On his return from the United States in 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville began writing Democracy in America, to report on the observations he was able to make during his trip. A work of analysis of the American political system and more generally of democracy, in which he also evokes the limits of the latter, in particular the risk of a “tyranny of the majority”: a system of oppression and erasure of minorities.
This successful concept later gave rise to a derivative, the “tyranny of the minority”, to qualify a group that is not very representative of the population which forces a majority to conform to its views, even though it does not share them. not. An expression recently used to denounce “wokism” and / or certain fringes of political anti-racism, which have gained importance on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years and whose positions are sometimes debated.
But in the light of current events, it appears much more relevant to describe the successes and influence of American conservative and reactionary movements. Because in the United States, it is indeed a minority group that currently dictates the course of an entire society, through a political system that greatly favors it. The bearing of arms and the right to abortion are perfect illustrations of this situation.
Minorities at the polls,
but still in power
Several elements accredit the existence of a “tyranny of the minority”, in particular the way in which the institutions and the electoral system operate. Since the beginning of the XXIe century, four presidents have succeeded each other at the head of the United States: two Republicans (George W. Bush, Donald Trump) and two Democrats (Barack Obama, Joe Biden). American peculiarity, the first two managed to conquer power in a completely legal way without having the majority of the popular vote, thanks to the electoral college which allows the candidate who came first in a state to win all the electors assigned to him. .
In 2000, George W. Bush, despite 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore, obtained 271 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win the election. Rebelote in 2015, when Donald Trump managed the feat of beating Hillary Clinton by hanging 304 electors, with 2.9 million votes behind. Once installed in the Oval Office, the two men will appoint five justices to the Supreme Court – Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were appointed by George W. Bush; Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett by Donald Trump – and will allow conservatives to entrench their dominance over this all-important institution.
The presidency is not a special case. the US Senate, unlike the House of Representatives, also ignores the popular vote. Each state is represented by two senators, regardless of the number of inhabitants. A distribution decided by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in Article 1 of the Constitution which guarantees to rural States, less populated, an important political weight in the Union.
This rule leads to absurd situations, such as a progressive California with 40 million inhabitants having the same political influence as a conservative Wyoming with only 600,000 inhabitants. As a result, the current composition gives Democrats and Republicans equally, although the former represent 41 million more inhabitants than the latter. And the so-called “filibuster” procedure, a parliamentary filibuster requiring 60 votes to circumvent it, does not help this imbalance, since a law cannot generally be adopted by a simple majority.
The American political system, which seems rather balanced on paper, actually favors the conservatives and the Republican Party which, although they have become a minority in the United States, continue to exert enormous influence on the country’s politics. And as the polarization within the electorate increases, the possibility of consensus disappears, thus reinforcing this phenomenon.
Abortion and weapons, an illustration of this tyranny
As we have seen, the Senate and the presidency do not have the popular vote as their main compass. However, these two components of political power play an essential role in the composition of the Supreme Court, which itself has considerable power over the organization of the lives of 320 million Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville said even that “Never has a greater judicial power been constituted among any people”. Its orientation is therefore a major issue.
The repopulation of the Court by George W. Bush and Donald Trump with conservative judges made it possible to install a solid conservative majority of six to three, with the direct consequences of calling into question the protection of the right to abortion at the federal level and the defense of the carrying of weapons, even its extension.
Two subjects on which a majority of the population disagrees with the institution: 56% of Americans oppose the end of the constitutional right to abortion, against 40% who are in favor, according to a recent poll by the National Public Radio (NPR). And a large majority of the population say they favor more restrictions on firearms – which has not prevented the Court recently from restricting the ability of states to legislate on the carrying of weapons outside the home.
We therefore measure a fairly significant gap between the decisions made by the judges and the aspirations of the American people, which is logical given that the Court was repopulated by presidents and a Senate which only reflected a minority part of the population. .
On the legislative side, the problem is similar. Taking advantage of the advantages conferred by the composition, organization and functioning of the Senate, the Republicans systematically block all ambitious reforms on the carrying of weapons and are sufficiently numerous to prevent the inclusion in the law of the protection of the right to firearms. ‘abortion.
And even if, by a miracle, the Democratic majority found some support on the Republican side to legislate, it is not to be excluded that the Supreme Court gets involved. The web woven by the American reactionaries thus seems, in some respects, insurmountable. This problem is not limited to abortion and firearms. Programs to fight against global warming, social programs or to promote voting are also regular victims.
The majority doomed?
Few solutions seem able to reverse the trend. With judges sitting for life, waiting and hoping for the next appointees to be more in tune with society seems to be one of the only possibilities. But there is no guarantee that future changes will be satisfactory, since they depend on the power in place.
As for the reforms of the legislative body, in particular the removal of the possible parliamentary obstruction with a simple majority, they could allow significant progress, but the backlash would be just as rapid in the event of a change of majority. For this measure to be relevant, a reform of the composition of the Senate, and therefore of the Constitution, would be necessary.
However, in the current context, this is quite simply impossible. There remains the vote, at the local and federal level, the only viable solution in the medium term to ensure a fairer representation of the Americans. But how to overmobilize the electorate to counterbalance the perverse effects of the political system, without being able to concretely change their daily life in the short term?
A titanic, long-term work without guarantee of success is essential for the Democratic Party and the progressive organizations. In the meantime, the great conservative revolution can quietly take place and the reactionary minority has the free field to tyrannize a little more a majority composed essentially of moderate and progressive individuals.