of more than a minuscule proportion of my fellows.
The larger the majority to which I belong, the less significance even my vote has. At latest count, 60,707,304 people voted this year for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives. If I had not voted, the number would have been 60,707,303, and no one would know the difference. A vast majority strains my capacity to conceive of the whole of which I am a part; I need smaller collectivities that I can hold in my limited imagination. Humility, the idea that I matter no more than you, may be a democratic principle, but majority rule, taken by itself, teaches a different lesson: that I don’t matter, and neither do you.
The best forms of majority rule make large-scale politics a means toward democratic ends, treating majority rule not as an end in itself, but as an enabler or amplifier of smaller-scale settings where citizens can be more than voters, settings shaped to the requirements of civic dignity. Thus the most heartening outcome of the 2018 elections is not the evidence of a Democratic majority, as much of a relief as that may be. Rather, it is a new wave of local organizing.
Although older membership-based groups played energetic roles in the 2018 elections, hundreds of new, local, volunteer-driven political organizations — ‘pop-up groups,’ as they have been called — have also emerged over the past two years. Curiously, these new groups are predominantly founded or led by middle-aged… middle-class, middle-American’ women, the same demographic visible in recent teacher strikes. These groups, like the unusual strikes that preceded them, cannot easily be explained by concepts of class or intersectionality: to understand them, we should attend to their purely political features, their structures and practices. Some of these groups draw on the resources of national networks (such as Indivisible, Our Revolution, and Swing Left), but most receive little to no aid or instruction from established national organizations. These groups may use new technologies to reach volunteers and voters, but they depend mostly on face-to-face interactions. The groups in this new wave of local organizing have sometimes taken over moribund local Democratic Party structures, but just as often they have operated outside, albeit in alliance with, Democratic party committees and candidates. Significantly, the new groups have popped up not only in cities, but also in suburbs and towns.
Some of these groups had dramatic electoral success in 2018. Those that had less electoral success are important, too. Lancaster Stands Up (LSU), for example, supported its co-founder Jess King in Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District. King lost, but LSU (along with allies) ran the kind of neighborly, door-to-door campaign that official Democrats have rarely staged in that district, and as a result now has over 850 members. Even when they do not win elections, face-to-face organizations like this matter. They can wield power and win changes, true enough. More than this, they offer their members occasions for civic dignity that membership in a vast, nation-wide electoral majority does not.
Local groups need wider political relationships, and this means coalition. Coalition politics rooted in local organizing makes for a kind of majority rule different from the one Locke and Madison imagined: a democracy that treats the large-scale majority as a vehicle for advancing the values of those local groups, in which equality is both an experience and a goal. In a coalition made up of many small and midsize groups, local organizations are not mere tools for getting out the vote. Coalitions allow for layered or nested memberships, as when unions and community organizations convene in an alliance that places a citizen within a majority coalition, by way of a local group small enough for occasions of listening and being listened to.
In a democracy rooted in local experiences of civic dignity, the principle of majority rule is honored, but not as an end. To build an American democracy that helps citizens see one another’s equal worth, small-d democrats (who are often also big-D Democrats) need to build a political majority that is not merely an aggregation of passive demographic groups, but rather a coalition of organized constituencies. The 2018 elections have shown us one kind of democratic majority. They have also shown us a way toward the other.
Geoffrey Kurtz is an associate professor of Political Science, in the Department of Social Sciences at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, and is the author of Jean Jaurès: The Inner Life of Social Democracy.