Thursday, 27 June 2013

Representative democracy and the filibuster

This post is in response to a couple of tweets by Martin Robb. He was commenting on this week’s political drama in the Texas Senate where Wendy Davis blocked passage of a bill to introduce new regulations for abortion clinics. She achieved this by delivering a filibuster speech over ten hours long, resulting in the subsequent vote missing a midnight deadline.

Martin Robb’s tweets deal with wider principles of democratic government, and it’s these that I’m addressing here rather than the issue of abortion.

Martin tweeted ‘Not sure why liberals/democrats hailing filibuster of bill passed by both houses of legislature in Texas as victory for popular will...’

My initial reply was ‘Liberals/democrats balance popular will with individual rights - hence need for safeguards against a tyranny of the majority.’

To which he responded ‘But surely ballot box plus campaigning to change majority opinion way to do that, not undemocratic filibustering, etc?’

In a representative democracy, matters are a little more complicated than Martin’s tweets suggest. A majority opinion in the legislature or parliament is not the same as a majority opinion in the population at large, or the popular will as Martin terms it.

The function of a representative democracy is not to precisely replicate the balance of popular opinion within the legislature, nor are elected individuals required to follow the will of the majority of their constituents, or even of their supporters. The task of elected individuals is to use their own best judgement, and as long as they act within the law then the only sanction their constituents have if dissatisfied is to elect someone else the next time around.

It’s easy to see how the majority in a democratically elected body can come to power while openly holding views contrary to the views of the majority of the population, or even of the majority of the smaller number of voting public. A voter will not always find a candidate they agree with on all issues. Most likely they will have some points of disagreement with each candidate, and will therefore prioritise the issues on which they will decide their vote and find a candidate that they regard as the best compromise.

Further, a particular issue may be more important to that portion of the electorate who hold a minority view on it than to those voters with the majority view. The majority may prefer to allocate their vote based on other matters. In such a case a candidate may gain support from the minority on the particular issue while losing little support from the majority if the candidate has their trust on whichever other matters they regard as more important.

It follows that it’s perfectly possible for the majority in the legislature to pass legislation that imposes a minority popular view on the dissenting majority of the public. This is one reason why it should not be too easy to pass legislation. Procedures must be in place to allow a minority of elected representatives in the legislature to challenge and obstruct the majority. Where this occurs within established law, it is not obviously undemocratic as this minority of elected representatives are still subject to the democratic sanction of being replaced at the next election if their actions don’t have enough popular support.

To go further, it shouldn’t be thought that the only justification for a minority of elected representatives acting to frustrate the will of the majority in a legislature is if that minority of representatives are supported by a majority of the populace. Again we come back to the principle that representatives are elected to act according to their own judgement. There may be sound principles for opposing the majority will in a particular case, most obviously where the majority will infringes the rights of individuals.

Just democracies require instruments for minorities of all kinds, down to the minority of one, to have available legal means of resisting a tyranny of the majority. It’s in the interest of all in the majority to have such instruments in place as insurance against the day when even the mightiest amongst them might find themselves in a threatened minority. These necessary instruments include some often regarded as liberal, such as basic human rights; they also include parliamentary procedures that limit the power of majorities to pass legislation, procedures that might in effect be regarded as conservative. They can even include powers for un-elected courts to overturn the effects of direct democracy as seen in a separate American political drama this week.


Martin said...

Kellie, I'm flattered that you wrote a post around my tweets. Yes of course the issue is more complicated than my tweets suggested - or than anything one can express in 140 characters, in fact. I don't dispute what you're saying here, and I wouldn't deny that my feelings about the Texas filibuster are influenced by my position on the vexed issue of abortion. But that's kind of the point. As one commentator noted today, imagine how liberals would respond to (say) Michele Bachmann filibustering (say) health care reform, supported by a crowd of (say) Tea Party supporters. I suspect terms like bullying, mob rule, would have been on their lips - rather than talk of a victory for democracy, etc. Martin

kellie said...

On that point I think your suspicions are well founded!